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

We live in a twilight world.

Tenet (2020)
(SPOILERS) I’ve endured a fair few confusingly-executed action sequences in movies – more than enough, actually – but I don’t think I’ve previously had the odd experience of being on the edge of my seat during one while simultaneously failing to understand its objectives and how those objectives are being attempted. Which happened a few times during Tenet. If I stroll over to the Wiki page and read the plot synopsis, it is fairly explicable (fairly) but as a first dive into this Christopher Nolan film, I frequently found it, if not impenetrable, then most definitely opaque.

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You can’t climb a ladder, no. But you can skip like a goat into a bar.

Juno and the Paycock (1930)
(SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s second sound feature. Such was the lustre of this technological advance that a wordy play was picked. By Sean O’Casey, upon whom Hitchcock based the prophet of doom at the end of The Birds. Juno and the Paycock, set in 1922 during the Irish Civil War, begins as a broad comedy of domestic manners, but by the end has descended into full-blown Greek (or Catholic) tragedy. As such, it’s an uneven but still watchable affair, even if Hitch does nothing to disguise its stage origins.

Anything can happen in Little Storping. Anything at all.

The Avengers 2.22: Murdersville
Brian Clemens' witty take on village life gone bad is one of the highlights of the fifth season. Inspired by Bad Day at Black Rock, one wonders how much Murdersville's premise of unsettling impulses lurking beneath an idyllic surface were set to influence both Straw Dogs and The Wicker Mana few years later (one could also suggest it premeditates the brand of backwoods horrors soon to be found in American cinema from the likes of Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper).

James Bond. You appear with the tedious inevitability of an unloved season.

Moonraker (1979)
Depending upon your disposition, and quite possibly age, Moonraker is either the Bond film that finally jumped the shark or the one that is most gloriously redolent of Roger Moore’s knowing take on the character. Many Bond aficionados will no doubt utter its name with thinly disguised contempt, just as they will extol with gravity how Timothy Dalton represented a masterful return to the core values of the series. If you regard For Your Eyes Only as a refreshing return to basics after the excesses of the previous two entries, and particularly the space opera grandstanding of this one, it’s probably fair to say you don’t much like Roger Moore’s take on Bond.

The protocol actually says that most Tersies will say this has to be a dream.

Jupiter Ascending (2015)
(SPOILERS) The Wachowski siblings’ wildly patchy career continues apace. They bespoiled a great thing with The Matrix sequels (I liked the first, not the second), misfired with Speed Racer (bubble-gum visuals aside, hijinks and comedy ain’t their forte) and recently delivered the Marmite Sense8 for Netflix (I was somewhere in between on it). Their only slam-dunk since The Matrix put them on the movie map is Cloud Atlas, and even that’s a case of rising above its limitations (mostly prosthetic-based). Jupiter Ascending, their latest cinema outing and first stab at space opera, elevates their lesser works by default, however. It manages to be tone deaf in all the areas that count, and sadly fetches up at the bottom of their filmography pile.

This is a case where the roundly damning verdicts have sadly been largely on the ball. What’s most baffling about the picture is that, after a reasonably engaging set-up, it determinedly bores the pants off you. I haven’t enco…

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

My dear, sweet brother Numsie!

The Golden Child (1986)
Post-Beverly Hills Cop, Eddie Murphy could have filmed himself washing the dishes and it would have been a huge hit. Which might not have been a bad idea, since he chose to make this misconceived stinker.

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991)
(SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…