In Which William Shatner Is the Least Emotional
It had been a long time since I'd seen The Brothers Karamazov (1958), which I remember liking well enough and not giving much thought to, and an even longer time since I'd read the novel, which I loved and still think a lot about. To be fair to my memory, I didn't see the movie because of the book, I saw it because I had a huge crush on Claire Bloom, Yul Brynner takes his shirt off, and Shatner was out of uniform and into a cassock. Not that those aren't reasons enough; I'm just relieved that there is much more to recommend the picture.
For one thing, it's a lot of book to pack into 2 1/2 hours. Writer/Director Richard Brooks (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, In Cold Blood, etc.) and the Brothers Epstein (Julius and Philip, Casablanca, Arsenic and Old Lace, etc.) did a tremendous job adapting the novel, which is spread over about a dozen books (really) and has sixty billion characters in it (not really), covering such themes as faith, psychology, the modernization of Russia, love, redemption, gender, and family dynamics. The film settled on money and redemption, with all the other issues sprinkled around the edges and in the actors' eyes, and for the most part, it works.
For another, the filmmakers created an effective late-nineteenth century Russian scene. Mind you, I have no idea what's realistic when it comes to late-nineteenth century Russia, but if the pictures in my head from the novel are any judge, the scenes are appropriately dark and desperate or richly colored, loud, and boozy as needed. In other words, it was more than soapflake snow and fingerless gloves.
The story centers around the house of Karamazov, whose patriarch is a horrible, debauched creep called Fyodor (played with slimy delight by Lee J. Cobb) who has three sons by two marriages and another rumored son by a prostitute, whom he doesn't acknowledge and keeps as a servant. Fyoder doesn't care much for any of his children, just booze, chicks, and gypsy parties.
Dmitri (Yul Brynner), the eldest, is an officer in the army who spends most of his time gambling, chasing women, and running up debts. He is the most like his father, insofar as he is guided by passion and profligacy, but is occasionally honorable and is generally better in the hygiene department. Dmitri's (legitimate) half brothers are Ivan (Richard Basehart), an atheist writer who lives in Moscow, and Alexei (William Shatner), a novice monk and general sweetheart. The fourth alleged brother, Smerdyakov (played a little too hard by Albert Salmi), is a sulky epileptic, made bitter by circumstances, but with more than a whiff of natural-born serial killer about him.
Dmitri loves Alexei and is nice enough to Ivan; Ivan doesn't really care much for anyone, except Alexei kinda; Alexei loves everyone, but worries about Dmitri's future and Ivan's atheism; Smerdyakov hates everyone except himself and Ivan, with whom he wants to be best friends, on account of all that moral relativity they have in common. None of them like their father: Alexei won't judge, but is pretty sure god will; Ivan just thinks he's gross and would rather be in Moscow; and Dmitri openly despises his father, a fact that will get him into big trouble later.
Speaking of trouble, Dmitri is engaged to Katya (Claire Bloom), a woman with money whose father Dmitri bailed out of a financial embarrassment, even though Dmitri could have used the cash himself. She loves him for it; he's on the fence. Everything seems to cost 5000 rubles. Dmitri has been trying to get a chunk of money from his father -- an inheritance from his late mother -- but Fyodor is being a colossal dick about it, by making Dmitri write IOUs every time he needs some folding money. To make matters worse, Fyodor has sold the IOUs to his mistress, Grushenka (Maria Schell), a young, jaded tavern owner, whose favorite thing to do is party with gypsies and avoid long-term commitment. When Dmitri goes to regain those IOUs, he surprises himself by falling in love with Grushenka, who decides that it will be very amusing to mess with both Dmitri's and his father's head.
Meanwhile, Alexei's monk boss tries to mediate the inheritance dispute between his father and brother, but that goes horribly wrong. Ivan has been keeping Katya company while Dmitri is messing around with Grushenka, initially out of kindness, but eventually out of love for her. Grushenka befriends Alexei (because he's a sweetheart) and because Alexei is also friends with Katya, the latter gets him to arrange a meeting between them so Katya can size up the competition. Grushenka does a very mean thing at this meeting and an icicle worthy of the Snow Queen begins to form in Katya's heart. Dmitri becomes possessive of Grushenka, which drives her nuts, so she threatens to visit his father, if you know what I mean, unless he backs off.
Smerdyakov, in his crafty way, has been tallying up all the ways everything could go horribly wrong and suggests to Ivan (his idol) that you know, Dmitri is pretty angry and if it were to happen that SOMEone tells him Grushenka is coming over and that an envelope with 3000 rubles is lying around SOMEplace, and if SOMEone were to have an epilieptic fit in the cellar, SOMEthing might happen to the old man that couldn't be stopped while YOU were in Moscow. Ivan says, whaaaaaaaat? No way. No. And he leaves.
But Smerdyakov takes Ivan's denial for the go-ahead and sends a note to Grushenka that Fyodor is waiting for her at his place. Dmitri learns that she has been thus summoned and consumed with jealousy, charges over to the house to demand his inheritance and show the old man whose going to get the girl, grabbing a handy blunt instrument on the way. Loud argument, much shouting and waking of neighbors. The old manservant, tending a "sick" Smerdyakov in the cellar, rushes to see what happened, and catches Dmitri climbing the wall. Dmitri clouts him on the head, getting some blood on his clothes and hands.
He feels terrible and goes to Grushenka (who wasn't at the house after all) who is also feeling awful, because her old horrible boyfriend is back and up to his old tricks, so she comes to realize that Dmitri is a good guy and really loves her for who she is. When the police come and arrest him for murder, Dmitri goes with them willingly, thinking he has killed the old manservant, the only adult who cared for him when he was a boy. Turns out the old man is alive (phew), but they are arresting him for the murder of his father, Fyodor Karamazov (!), who had been found bludgeoned to death in his home. Loud argument + bloody clothes + longstanding feud = excellent set up.
Dmitri goes on trial for the murder he wanted to but didn't commit. Turns out Smerdyakov, annoyed that his plans did not work out, beat in Fyodor's head with a different blunt instrument and went back down to the cellar to wait for the fireworks. He confesses the whole thing to Ivan, who is stunned right out of his atheism at the news. Smerdyakov, despondent that he did not impress his idol after all, hangs himself, to the relief of small animals and nameless drifters everywhere. Ivan testifies to the conversation at trial and just when it looks like Dmitri will be acquitted, Katya decides to produce a damaging letter Dmitri had written in a hotter mood saying he could just kill his father (see ice splinter in heart above), thereby guaranteeing a guilty conviction. If she can't have him...
So off to prison he goes, humbled and redemptive, with an equally chastened Grushenka in tow. But Katya realizes that the better Karamazov for her is Ivan, feels pretty bad about the letter, and (with Ivan) contrives to bribe the guards to let Dmitri slip through their fingers to freedom. Which they do and he does.
There's another thing with an old man whom Dmitri humiliates in front of his son, but it's two and a half hours. Stuff happens.
The Brothers Karamazov is available on Amazon prime, but for kind of a high price. The sound is a bit uneven, the (great) music being much louder than dialog, so maybe a DVD would serve you better. There *is* scenery chewing, but not by everyone (most surprisingly not by Shatner), and the story will keep you involved. Or you could just watch Empire, which turns out to be kind of the same thing.
I'll do just about anything a movie tells me to do. Unless it tells me wrong...
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