The Brothers Karamazov (1958)


Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB.5

USA, 1958. . Screenplay by Richard Brooks, adaptation by , , based on the novel by , translated by . Cinematography by . Produced by . Music by . Production Design by , . Costume Design by . Film Editing by .

Bolstered by the box office success of King Vidor’s adaptation of Tolstoy’s War And Peace two years earlier, MGM orders up another adaptation from classic Russian literature and enlists the always reliable Richard Brooks to bring it to the screen. Dostoyevsky’s deservedly venerated novel may not be as long as Tolstoy’s, very little is, but it is an expansive, deep and detailed look at a group of characters whose pushing and pulling at each other’s ambitions and desires represents the author’s usual quest to pin down the nature of morality, spirituality and human emotion, philosophical in its nature and, fair to say in its treatment of class tensions, instructive as well. Brooks, thankfully, is wise enough to know that adapting it in this spirit won’t exactly make a scintillating movie and sticks to the actual dramatic plot of the book, but thanks to his talent as a writer, doesn’t cut its soul out in doing so, instead infusing the remarkable strong cast with all the desperation for the meaning of life that the author put into his words.

The narrative begins with images of a wonderful carousing up a storm as the Karamazov patriarch Fyodor, surrounded by his four sons from three different mothers who are anxiously anticipating the future of their inheritance. Eldest sibling Dimitri (a bewitching ) clashes with his father the most and sets a feud in motion when he rejects his betrothed heiress Katya () in favour of his passion for his father’s mistress Grushenka (, in a role originally eyed by Marilyn Monroe). Younger sibling Ivan () is in love with Katya but keeps a distance from his family’s madness by working as a journalist in Moscow, third brother Alexei (a surprisingly touching ) is a monk whose love of all around him sees him easily made a fool, and the bastard son Pavel (), born out of wedlock to one of Fyodor’s many mistresses, is an epileptic who lives as a servant to his perpetually indulgent father. Dimitri is almost a match for his voluptuary father, also a gleeful womanizer, irresponsible with the money he spends and the debts he accrues, believing that he will clear them when his father finally gives him the inheritance from his mother that he is owed. He digs himself into further trouble by getting Grushenka and Kayta wrapped up in his money woes, at which point Brooks somewhat loses the pulse of the plot and the details of the back and forth as Dimitri overly complicates his situation become somewhat tiresome to endure.

The third act, involving a courtroom drama in which a main character is charged with murder, livens the proceedings up a bit but, despite a powerful sense of time and place, there’s no denying that this film’s intellectual rigor and determination to never turn Dostoyevsky into a romance novel eventually makes it a chore to complete. To watch it for the actors, however, is to get great satisfaction from the experience, as Bloom gives one of her most vulnerable and affecting performances (more so than Schell, who believes that Grushenka’s scrupulous nature should be expressed through the repetition of more or less the same canny smile) and Cobb steals the entire show with his high-powered but never messy or manic energy.

Academy Award Nomination: Best Supporting Actor (Lee J. Cobb)

Cannes Film Festival: In Competition

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