The Brothers Karamazov (1958)

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THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV—writer-director Richard Brooks vigorous 1958 go at harnessing the nearly 1,000 ruminative pages of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s 1879 novel into a skimmed 145 minutes of screen time deserves to be rescued from the obscurity shelf.  It did passably well, #31 at the box-office with a $5,540,000 take, and reviews, once they got past the set-in-stone carp over the audacity of the project (“One of The World’s Greatest Books”, and so forth), were grudgingly respectable.  It pulled an Oscar nomination for Lee J. Cobb as Supporting Actor, served to introduce the glowing presence of 31-year-old Austrian beauty Maria Schell to international audiences (she’d done 22 films in Europe), and gave a leg up to several other fresh faces in the cast.  Languishing too long in the ‘get around to it’ pile, with minor caveats (don’t pretend you’ve read the book), it’s a good picture.

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Russia, 1870. Widower and morally corrupt buffoon ‘Fyodor’ (Cobb) has four sons. Cavalryman ‘Dmitri'(Yul Brynner) is a sensualist and reckless gambler. ‘Ivan’ (Richard Basehart) is a rationalist, spurned in his love for ‘Katya’ (Claire Bloom), Dmitri’s prideful martyr of a fiancée. ‘Alexie’ (William Shatner,26) is a devoutly faithful novice bound for a life of serving God.  The illegitimate, porcine ‘Smerdyakov’ (Albert Salmi, debut) is sullen and resentful. Wreaking further havoc among the fractious clan is a Jezebel, the gleefully guileful ‘Grushenka’ (Schell). The rooting evil of money and the vagaries of familial and romantic love make for argument, philosophizing, lust, and betrayal, culminating in a trial for murder.

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The adaptation had been worked in 1946 by the famed Epstein twins, Julius J. & Philip G., but Brooks threw out their draft (giving screen credit) and wrote his own, picking and choosing among Dostoevsky’s various themes (crime, father vs. son, customs v. manners, religion, the heart) to craft something that would get the flavor of the story but would flow as cinema (a movie can’t pause like a book while you ponder 60 pages of tangential musing) and distill enough of its intellectual weight to have gravity as well as melodrama. Trimming acres of subsidiary character sidetrips and exposition, including the famous “Grand Inquisitor” chapter, the script is still rich with ideas, the dialogue  lively and droll.

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Brilliant, driven, an S.O.B. to work under, Brooks succeeds with his writing and  direction even as the production is somewhat hampered by MGMs budget restrictions, the allotted $2,727,000 making the sets and locations rather sparse for atmosphere. Offsetting studio stinginess is Brooks dramatic use of closeups and cinematographer John Alton’s fine color compositions.

The cast is exemplary. Brynner drops the ‘King stride’ and is much more emotionally accessible than in most of his work; the under-appreciated Basehart is sturdy as ever, fresh face Shatner quiet and calm. Salmi plays it big, clearly relishing this important opener shot at the big screen.  Bloom had a knack for conveying fragile wounding and bitterness (she followed up as pirate wench to Yul’s Jean LaFitte in the same year’s The Buccaneer). Maria Schell is basically to die for.  She won the coveted role after Marilyn Monroe and Carroll Baker expressed desire (Fox and Warners, their respective studios, blew that) and comes off with the life force of an Alpine Anna Magnani, only blonde, sexier, happier.**

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Lee J. Cobb was one of the great—and certainly the loudest—hams of his day. He’d warmed up in the 40s, and toned it down after the mid-60s, but in the 1950s he did more bellowing than Godzilla. It worked in On The Waterfront and 12 Angry Men, but you need earplugs like they use on aircraft carriers to bear his raging in Man Of The West, Party Girl, Green Mansions (utterly un-hinged) or The Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse.  He yells here, too, but it fits, and he allows much more subtle inflection as well. He deserved his nomination, and likely thought it was a lock, but his Karamazovian calculations didn’t beat another lusty papa, Burl Ives in The Big Country.

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In his incisive book on director Brooks,”Tough As Nails”, Douglass K. Daniel cites a funny anecdote about critic Robert Hatch, attending this movie’s premiere,overhearing a woman remarking: “Oh, it’s in Russia.” So much for flutter about source fidelity. There were two silent films made from the book, then a 1931 German version (which looks to be of interest), a 1947 try from Italy, and finally a 1969 Russian pass. That one was Oscar nominated for Best Foreign Film, and runs 232 minutes.

With David Opatashu, Judith Evelyn, Edgar Stehli, Harry Townes, Miko Oscard, Jay Adler, Simon Oakland (debut), Frank DeKova and Ziva Rodann.

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*Other famous books adapted to film released in 1958: The Naked And The Dead, Auntie Mame, Some Came Running, God’s Little Acre, The Long Hot Summer, The Old Man And The Sea, The Quiet American, Ten North Frederick, A Time To Love And A Time To Die, The Young Lions.  Notable plays put on screen included South Pacific, No Time For Sergeants, Desire Under The Elms, The Matchmaker, Damn Yankees and Cat On A Hot Tin Roof.  The last was adapted and directed by Richard Brooks, became a huge hit, winning six Oscar nominations, including his for Writing and Directing.

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**Brooks wasn’t shy about sex, at least as much as the studio and censors would allow, offering to the press, about Maria Schell: “Here for the first time on screen, the American man will see a woman who really understands him, who can give herself as American women have never learned to. This is the woman American women long to be, and that American men are looking for.”  Bonk! Well, no doubt there are some (tens of millions) who might take issue, but speaking as an ‘American man’, I gotta say he was at least halfway on target with the second part of the last sentence.

Maria’s brother, Maximilian, came across the Atlantic in ’58 as well, debuting in The Young Lions, and his fame eclipsed that of his sister, who only made a few more Hollywood stabs (The Hanging Tree, Cimarron, The Mark) before returning to Europe for most of the balance of her career. Maximilian orchestrated a documentary about her, My Sister Maria, in 2002.  Maria Schell, who left us in 2005 at the age of 79, was a treasure.

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