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

Damn prairie dog burrow!

Tremors (1990) (SPOILERS) I suspect the reason the horror comedy – or the sci-fi comedy, come to that – doesn’t tend to be the slam-dunk goldmine many assume it must be, is because it takes a certain sensibility to do it right. Everyone isn’t a Joe Dante or Sam Raimi, or a John Landis, John Carpenter, Edgar Wright, Christopher Landon or even a Peter Jackson or Tim Burton, and the genre is littered with financial failures, some of them very good failures (and a good number of them from the names mentioned). Tremors was one, only proving a hit on video (hence six sequels at last count). It also failed to make Ron Underwood a directing legend.

Here’s Bloody Justice for you.

Laughter in Paradise (1951) (SPOILERS) The beginning of a comedic run for director-producer Mario Zampa that spanned much of the 1950s, invariably aided by writers Michael Pertwee and Jack Davies (the latter went on to pen a spate of Norman Wisdom pictures including The Early Bird , and also comedy rally classic Monte Carlo or Bust! ) As usual with these Pertwee jaunts, Laughter in Paradise boasts a sparky premise – renowned practical joker bequeaths a fortune to four relatives, on condition they complete selected tasks that tickle him – and more than enough resultant situational humour.

Who’s got the Figgy Port?

Loki (2021) (SPOILERS) Can something be of redeemable value and shot through with woke? The two attributes certainly sound essentially irreconcilable, and Loki ’s tendencies – obviously, with new improved super-progressive Kevin Feige touting Disney’s uber-agenda – undeniably get in the way of what might have been a top-tier MCU entry from realising its full potential. But there are nevertheless solid bursts of highly engaging storytelling in the mix here, for all its less cherishable motivations. It also boasts an effortlessly commanding lead performance from Tom Hiddleston; that alone puts Loki head and shoulders above the other limited series thus far.

I’m just glad Will Smith isn’t alive to see this.

The Tomorrow War (2021) (SPOILERS). Not so much tomorrow as yesterday. There’s a strong sense of déjà vu watching The Tomorrow War , so doggedly derivative is it of every time-travel/alien war/apocalyptic sci-fi movie of the past forty years. Not helping it stand out from the pack are doughy lead Chris Pratt, damned to look forever on the beefy side no matter how ripped he is and lacking the chops or gravitas for straight roles, and debut live-action director Chris McKay, who manages to deliver the goods in a serviceably anonymous fashion.

Why don't we go on a picnic, up the hill?

Invaders from Mars (1986) (SPOILERS) One can wax thematical over the number of remakes of ’50s movies in the ’80s – and ’50s SF movies in particular – and of how they represent ever-present Cold War and nuclear threats, and steadily increasing social and familial paranoias and disintegrating values. Really, though, it’s mostly down to the nostalgia of filmmakers for whom such pictures were formative influences (and studios hoping to make an easy buck on a library property). Tobe Hooper’s version of nostalgia, however, is not so readily discernible as a John Carpenter or a David Cronenberg (not that Cronenberg could foment such vibes, any more than a trip to the dental hygienist). Because his directorial qualities are not so readily discernible. Tobe Hooper movies tend to be a bit shit. Which makes it unsurprising that Invaders from Mars is a bit shit.

I'm offering you a half-share in the universe.

Doctor Who Season 8 – Worst to Best I’m not sure I’d watched Season Eight chronologically before. While I have no hesitation in placing it as the second-best Pertwee season, based on its stories, I’m not sure it pays the same dividends watched as a unit. Simply, there’s too much Master, even as Roger Delgado never gets boring to watch and the stories themselves offer sufficient variety. His presence, turning up like clockwork, is inevitably repetitive. There were no particular revelatory reassessments resulting from this visit, then, except that, taken together – and as The Directing Route extra on the Blu-ray set highlights – it’s often much more visually inventive than what would follow. And that Michael Ferguson should probably have been on permanent attachment throughout this era.

I hate natural causes!

Body Bags (1993) (SPOILERS) I’m not surprised Showtime didn’t pick this up for an anthology series. Perhaps, if John Carpenter had made Coming Home in a Body Bag (the popular Nam movie series referenced in the same year’s True Romance ), we’d have something to talk about. Tho’ probably not, if Carpenter had retained his by this point firmly glued to his side DP Gary Kibbe, ensuring the proceedings are as flat, lifeless and unatmospheric as possible. Carpenter directed two of the segments here, Tobe Hooper the other one. It may sound absurd, given the quality of Hooper’s career, but by this point, even he was calling the shots better than Carpenter.

What's a movie star need a rocket for anyway?

The Rocketeer (1991) (SPOILERS) The Rocketeer has a fantastic poster. One of the best of the last thirty years (and while that may seem like faint praise, what with poster design being a dying art – I’m looking at you Marvel, or Amazon and the recent The Tomorrow War – it isn’t meant to be). The movie itself, however, tends towards stodge. Unremarkable pictures with a wide/cult fanbase, conditioned by childhood nostalgia, are ten-a-penny – Willow for example – and in this case, there was also a reasonably warm critical reception. But such an embrace can’t alter that Joe Johnston makes an inveterately bland, tepid movie director. His “feel” for period here got him The First Avenger: Captain America gig, a bland, tepid movie tending towards stodge. So at least he’s consistent.

You nicknamed my daughter after the Loch Ness Monster?

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2 (2012) The final finale of the Twilight saga, in which pig-boy Jacob tells Bella that, “No, it's not like that at all!” after she accuses him of being a paedo. But then she comes around to his viewpoint, doubtless displaying the kind of denial many parents did who let their kids spend time with Jimmy Savile or Gary Glitter during the ‘70s. It's lucky little Renesmee will be an adult by the age of seven, right? Right... Jacob even jokes that he should start calling Edward, “Dad”. And all the while they smile and smile.

Call me crazy, but I don’t see America coming out in droves to see you puke.

The Hard Way (1991) (SPOILERS) It would probably be fair to suggest that Michael J Fox’s comic talents never quite earned the respect they deserved. Sure, he was the lead in two incredibly popular TV shows, but aside from one phenomenally successful movie franchise, he never quite made himself a home on the big screen. Part of that might have been down to attempts in the late ’80s to carve himself out a niche in more serious roles – Light of Day , Bright Lights, Big City , Casualties of War – roles none of his fanbase had any interest in seeing him essaying. Which makes the part of Nick Lang, in which Fox is at his comic best, rather perfect. After all, as his character, movie star Nick Lang, opines, after smashing in his TV with his People’s Choice Award – the kind of award reserved for those who fail to garner serious critical adoration – “ I’m the only one who wants me to grow up! ”