Friday, July 11, 2008
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.