Renegade film maker, Richard Brooks could be an exacerbating individual; relentlessly unsympathetic to his actors and crew, tyrannical to a fault, and grotesquely opinionated, though always – arguably – with a purpose. Yet, no one can deny he was one hell of a great director, as he proved again with The Brothers Karamazov (1958); an exuberant adaptation of Fyodor Dostoevsky's epic novel of familial greed. Brooks’ penchant for telling stories with a strong social commentary excels herein at extolling the stifling tenacity brewing between three insidiously enterprising male heirs to a crumbling dynasty. It took Dostoevsky two years to write The Brothers Karamazov, a fervent philosophical debate about and meditation on God, man's perceptions of his own free will, and, the godless way he chooses to conduct himself to suit his own (im)morality. Dostoevsky always intended the book to be part of a masterwork entitled The Life of a Great Sinner. But he died of complications due to epilepsy a scant four months after the first book was published. For the film, director Brooks assumes a rather daunting task: to transpose the author’s dense prose into a living/breathing art of tangible pleasures and intrigues. Overall, Brooks succeeds. Possibly, he could internally relate to the demons being exorcised in the novel. Thus, Brooks, who also wrote the screenplay, achieves a minor coup: to make Dostoevsky’s cerebral pontificating concrete without weighing down the audience in platitudes and epiphanies.
Dostoevsky, who in death came to be regarded by such luminaries as Albert Einstein and Friedrich Nietzsche as “the greatest religious writer” from Russia’s golden literary period, was equally praised for his exquisite analytical style as for his penchant in drawing clarity, emotion and psychological complexities from both the frailty and madness of the human condition. No other writer of his ilk bears a more striking contrast to the then ensconced Victorian novel, with its coy highborn damsels and well-arranged routine. Dostoevsky’s novels present life not as it ought to be, as a comedy of errors with a few serious bits scattered about, but rather as an earthly unkempt cesspool of oddities that bear an arresting resemblance to life as it is, or rather, was for a good many reading his prose. In life, Dostoevsky himself was such a mass of contradictions. Although several of his works exhibit an undeniable anti-Semitic slant, there is equal evidence to suggest he was not entirely comfortable with these pan-Slavic criticisms of the Jewish race. While he dabbled in, and studied many religions, he remained a devout Orthodox Christian, even going so far as to suggest that if definitive proof could be established for truth laying outside of Christ he would much prefer to remain with Christ instead of truth. Despite being considered progressive in his political views, Dostoevsky rejected the notion of a Russian Republic in favor of his own highly idealized and Christianized utopia. These views were later to result in his temporary exile to Siberia. His private life was as messy, if not more so; Dostoevsky, frequently dallying in extramarital affairs with mistresses he invariably found exacerbating, egotistical and dull.
If all this history seems unlikely fodder for a film review, it nevertheless helps to contextualize the unvarnished reflections represented in the novel The Brothers Karamazov (and referenced in the movie) as a passionate philosophical treatise charting the moral ambiguities and spiritual dysfunctionality of this trio of ill-gotten sons; the vindictive offspring of a whore-mongering patriarch. Miraculously, Brooks’ film retains all of this flavorful sin, plus a good deal of the author’s ethical debates, cleverly rewritten as ‘beliefs’ bandied back and forth by this feuding fraternity. What Brooks cannot illustrate outright – due to censorship – he expressly relies upon cinematographer extraordinaire, John Alton to intimate with lurid hues and deep shadows. Alton gets a fair amount of mileage from creating such painterly impressionistic viewpoints; of vulgar, unchecked desire, of pugnaciously differing mindsets, and of implied bawdy comicalness. The incongruity of pitting sex against salvation buoys Brooks’ screenplay; itself, a masterful reconstitution of Dostoevsky’s prose.
Working from an adaptation by Julius J. and Philip G. Epstein, Brooks evokes the crippling turmoil of the Karamazov’s with an unrelenting and clear-eyed flair for the brutalities inflicted by Lee J. Cobb’s libidinous old wag, mocking, tempting and exasperating his young spawns into fitful ferocity, desolation and dispiritedness. Yul Brynner emerges as the ‘star’ of this surprisingly sturdy ensemble piece; cast as the eldest and most striking, yet pitiless Dmitri who shares in his father, Fyodor’s desire to possess the curiously cat-like innocence of Grushenka (a buxom Maria Schell). There is a good deal to be said in praise of genuine ‘star power’ as Brynner’s megawatt inklings of it flourish and retain a classical sense of heroism despite his character’s lack of morality working against it. The middle heir, Ivan (Richard Basehart) is both glacially intellectual yet austerely jealous of his father’s untrammeled and seemingly unquenchable avarice. The youngest, Alexey (William Shatner) has retreated to a life devoted to the church, presumably to escape a similar fate. This familial dynasty is also rocked from without; Smerdyakov (Albert Salmi) – a piggish, easily swayed and malignant bastard.
Brooks’ screenplay telescopes Dostoevsky’s vast and tangled fiction into an equally as compelling dissertation and homily on the root of all evil – money…not lust. To be sure, both play a part in this substantially mounted production. Partly to appease the censors, but moreover to rein in the already two and a half hour movie from becoming a David Lean knockoff of the super-epic, Brooks reconstitutes the novel’s sensuality – herein exhibited via a lot of pawing and open-mouthed kisses to the strains of pseudo-erotic gypsy music (an exquisite score by Bronislau Kaper) – tempering such overt sinfulness with an even more edifying condemnation of wealth – or rather, the evil that men may do to regain it once it has been lost. We can almost forgive Brooks his half-ass ‘happy ending’ that does much to sterilize the tension between these colliding consciences, calculatingly concocted and perfectly at odds elsewhere, because everything leading up to this anti-climactic dénouement is so impressively dynamic, so teeming with the bare-bosom sprigs of undulating gluttony, mistrust and monstrous-ness; the puss, barely concealed beneath scabs as psychologically burrowing as they hemorrhage the patience, though hardly the lionized venom from this anti-heroic brood.
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 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 understanding she will become his mistress as remuneration. Very reluctantly Katya agrees to these terms. But Dmitri has a change of heart. Katya is an honorable woman. Thus, instead of seduction, he 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 the estate to her, primarily because the old woman never learned of the disgraceful debt their family owed. In the interim Katya has fallen hopelessly in love with Dmitri and, upon learning his fate, pledges herself wholeheartedly in marriage to him. However, Dmitri recognizes a fundamental flaw in his character. He is his father's son - prone to stifling debaucheries that would surely make the virtuous 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. For him, neither exists. Lawlessness is a myth perpetrated by the state to control its populace. Presiding over this motley brood is the ever-devoted house servant, Grigori (Edgar Stehli) who has been as a second father to these boys. He has watched powerless as their own father's lifestyle infected the entire family's welfare; financial, moral and spiritual. Dmitri returns home and demands his father pay out the rest of their mother's inheritance owed him. He is refused and later rebuked as Fyodor enters into an unholy alliance with Grushenka to buy up Dmitri's debts and secretly have him detained for not being able to repay them.
Grushenka sends Captain Snegiryov (David Opatoshu) to make the arrest. 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 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 honor at the tavern. Grushenka affectingly falls in love with Dmitri, but this hardens Katya’s heart.
Hence, when Dmitri is accused of murdering his own father, Katya seizes the opportunity to cast her word against him by exposing the debt of monies owed her. Prompted by Alexi, Ivan confronts Smerdjakov who gleefully confesses to murdering the elder Karamazov by striking him with a poker from the fireplace. Smerdjakov declares it was Ivan's writing and opinions that informed and fueled his vengeance. Assuming responsibility, Ivan and his half-brother are caught in a violent struggle. Alas, Ivan cannot bring himself to murder his father's killer. Instead he orders Smerdjakov to confess his crime, not simply because it is a crime, but in order 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 discover he has hanged himself rather than face prosecution. The next day, Ivan endeavors to testify in court on his brother’s behalf as to what Smerdjakov told him. But the judges are unconvinced and unsympathetic. They find Dmitri guilty of murder. As the prisoner is led in chain onto a train bound for the work camp, Ivan observes 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 commands they pause a moment 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 away and 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 chef-d'oeuvre. 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 time, and all but expunged from our own - is exceptional as the godless cynic, suffering a conversion in the final reel. Albert Salmi is absolutely bone-chilling as the prodigal with secretive bloodthirsty lures to blackmail and cleanse himself of his illegitimacy. Even William Shatner's pious monk is delivered with reverence. Both Maria Schell and Claire Bloom give noteworthy performances as opposing depictions of womanhood – the proverbial virgin and the whore – each, inexplicably flawed in their romantic tastes and drawn to even more insidiously troubled men.
The Brothers Karamazov also benefits from the many gifted craftsmen working behind the camera. Bronislau Kaper's score manages to capture the raw tension, fiery obsession and carnal aliveness of the piece. John Alton's impressionist cinematography is the perfect complement here, creating a sort of color-coded claustrophobia that draws the viewer into the darkening malaise that has already enveloped the Karamazov clan. Walter Plunkett's costumes are understated. The clothes don't speak for the characters, but add to their own social commentary and reflections on the Imperial caste system. In the last analysis, The Brothers Karamazov is an exceptional cinematic achievement. It sustains and nourishes Dostoevsky's high ideals while creating its own immersive and impressive high drama. There have been other adaptations of this famed novel – none quite as striking nor as effective as this one.
By now The Brothers Karamazov ought to have found its way to Blu-ray. Instead, we have the Warner Archive’s MOD DVD release which is not all that bad, although the movie would most definitely benefit from a fully restored Blu-ray release. MOD DVD is not a great archival source. Having stated as much, the utmost care has been taken to release The Brothers Karamazov in standard def. Color fidelity is marginally weaker than anticipated. The movie was photographed on single strip Eastman stock and, in spots, shows subtler signs of vinegar syndrome. Flesh tones are pasty pink or ruddy orange and reds are more orange than blood red. Contrast levels are very good, however. 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. The audio is unimpressive in mono but adequate. The only extra is a theatrical trailer. Bottom line: The Brothers Karamazov is a cinematic masterpiece Dostoevsky would be proud of. It may not represent the novel’s more literal intent, but it manages to evoke the author’s sentiments with a palpable aggression and conviction most will find very satisfying indeed. Highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)