Friday, July 11, 2008

Capsules:
Crime Without Passion
(Ben Hecht & Charles MacArthur; 1934)

In Crime Without Passion (1934), Claude Rains is cast as Lee Gentry, the 'Champion of the Damned'; a flamboyantly corrupt, womanizing mouthpiece with an evil reputation for successfully defending the least defensible transgressors in society. It's a reputation he exults in lavishly; scaling the heights of smug self-satisfaction until his arrogance achieves a weird, irresistable kind of purity. When he accidentally shoots a girlfriend (Margo) he's otherwise trying to unload, Fate (the melodramatic kind) enters the picture and things unravel. Gentry's efforts to rig an after-the-fact alibi become desperate; his once-golden touch now appears unsure; a nasty fall portends. Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur (along with the crucial assistance of cinematographer Lee Garmes) co-wrote and directed Crime Without Passion; making little effort to obscure the bald theatricality of their tale, every jagged twist and turn of it. As playwrights they could be deft, almost machine-like (albeit sublimely so); as filmmakers they seemed intrinsically undisciplined, even incapable of a light touch. Between 1934 and 1936 they produced four, more or less independent features for Paramount at the studio's facilities on Long Island (far from the prying eyes of Adolph Zukor). And strange creations they were; born of strange methods . . . like sentries standing watch, the two men would essentially take turns directing the actors each day, while Garmes handled the pictorial end. Having seen all but one of these films (1935's Once in a Blue Moon), I can't say I'm shocked at their having fallen into relative obscurity, despite their flashes of wit and occasional cinematic joy. Crime Without Passion, the first and by far the best Hecht-MacArthur production, endures in the cinephile consciousness, mainly for a breathtaking opening montage by Slavko Vorkapich; a wild, truly unhinged emanation that loudly and triumphantly introduced the avant-garde into mainstream American filmmaking. Vorkapich's opening has so much visual impact that it's nigh impossible to imagine what this film would have been like without it. It has the effect of amplifying the melodrama, virtually forcing everything thereafter into something very like a tabloid newspaperman's idea of expressionism: Caligari, by way of Walter Burns.

7 comments:

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

I still haven't seen this movie. I taped it off the Movie Channel many, many, many moons ago...but not only did I never get around to watching it...I accidentally taped OVER it.

I can be a real dumbass sometimes.

Tom Sutpen said...

The recently-converted-to-DVD copy I have comes from a VHS cassette, and I may very well have recorded it exactly when you did (same Channel, same number of moons ago). I wish the image was in better condition, because Garmes (not to mention Slavko Vorkapich) truly outdid himself, but it's at least watchable.

Vanwall said...

Try here:

http://www.yammeringmagpie.com/catalog/product_info.php?products_id=917&osCsid=46337941c27d4aa739756deff44d9071

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

Well, I held out as long as I could...but I decided to take vanwall's suggestion and a flutter on their DVD of Crime Without Passion. Hey, at the very least I can get a post out of it.

Tom Sutpen said...

Let me know what the image quality is like, Ivan. I may ditch the copy I have and plunk down a few rubles for it meself.

Vanwall said...

They had the only decent copy of "Secret of the Incas" I've run across, and they are eclectic - a lot of not available titles.

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

Tom: I had an opportunity to check this out earlier this week and the copy from Yammering Magpie Cinema is watchable, though there's a bit o'fuzziness in the image. However, I found the film so engrossing that after awhile I didn't even notice it.