Richard Brooks could be an exacerbating individual; relentlessly unsympathetic to his actors and crew. But no one can deny he was one hell of a great director, and he proves it again with The Brothers Karamazov (1958); an exuberant adaptation of Fyodor Dolstoyevsky's epic novel of familial greed. Brooks penchant for telling stories with a strong social commentary excels at extolling the flawed - and occasionally ruptured - relationships between four male heirs to a family fortune. It took the author two years to compose the novel, a passionate philosophical debate about God, man's perceptions of his own free will and the godless way he conducts himself to suit his own (im)morality. Dolstoyevsky always intended the book to be part of a masterwork entitled The Life of a Great Sinner. But he died a scant four months after his book was published.
For the film, director Brooks assumes a daunting task: to translate philosophy into a tangible visual medium. Overall, he succeeds, possibly because Brooks could see much of his own inner demons being exorcised in the novel. Brooks, who also wrote the screenplay, has achieved a minor coup. He has made Dolstoyevsky's prose concretely visual without boring us with the platitudes and epiphanies. The film begins in earnest with monk Alexi Karamazov (William Shatner) in search of his lecherous father Fyodor Pavlovich (Lee J. Cobb) to reclaim a payment owed his eldest brother, Lieutenant Dmitri Karamazov (Yul Brynner). Alexi finds Fyodor at home, indulging in a violent orgy with tavern owner, Agrafena Alexandrovna Svetlova Grushenka (Maria Schell). Although the Karamazov's patriarch is entertaining thoughts of marriage, the fiery Grushenka does not share in them.
Dmitri has offered to pay a debt to save the reputation of a prominent local family in Ryevsk for the elegant Katya (Claire Bloom) with the promise that she will become his mistress as remuneration. Very reluctantly, and bitterly, Katya agrees to these terms. But Dmitri has had a change of heart. Katya is an honorable woman. Instead of seduction, Dmitri offers her the money as a gift she gratefully accepts. Moments later Dmitri is arrested by the army police for a brawl he had earlier in the evening. A few months later Katya visits Dmitri in prison with overwhelming news. Her grandmother has died and left the entirety of her estate to Katya, primarily because she never learned of the disgraceful debt the family owed. In the interim Katya has fallen hopelessly in love with Dmitri and, upon learning his fate, has come to pledge herself wholeheartedly in marriage to him. However, Dmitri has recognized a fundamental flaw in his own character. He is his father's son - prone to wanton revelry and devil-may-care debaucheries that would make Katya a most unhappy wife.
Nevertheless, Katya pursues Dmitri upon his release from prison. The Karamazov's middle son, philosopher Ivan (Richard Basehart) is instantly smitten with her. But his influence at home is most strongly felt by their father's bastard son, Pavel Smerdjakov (Albert Salmi) who has taken Ivan's published works to heart. Ivan does not believe in God or the law. They do not exist. Lawlessness is a myth perpetrated by the state to control its populace. Presiding over this motley brood is house servant Grigori (Edgar Stehli) who has been like a second father to the boys. He has watched powerless as their father's lifestyle has infected the entire family's welfare; financial, moral and spiritual.
Dmitri returns home to demand that his father pay out the rest of their mother's inheritance owed to him. He is refused and later rebuked when Fyodor enters into an unholy alliance with Grushenka to buy up Dmitri's debts, then have him arrested for not being able to repay them. Grushenka sends Captain Snegiryov (David Opatoshu) to arrest Dmitri. Instead, Dmitri confronts the aged officer with a challenge. Snegiryov begs for his life in front of his young son, Ilyusha (Miko Oscard) who bitterly declares that he will never forgive Dmitri for his father's humiliation. Dmitri learns of the plot against him from Snegiryov and confronts Grushenka at a skating party. His initial plan is to use money given to him by Katya to pay off his debts. Instead, Dmitri falls under Grushenka's spell and throws a wild party in her honour at the tavern. Grushenka falls in love with Dmitri and this hardens Katya's heart.
Hence, when Dmitri is accused of murdering his own father, Katya seizes on the moment to cast her word against him by exposing the debt of money owed to her. Prompted by Alexi, Ivan confronts Smerdjakov who gleefully confessing to murdering the elder Karamazov by striking him with a poker from the fireplace. Smerdjakov declares that it was Ivan's writing and opinions that gave him the impetus to plot his crime. Assuming responsibility for the crime, Ivan and his half-brother struggle. But Ivan cannot bring himself to kill his father's killer. Instead he declares that Smerdjakov will confess his crime, not only because it is a crime, but to save Dmitri from spending the rest of his life in prison.
Smerdjakov's faith in the faithless Ivan is shattered. Ivan returns several hours later with Grushenka and policemen to arrest Smerdjakov, only to find that he has hanged himself rather than face prosecution. The next day Ivan attempts to testify in court as to what Smerdjakov told him. But the judges are unconvinced and unsympathetic. They find Dmitri guilty of murder. Yet, as the prisoners are led in chains onto a train bound for the work camp, Ivan observes that Dmitri is not among them. Katya demands to know what has happened to him, but Ivan is silent, joining Alexi, Dmitri and Grushenka in a carriage bound for the border. At the last possible moment, Dmitri demands that they stop at Capt. Snegiryov's home where Ilyusha lies very ill. Dmitri begs Snegiryov to pardon his challenge, thereby restoring Ilyusha's faith in, and love for, his father - emotions Dmitri always lacked towards his own. The carriage pulls into the night, presumably with Dmitri and Grushenka bound for a better life together abroad.
The Brothers Karamazov is a superior movie adaptation of an extremely complex literary masterpiece. Clearly, Richard Brooks has done his homework. The script is literate without being a literal translation of the novel. Necessary excisions to accommodate time constraints have been made. But these never blunt the impact of the novel's philosophical debates. Brooks’ screenplay captures the essence of the novel without being essentially bound by its weighty narrative. And then there is the cast to consider; a magnificent roster with not a false performance among them. Yul Brynner is a powerful and commanding presence, as is Lee J. Cobb. Richard Basehart - an actor sadly underrated in his own, as well as our, time - is exceptional as the godless cynic who is converted by the final reel. Albert Salmi, an actor that I must confess I had never heard of before, is absolutely chilling as the prodigal with secretive bloodthirsty desires to cleanse himself of his illegitimate past. Even William Shatner's pious monk is delivered with reverence. Both Maria Schell and Claire Bloom give noteworthy performances as opposing depictions of womanhood inexplicably drawn to the same flawed men.
The Brothers Karamazov also benefits from the many gifted craftsmen working behind the camera. Bronislau Kaper's score is expert and manages to capture the raw tension, fiery obsession and carnal aliveness of the piece. John Alton's impressionist cinematography is a perfect complement creating a sort of color coded claustrophobia that draws the viewer into the darkening malaise that has enveloped this family. Walter Plunkett's costume design is understated. The clothes don't speak for the characters, but add their own social commentary about the Imperial caste system. In the last analysis, The Brothers Karamazov is an exceptional cinematic achievement. It excels at sustaining Dolstoyevsky's high ideals while creating its own equally immersive high drama.
Frankly, it is beyond me how Warner Home Video could have allowed this memorable classic to go the way of its Archive MOD DVD program. The Brothers Karamazov is most definitely deserving of a fully restored Blu-ray release. Having said that, the MOD DVD is not all that bad. Color fidelity is a little weaker than expected. The film was photographed on single strip Eastman stock and has begun to show subtle signs of vinegar syndrome. Flesh tones are pasty. Reds are more orangey. Contrast levels are very good. The image is occasionally 'thick' with a loss of fine detail. There are no digital anomalies to speak of, and age related artifacts are kept to a bare minimum. On the whole these shortcomings will not detract from the story. The audio is mono and adequately presented. The only extra is a theatrical trailer. Highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)