Scriptwriters: Marcel Aymé, Pierre Chenal, Christian Stengel, Vladimir Strizhevsky
Director: Pierre Chenal
Composer: Arthur Honegger
Cast: Pierre Blanchar, Harry Baur, Madeleine Ozeray, Lucienne Le Marchand, Alexandre Rignault, Sylvie, Aimé Clariond, Marcelle Géniat, Marcel Delaître
In 1935, two adaptations of Dostoevsky’s novel were released at once: in Hollywood and in France. For Peter Lorre, who fled the Third Reich, the role of Raskolnikov in Joseph von Sternberg’s film (called in France "Remorse" [“Remords”]) was his debut in American cinema. "Crime and Punishment" by Pierre Chenal participated in the third Venice Film Festival and brought the Volpi Cup to Pierre Blanchar, world fame to the director, and confidence in its commercial future to French cinema.
Chenal "grew" the idea of Dostoevsky's screen adaptation during his night-time adventures at “A La Cloche d'Or” on rue de Douai, near Montmartre, where, overwhelmed by alcohol and syncopated rhythms, among pimps and artists, he spent his nights listening to black French jazz. The director sat Christian Stengel down to read Dostoevsky’s novel, and assured the producer that he understood Russia as well as Russians do, that he had read everything, from Pushkin and Turgenev to Mayakovsky and Ehrenburg - and promised to make do without samovars. Marcel Aymé brilliantly stylized the dialogues to resemble Jean Chuzeville’s translation. The first sets by Aimé Bazin, being too close to the images of St. Petersburg at the end of the 19th century, did not suit Chenal, and Bazin together with director of photography Mundwiller created a ghostly Petersburg: with almost no signs of the time, Raskolnikov's blurry and distorted nightmare, thereby setting the style for the French film noir, anticipating the noir of Hollywood. Harry Baur became Porfiry Petrovich as soon as, in agreement, he intriguingly patted Chenal on the shoulder. Pierre Blanchar played the role for which he was born. Ingenuity triumphed on the set. In the absence of a real camera crane, the film crew constructed the necessary structure from available materials in order to track Raskolnikov’s rise to the pawnbroker’s apartment on the third floor in a single shot. They made two takes and, having heard a dangerous crack, did not risk the third one.
In Chenal’s version, the obligatory portrait of Napoleon is not hanging in Raskolnikov’s little room, as it does in von Sternberg's film. Just a small icon that has merged with the dirty wall. The rest of the space is filled with a thick void. The frenzied Petersburg here is a city of empty spaces that absorb human strength and hopes, and then the people themselves. Blanchard is a living corpse, a neurotic with a round, glass-like eye, black hair, and a face arranged like Sonya Marmeladova’s closet: "one corner is too sharp, the other too hideously obtuse”. His Raskolnikov is a bundle of nerves in an expressionist top hat. In the Hollywood version, every motivation for murder and remorse was spelled out. In Chenal’s film, madness does not lend itself to rhetoric; it is generated by the space itself and returns there.
One of the problems with “Crime and Punishment” adaptations is that any film costs money, and the money it costs is visible on the screen. Dostoevsky, who had once again diced away all his money, “conceived” the novel in a hotel room abroad, in the semi-darkness, hungry and alone, and too tangibly described those rubles and kopecks that someone’s miserable life is hardly worth. Stylized poverty is too expensive a luxury. Therefore, Sternberg does not even hide how expensive his baroque is. Chenal, however, stylizes not poverty, but misery. The room in the house of the old pawnbroker, where renovations are in progress, becomes the central space of the film. The heroes live in unfinished sets of life, among the bare walls and beams, scaffolding and uneven openings, choking on dust, whitewash, and plaster in their temporary shelters, the payment for which is overdue in advance. The stucco becomes the makeup of the space and settles as makeup on the faces: on Raskolnikov, on Sonya, on the drunkard Marmeladov, crushed to death by space. That is why the strip of living skin - Alena Ivanovna’s neck placed under the ax, - is so unnatural in the thickness of this deathly dust. For Raskolnikov, who slipped into psychosis because of hunger, anger, and pride, this strip of skin is an object of disgust, almost Sartrian nausea. But the camera suddenly sees it clearly: it is alive. Chenal gives a short answer to the questions of a beggar student who only wanted justice.