Skip to main content

To think that I told a lie and it turned out to be the truth!


Death of a Scoundrel
(1956)

George Sanders playing a rotter, a cad, a bounder, a scoundrel? Surely not. Less typically, he plays a character by the name of Clementi Sabourin. Not for Sanders attempting an elaborate accent, though. Sabourin may be Czech, but he went to school at Oxford. So he sounds exactly like George Sanders. If Death of a Scoundrel ultimately pulls its punches (a sign of the era in which it was made) and spells out its message for anyone who may have mystifyingly failed to grasp it, its scenario of a corporate tycoon doing anything he likes to get ahead, personally and professionally, is entirely topical.


Writer-director Charles Martin fashions his tale as a flashback (the title’s a bit of a give-away of how this all turns out, so it was probably a wise move), with Sabourin found dead in his mansion and secretary Bridget telling the police the tale of his rise; from refugee to hated super-rich. Other films of the era have gone the tale-told route with more craftsmanship (D.O.A., Sunset Boulevard) but Martin compensates for the lack of finesse with a incident-packed plot. We’re never more than a minute or two away from Sabourin’s next act of philandering or queasy business deal. And, because we’re so used to Sanders as the sly old fox who exudes superiority over anyone else in the room, we don’t doubt that his schemes will pull off, no matter how much plate spinning is required in the process. Sanders is less comfortable on emotional terrain; it isn’t really his forte, and you look forward to his getting through the turmoil towards the next acid put-down.


If Martin succeeds with his script (albeit asking us to swallow a number of unlikely coincidences), he is less successful as a director. I’m not familiar with any of the other five films he helmed, but there were another 12 years between this and his subsequent picture. His shots are static and theatrical; even with the RKO banner suggesting decades past (they would only be distributing films for another year after this), the look suggest a picture from another era, not the mid-‘50s. That might be partly down to a Spartan budget, but Martin fails to imbue compensating atmosphere.


The too-good-to-be-true rise of Sabourin is almost a satire of criminal enterprise. He uses a stolen cheque to vouch his first stock market sweep (itself a result of a lucky conversation with a doctor extracting a bullet from his side; a little miracle called penicillin is mentioned), and then employs the blackmailing O’Hara as a partner. He habitually shows generosity to those he takes for a ride; when he uses underhand means to buy up stock in an oilman’s company, he sweetens the bitter pill by giving him a position on the board. Then, when he successfully manipulates the share price by announcing a fake oil strike, he is distraught to learn that, having sold his shares, an actual strike occurred (“To think that I told a lie and it turned out to be the truth!”) Later, he sets up a shell company called Suboranium and buys a plot of land; he hasn’t found any uranium, he just wants the market to believe he has.


It’s this kind of behaviour that puts one in mind of a precursor to Gordon Gekko. Sabourin was based on Serge Rubinstein, a millionaire playboy and all-round bad egg who was found murdered (strangled) the year before Death… was released. He had a raft of female companions whom he treated appallingly, was a skilled blackmailer and left a vast list of suspects that included his own mother (“They’ve narrowed the suspects down to 10,000”). Rubinstein fancied himself as a latter-day Napoleon and, like Sabourin, was skilled at playing the markets to unscrupulous effect. Like Sabourin, Rubinstein had his mother installed in his house (although Sabourin’s move is a late-stage desperate end game to prevent his deportation – something with which Rubinstein was also threatened). And, like Clementi, Rubinstein went to Oxbridge (Cambridge; should I take back what I said about Sanders’ suitability?) Rubinstein’s background is so colourful it scarcely needs fictionalising; his father was financial advisor to Rasputin and Serge was a refugee of the Bolshevik revolution. One aspect the movie misses is Rubinstein’s ascendancy amongst the political classes; perhaps intimating at corruption at that level was out of bounds?


If the wheeler sustains Sabourin’s, his dalliances provide his entertainment. Leading the lovelies is Yvonne De Carlo as Bridget; De Carlo firmly embedded herself on the popular consciousness a few years later as Lilly Munster. While I recognised her, I couldn’t place her as The Munsters matriarch (the plastered make-up is probably the reason why).  Bridget is sassy and hard-talking, disguising that de rigueur soft interior and her unrequited affection for the boss (Clementi starts off coming on to her – “You’d make a fascinating course in anatomy” – but it’s merely a means to pursue his financial goals). Unlike Sabourin she has a moral compass, which leads to both spluttering invective from Sanders (“Don’t you moralise with me, you tramp!”, “You’ll be joining the Salvation Army next”) and her amusement when Sabourin’s  tactics go tits up. He plans out a the acting career of a young ingénue, but first night turns into a sub-Claudius experience as the content of the piece plays the conscience of the king (the champagne-fuelled seduction Sabourin plans is virtually the same as the one he and Bridget see rehearsed on stage). Her amusement at his squirming unleashes a succession of pointed quips (“Did you write this play?”, “He’s doing your job for you” she says of the lead actor, spurned by Stephanie).


The rising starlet plotline is over-familiar, but provides a pointed reminder that Sabourin can buy almost anything except someone’s heart. It’s just that the interactions are heavy-handed and Nancy Gates doesn’t have the presence (or characterisation) to invite sympathy. Sabourin flippantly begins his escapade as a fait accompli (“See, you don’t understand. She’s a nice girl. She’s clean and wholesome – I might even marry her”), but his eventual reversal of the cruel punishment he inflicts on Stephanie for spurning him is a softening too far (particularly when he’s simultaneously engaged in an arch-manipulation of his mother).


He also forms attachments to a rich widow, Mrs Ryan. She’s played by Zsa Zsa Gabor, back before she was old and crazy. This was just a couple of years after her brief marriage to Sanders. You don’t expect an acting master class from Gabor, but she most certainly has presence and she elicits one of Sanders’ best lines (“Well, I always admire someone who can outsmart me”).


Coleen Gray, who appeared in The Killing for Stanley Kubrick the same year, is the object of Sabourin’s plot to take control of her husband’s company and again, it’s the sparkling dialogue that you remember.

Edith: I’m taken.
Sabourin: Well, I don’t want to take. I just want to borrow.

Rounding out the womenfolk are Celia Lovsky as Clementi’s stricken mother, who discovers that her son only invited her back into his life in order to use her, and Lise Ferraday as his vengeful sister-in-law (and one time fiancé). Early on we see Sabourin, escaped from a concentration camp (a backstory that doesn’t really mesh with Sanders’ natural persona), learn that his brother married his intended under the assumption that he was dead. Clementi delivers Gerry (played by Sanders’ brother Tom Conway) to the police. His spite has unintended consquences when the police get jolly beaty on him (“He died. It was one of those unfortunate things”; very deadpan). This is intended to underpin his eventual reversal, but it’s a character note that doesn’t quite gel. Also guesting are Werner Klemperer (Colonel Klink in Hogan’s Heroes) as Clementi’s lawyer and John Hoyt as O’Hara, his business partner.


The problem in the closing stages is the need for Hayes Code era repentance. The camera focuses on a placard bearing the Biblical verse “What shall it profit a man , if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul?”, and Sabourin’s desperate “I need your forgiveness” as his own mortality looms, is overkill and unmeshes the convincing immorality of his earlier behaviour.


But the key to an anti-hero tale like this is to make you root for the villain; it’s a trick Michael Douglas pulled off in Wall Street by virtue of being the most powerful presence on the screen.  Sanders’ brand of magnetism is a different property; he is purringly seductive, and more than compensates for being a little too old for the role. It’s Sanders charisma that carries Death of a Scoundrel, but credit is also due to Martin’s witty dialogue and tricky stratagems; mostly they ease us through the bare production values and lacklustre direction.

***1/2

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

Dude, you're embarrassing me in front of the wizards.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
(SPOILERS) The cliffhanger sequel, as a phenomenon, is a relatively recent thing. Sure, we kind of saw it with The Empire Strikes Back – one of those "old" movies Peter Parker is so fond of – a consequence of George Lucas deliberately borrowing from the Republic serials of old, but he had no guarantee of being able to complete his trilogy; it was really Back to the Future that began the trend, and promptly drew a line under it for another decade. In more recent years, really starting with The MatrixThe Lord of the Rings stands apart as, post-Weinstein's involvement, fashioned that way from the ground up – shooting the second and third instalments back-to-back has become a thing, both more cost effective and ensuring audiences don’t have to endure an interminable wait for their anticipation to be sated. The flipside of not taking this path is an Allegiant, where greed gets the better of a studio (split a novel into two movie parts assuming a…

I think my mother put a curse on us.

Hereditary (2018)
(SPOILERS) Well, the Hereditary trailer's a very fine trailer, there's no doubt about that. The movie as a whole? Ari Aster's debut follows in the line of a number of recent lauded-to-the-heavens (or hells) horror movies that haven't quite lived up to their hype (The Babadook, for example). In Hereditary's case, there’s no doubting Ari Aster's talent as a director. Instead, I'd question his aptitude for horror.

Just make love to that wall, pervert!

Seinfeld 2.10: The Statue
The Premise
Jerry employs a cleaner, the boyfriend of an author whose book Elaine is editing. He leaves the apartment spotless, but Jerry is convinced he has made off with a statue.

Never compare me to the mayor in Jaws! Never!

Ghostbusters (2016)
(SPOILERS) Paul Feig is a better director than Ivan Reitman, or at very least he’s savvy enough to gather technicians around him who make his films look good, but that hasn’t helped make his Ghostbusters remake (or reboot) a better movie than the original, and that’s even with the original not even being that great a movie in the first place.

Along which lines, I’d lay no claims to the 1984 movie being some kind of auteurist gem, but it does make some capital from the polarising forces of Aykroyd’s ultra-geekiness on the subject of spooks and Murray’s “I’m just here for the asides” irreverence. In contrast, Feig’s picture is all about treating the subject as he does any other genre, be it cop, or spy, or romcom. There’s no great affection, merely a reliably professional approach, one minded to ensure that a generous quota of gags (on-topic not required) can be pumped out via abundant improv sessions.

So there’s nothing terribly wrong with Ghostbusters, but aside from …

There’s still one man out here some place.

Sole Survivor (1970)
(SPOILERS) I’m one for whom Sole Survivor remained a half-remembered, muddled dream of ‘70s television viewing. I see (from this site) the BBC showed it both in 1979 and 1981 but, like many it seems, in my veiled memory it was a black and white picture, probably made in the 1950s and probably turning up on a Saturday afternoon on BBC2. Since no other picture readily fits that bill, and my movie apparition shares the salient plot points, I’ve had to conclude Sole Survivor is indeed the hitherto nameless picture; a TV movie first broadcast by the ABC network in 1970 (a more famous ABC Movie of the Week was Spielberg’s Duel). Survivor may turn out to be no more than a classic of the mind, but it’s nevertheless an effective little piece, one that could quite happily function on the stage and which features several strong performances and a signature last scene that accounts for its haunting reputation.

Directed by TV guy Paul Stanley and written by Guerdon Trueblood (The…

I take Quaaludes 10-15 times a day for my "back pain", Adderall to stay focused, Xanax to take the edge off, part to mellow me out, cocaine to wake me back up again, and morphine... Well, because it's awesome.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Along with Pain & Gain and The Great Gatsby, The Wolf of Wall Street might be viewed as the completion of a loose 2013 trilogy on the subject of success and excess; the American Dream gone awry. It’s the superior picture to its fellows, by turns enthralling, absurd, outrageous and hilarious. This is the fieriest, most deliriously vibrant picture from the director since the millennium turned. Nevertheless, stood in the company of Goodfellas, the Martin Scorsese film from which The Wolf of Wall Street consciously takes many of its cues, it is found wanting.

I was vaguely familiar with the title, not because I knew much about Jordan Belfort but because the script had been in development for such a long time (Ridley Scott was attached at one time). So part of the pleasure of the film is discovering how widely the story diverges from the Wall Street template. “The Wolf of Wall Street” suggests one who towers over the city like a behemoth, rather than a guy …

It’s all Bertie Wooster’s fault!

Jeeves and Wooster 3.4: Right Ho, Jeeves  (aka Bertie Takes Gussie's Place at Deverill Hall)
A classic set-up of crossed identities as Bertie pretends to be Gussie and Gussie pretends to be Bertie. The only failing is that the actor pretending to be Gussie isn’t a patch on the original actor pretending to be Gussie. Although, the actress pretending to be Madeline is significantly superior than her predecessor(s).

What you do is very baller. You're very anarchist.

Lady Bird (2017)
(SPOILERS) You can see the Noah Baumbach influence on Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut, with whom she collaborated on Frances Ha; an intimate, lo-fi, post-Woody Allen (as in, post-feted, respected Woody Allen) dramedy canvas that has traditionally been the New Yorker’s milieu. But as an adopted, spiritual New Yorker, I suspect Gerwig honourably qualifies, even as Lady Bird is a love letter/ nostalgia trip to her home city of Sacramento.