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A fine example of casting and performances triumphing over material,
of a Scoundrel" is both ridiculous and remarkably compelling. The film's
plot is basically a potboiler: we watch a highly unscrupulous man
his own rise from poverty to riches, while destroying or dominating
around him along the way. To say the least, the narrative is laden with
absurd coincidences and unbelievable motivations.
So, why is "Death of a Scoundrel" so watchable? One reason is writer-director Charles Martin's ability to keep things moving at a good pace.
The other reason is the cast. George Sanders was the kind of actor who could take charge of a role (much the way his character takes charge of his own fate). He is able to overcome being too old and not attractive enough for his character. Sanders' famous British voice should work against the image of a Czech immigrant (although the actor was actually born in Russia). In fact, viewers are treated to a vocal doppelganger early in the film, when the role of Sanders' brother is given to his real-life brother (and sound-alike) Tom Conway.
Then there are the rest. Who can resist a high stakes soap opera with the likes of Yvonne De Carlo, Coleen Gray, John Hoyt, Victor Jory, Werner Klemperer, Nancy Gates and last but not least, Zsa Zsa Gabor?
Not always impressive as an actress, De Carlo does a fine job here. She is particularly good at revealing reaction shots. Each time Sanders announces an outrageous new scheme, we can see De Carlo mentally rolling her eyes. The wry delivery she had mastered by the time she will play 'Lily Munster' is fully in evidence. She seems to be having fun along the way, despite the angst and one especially silly revelation late in the film.
Coleen Gray is here given another one-note role. The stunning actress was allowed few opportunities to show she could act. Nancy Gates gets to play out a pocket-size version of "A Star is Born". And John Hoyt has a supporting role with plenty of surprises.
As for Zsa Zsa Gabor, she rarely looked more elegant and luminous. The recently ex-Mrs. Sanders was at the start of her career peak. Only two years later, she would embody the immortal 'Talleah' in "Queen of Outer Space". Despite limited acting skills, Gabor manages a couple of memorable Hungarian-accented line deliveries ("Be careful, I'm might bite you!").
While the production values of the film show a less-than-optimal budget, apparently no expense was spared on Max Steiner. The composer provides one of his continuous symphonic scores. Every scene is played out on a lush, late-romantic, sonic cushion. De Carlo's character even has her own 'sexy' theme. It's all wonderfully overdone and preposterous: an adventure into a never-never land of greed and control-obsession.
In other words, it's a riveting example of why we watch Hollywood movies.
George Sanders is the scoundrel in "Death of a Scoundrel," a 1956 film
that, though it appears to be a low-budget, boasts a fine cast: Yvonne
DeCarlo, Colleen Gray, Nancy Gates, Victor Jory, and Zsa Zsa Gabor.
Supposedly the story is based on the antics and ultimate murder of
Serge Rubinstein that hit the news around the time the film was made.
The lead role was originally given to George Brent, but the actor
became ill and couldn't do the role. Because the party scene had
already been filmed, he can be spotted there.
In the beginning of the movie, Sanders, who plays Clementi Sabourni, is lying dead. One of his business associates tells his story to the police. It begins in Czechoslovakia when Sabourni, believed to have died in a concentration camp, appears at the shop of his brother (played by Sanders' real-life brother, Tom Conway). He wants money and his girl - except there's no money and his brother has married his girl. Furious, Sabourni turns his brother over to the Communist police for being involved in black marketeering and selling stolen goods. In return, he gains his passage to America. His brother is killed resisting arrest. When Sabourni arrives in New York, he spots a woman (DeCarlo) stealing a wallet. Clementi picks her up and steals the wallet from her. But her husband chases him in an effort to retrieve it, and Clementi is shot. The husband is hit by a truck when Clementi pushes him into the street. While Clementi is being treated for his bullet wound, he learns of the marvels of a new drug, penicillin. Using a check that was in the wallet, he buys stock in the company. Thus his career begins.
The film is fascinating, in part because of the deals in which Clementi masterminds, and all of the women he juggles as a result. He becomes involved with a wealthy widow (Gabor) while flirting with her aspiring actress secretary (Gates), and trying to convince the wife (Gray) of a successful businessman to divorce her husband so that he can get her stock and take over her husband's company. His schemes grow more outrageous until his brother's widow - who is also his ex-girlfriend - appears.
Zsa Zsa Gabor (a recent ex-Mrs. Sanders at the time of filming) is stunningly beautiful and delightful in her role. Lovely Colleen Gray doesn't have a large part, but she shines when on screen. The exotic DeCarlo brings an earthiness and sarcasm as Bridget Kelly, who, though rough around the edges, is in love with Clementi and loyal to him.
Sanders is a marvel - always likable no matter how heinous his character, always smooth, and always watchable. If he's a little too old for Clementi, it doesn't matter. He still makes it work. I don't think this would have been as good a movie with Brent in the lead. A year before his suicide, Sanders appeared in an episode of "Mission: Impossible" and played an elderly con man - magnificently dressed, proud, and elegant. When he is defeated, the character turns into a tired old man in a matter of seconds. That is true acting, and there aren't many that can do it. Sanders could.
Don't let the black and white and the low budget fool you. "Death of a Scoundrel" is well worth viewing.
I caught this on Turner Classic Movies this morning and found it
completely mesmerizing. I'm not quite sure what the other reviewer
meant when he/she wrote that real people in the 50's didn't talk this
way. Real people don't talk like the folks in Gilmore Girls, but I love
that show. Complex, witty dialogue attracts me and this movie has it in
spades. George Sander's character is an unapologetic liar, seducer,
perpetrator of financial fraud, yet he remains charming and watchable
at all times. I compare this to his scoundrel role in All About Eve;
that character gave me the creeps when he revealed the corruption under
the charm and cynicism. In Death of a Scoundrel, the character instead
inspires a whole range of emotions including, finally, pity.
I laughed out loud throughout this movie, as Sanders' rogue juggles multiple women. In one scene, his servant announces a rich woman (Zsa Zsa Gabor) has come to his house unexpectedly. He quickly ushers out the woman with whom he's been having tea and romancing. Zsa Zsa comes in and while exchanging pleasantries with him picks up one of the teacups, examines it for lipstick, and says "Beautiful cup" as she sets it down.
In another scene, he is romancing a married woman and invites her to lunch the next day. She comments that he is very bold, seeing as how she is married. He replies that he finds her too fascinating not to pursue. She says, "But I am attached!", and he replies, "I don't want to attach you, I only want to borrow you for a while." Very funny, melodramatic, and eminently watchable film.
Hollywood tries to be topical when it can get away with it. This little
film of 1956 is typical of the movies that George Sanders was
frequently cast in the lead of (THE PRIVATE AFFAIRS OF BEL-AMI is a
better example of this). Suave and smooth, with that baritone purr that
was so full of secret threat, Sanders road it to screen stardom in a
way that only Greenstreet, Rathbone, Rains, Price, Webb, Lee, and
Cushing could match. And unlike the others, Sanders ended up with an
Oscar for his work (as Addison DeWitt in ALL ABOUT EVE).
What is frequently forgotten about Sanders Oscar-role is that the caddish theatre critic is not the worst person in the plot. While his interest in Eve Harrington is partly due to a physical attraction (in the famous scene in the Hartford hotel room he does try to explain how he reasoned this, only to be laughed at for his pains), Addison also is a realist: Eve is a great talent - he's spotted that - and fits the roles Lloyd Richards has been writing for Margo Channing better than Margo does, because she is closer in age to those roles than Margo. In fact, Margo herself realizes that. Moreover, although his snide comments hurt Margo and her friends, he is close to them. If you remember what causes Addison to go to Hartford in the first place is the visit (off screen) by Karen Richards (Celeste Holms) to discuss their mutual problem (keeping Lloyd and Eve apart). The villain of the movie remains Eve, not Addison, and when Addison rips her apart in the hotel room the audience is not hissing Addison but cheering him along. The only one of the major figures in the film with brains and guts, he is the only one capable in tearing down Eve. In fact, as the film ends Addison even realizes that his infatuation with her was misplaced - and he sets the stage for Eve to find herself with an "Eve" of her own.
At his best roles Sanders was in total control of the film for most of the action. DEATH OF A SCOUNDREL finds him in central control as a foreign born scuzzball who claws his way to wealth at everyone else's expense, but who ends up dead from revolver bullets. As such it sounds like some other films (one or two with Zachary Scott come to mind). But this one is actually topical. There was a murder in 1955 that spurred on this Hollywood flick. I refer to the "timely" demise of Serge Rubinstein.
Like Sanders' character (who is from Czechoslovakia), Rubinstein was from Eastern Europe - from Russia. He fled that country in the aftermath of the 1917 revolution, wearing clothing that contained jewelry and money that he used to settle in France and then England. He went to Cambridge (paid for by his brother), and studied (supposedly) with the great John Maynard Keynes. Keynes (if the story is true) was so amazed by Rubinstein's grasp of economics as to predict an amazing future for him. I somehow find that hard to believe. Rubinstein was not the sort to get stuck, a la Milton Friedman, Hayek, or Paul Samuelson with charts and graphs explaining how currency fluctuations might relate to declining revenues in imports ....Rather he was a greedy bastard. He bankrupted his father (who committed suicide). He never repaid his brother (who later tried suing him to recover his money). He would go about playing with national currencies (he hurt Japan's for a couple of years), and various corporations that he plundered. He also used phony papers to avoid the draft in the U.S. (he served some times in prison). His reaction to the hisses of the wives and families of war veterans was to call them suckers.
Rubinstein loved to flaunt it, and to rub it in. He eventually made tens of thousands of enemies by his lifestyle and business methods. Then, in 1955, he was found by his valet tied up on the floor of his bedroom and strangled (not shot like Sanders is found in the movie). The New York City Police Department looked as thoroughly as possible regarding all possible suspects, but none was ever found. The case is still unsolved. The problem was summed up by one police detective who said they had narrowed it down to ten thousand suspects. Too many people had motives for the murder. Moreover most of the public would probably have been willing to award the criminal a medal.
The only thing done in the film to change Rubinstein's character is that Sanders discovers he did love one of his female victims. Before his death he telephones her to ask her forgiveness. But that is an invention of the script writers. It is doubtful that Rubinstein would ever have begged forgiveness from anyone.
Except for a few "establishing" shots here and there and a heavy dose of rear projection magic in a taxi, this film is anchored to the studio. But James Wong Howe's camera work and Max Steiner's lush and diverse (some characters have their own themes) film score, the director refuses to allow the proceedings to take on a cramped and cold feel. George Sanders as "Clementi" is a piece of work. He germinates schemes with the speed of a jack hammer, and every enterprise he embarks on is cloaked in dishonesty and unethical business practices. Stay away from him like the German measles. He tosses away women like used paper tissues. He has no problem using Yvonne DeCarlo (the narrator of the film) to seduce his clients. She is his one true friend and she loves him. Clementi is nearsighted on such matters of the heart. No matter. Zsa Zsa Gabor is around the corner. She keeps him on a short leash and scores a few minor victories. But even she can't control the evil genius for long. I think the scene at the theater was screen writing genius. Clementi, attempting another play for a woman, bankrolls a young, gifted actress in a stage play she is perfect for. After the performance, she goes back to his room and they play out that very same scene in real life, blurring reality that much more. Marvelous. I love the final speech and walk down a long flight of stairs by DeCarlo. As a former dancer, she always had a great physical presence and grace. The music is soft but builds to a crescendo. She looks one way and then another. The camera pulls back as she turns and exits the house, a policeman's silhouette in the glass door. I'm a sucker for these types of dramatic endings. Think (and watch) Michael J. Fox at the end of Casualties of War, and you'll see what I mean.
I seem, no matter what the film, to always be drawn to a George Sanders film. He usually plays the most offensive, morally bankrupt, devious, underhanded roles. If there is someone out to swindle a woman from her possessions through flattery - George Sanders is there. If a young ingénue is promised fame for the price of her physical love - George Sanders is there. If a brother is turned in for stealing rare objects d'art to the police - George Sanders is there. These are just a portion of the terrible things George Sanders does in Death of a Scoundrel, but, amazingly, Sanders remains almost likable throughout because of his innate affability and charm. No one turns a phrase better than Sanders, and it is his easy wit, dry delivery, wry sense of humor, predisposition to sarcasm, and excellent timing that make him stand out in what would otherwise be pretty routine stuff. Death of a Scoundrel opens with Sanders already dead. We then get to, through the character of lovely Yvonne De Carlo, trace the roots of how Sanders first became a scoundrel and how he eventually died. The story, though full of overstated melodrama, is an interesting one with the Sander's character actually given some depth of characterization. The supporting cast is top-notch with Zsa Zsa Gabor giving what I think is one of her all around best performances. She and Sanders appear to have strong chemistry between them(little wonder as they had previously been married/divorced). Nancy Gates does a very credible job as an aspiring actress. John Hoyt is always good and Coleen Gray gives a good turn as well. Tom Conway, the real life half-brother of Sanders, plays Sander's brother in the film. But supporting cast aside, this movie is all Sanders. I really liked Death of a Scoundrel. It is not a great film, but it was much better than I had thought it would be. It goes to show that quality acting, a coherent script, thoughtful direction from Charles Martin, and a sense of style, not just in how the film appears but in the way the film is made, all go a long way in making the mundane pretty good.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
It's a George Sanders showcase, a role the tall, aristocratic smoothie
was born to play. But then like Serge Rubinstein on whom the screenplay
is based, Sanders was born in pre- Bolshevik Russia, though you'd never
know it from that cultivated British accent he always used to such
grand effect. No need to recount the movie's plot here. Still and all,
Rubinstein's murder in 1955 created a tabloid sensation since his
social circles extended into the upper reaches of finance, politics,
and show business. I'm sure the whispering among insiders of the time
was ferocious. The murder itself was never solved. But then, as one wag
put it, "They've narrowed the list of suspects down to 10,000"! (Time
Actually, the movie only implies a list of about 5,000. Had it gone on another hour, the total might have easily doubled Sanders' Clementi Sabourin is a really slick slimeball. The kind of guy who looks you in the eye, picks your pocket, then gives you back a dollar and calls it charity. It's a rather curious production with the cheap sets and black&white look of 1946 instead of '56. Still, the casting does give a number of second-line actresses a chance to show their high-fashion stuff. However, I'm still wondering how DeCarlo managed to lose her brassy accent in such a miraculously short span. And I'm sure Sanders and that other expatriate from Europe's gilded past, Zsa Zsa Gabor, shared more than a few memories and laughs off camera. Also, Gray and Gates are two of the better unsung actresses of the period, wholesomely pretty rather than glamorous. It really is a well-cast film. Also, director Martin wisely doesn't let all the gab slow down the pacing.
In passingnote that the movie shows Sabourin mixing with financial and show biz moguls, but oddly he's not shown mixing with the political elite. I wonder if that was intentional, given rumors of the time. Anyway, the film is still a lot of fun, though you'd think that shooting the guy would be punishment enough. However, this is the Production Code era, so apparently more is needed. The trouble is the trickster's blubbering contrition for all his transgressions undercuts what's gone before and is about as plausible as Paris Hilton suddenly taking a poverty pledge. Nonetheless, the movie teaches more about the stock market than maybe it should have. Then too, judging by today's headlines, 1955 may not be so long ago, after all.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Note. What follows is an edit of a review I originally did in March
2006 (over a year ago). And while my appreciation of this classic film
remains the same, it appears I got some of my plot parts in error. I
apologize. I initially wrote the review from my memories of seeing the
film. And now, having acquired the film (and am watching it now), I've
learned that memories sometimes play tricks with us (grin).
Few people know this but George Sanders' character, Clementi Sabourin, is loosely based on the life of notorious stock manipulator, Serge Rubenstein. Source, the New York Times:
A one-hour documentary titled "The Case of Serge Rubenstein" aired on NBC radio a year before the film was released. This likely provided the idea that induced screenwriter, Charles Martin, to do the script - though the names were changed to protect the innocent (and possibly the guilty).
The key moment in the film is when Sabourin acquires a stolen cashier's check for $20,000. He signs it over to himself and uses it to buy stock in a company he's heard inside information about. And fortunately, the inside information pans out and he's able to get the check back before it can bounce ... paid for by money he's acquired from the stock purchase.
As a result of the shady arrangement, Sabourin becomes a wealthy man literally overnight. And, his rise to financial power is equally swift as he uses personal charm and outright lies to gain the confidence of those who could make him even wealthier.
This rise to power finally reaches its peak and the worm begins to turn when Federal authorities begin to investigate Sabourin's dealings. And faced with possible deportation back to Czechoslovakia (a communist country that would confiscate his wealth), Sabourin calls in his ace-in-the-hole (or so he thinks). He sends for his mother to join him in America. And once here, he asks his mother to lie for him ... to tell authorities that he's the illegitimate son of a Swiss father. If she tells this lie convincingly, authorities will have no option but to deport him to capitalist-friendly Switzerland ... where he can continue to live his life of luxury.
Instead, his mother rebuffs him and tells him she's going back to Czechoslovakia. The stage is set for an inevitable climax.
While dated, the film is of exceptional interest nowadays with corporate corruption being exposed seemingly on a daily basis ... from the Enron scandal to Martha Stewart's inside information scenario. While the outcome of the film is unlikely to be the outcome of the lives of real-life scoundrels, many of the same motivations are at play even today. This alone makes the film worth seeing.
FWIW, Rubenstein was deported from France back to Britain for his own financial shenanigans. Later, he was found strangled in his mansion ... and his murder has never been solved.
(There Are Spoilers) Arriving at the Sabourin Mansion in New York City
the homicide squad headed by police Capt. LaFarge, Morris Ankrum, finds
multi-millionaire financier Clementi Sabourin dead, shot to death, in
his study. Capt. LaFarge has Sabourin personal secretary Bridget Kelly
(Yvonne De Carlo), the only person in the film who had anything good to
say about him, called in for questioning about who could have possibly
murdered her boss. It's then the movie "Death of a Scoundrel" fades
into a flashback that takes up almost the entire film.
Surviving a Nazi concentration camp in WWII Clementi comes back home to Czechoslovakia only to find that all the money that he gave his younger brother Gerry Monte, Tom Conway, was gone and his childhood sweetheart Zina, Lisa Ferrady,married to him. Told by both Gerry and Zina that they were informed that he died in the camps doesn't make Clementi feel any better. Later Clementi goes to he Communist Czech police and rats on his brother about him having illegal and black-market contraband. This leads to Gerry getting shot and killed by the police for "resisting arrest".
For his service to the government Clementi gets a French passport that he uses to immigrate to the United States and find his fortune. In America Clementi waste no time getting to the top of the heap of the stock bond commodity and real-estate markets. With his sharp mind and unscrupulous principles Clementi becomes one of the richest and most feared men on Wall Street.
Clementi also scores big with the ladies charming them into investing in his schemes and make big bucks because of them. Like the Wall Street moguls of the 1920's, and later 1980's, Clementi specializes in corporate take-overs that ends up destroying the value of the companies that he takes over and throws thousands of stock owner out in the cold flat broke with their stocks totally worthless.
It's doesn't take long before Clementi becomes the most hated and despised man in the world of finance and his biggest fraud the selling of a stock to the public called Sobourinuranium was the last straw when it collapsed with Clementi ending up with all the money as the stock owners went broke; this brought the SEC, the Securites & Exchange Commission, in to investigate him and cause his fall from power and eventual murder.
There wasn't anyone in the movie that Clementi didn't screw to get what he wanted; his brother Gerry and later Gerry's widow Zina who ended up committing suicide when she found that he was cheating on her in a Chicago hotel with one of his many rich women friends Mrs. Edith Van Renassel ,Coleen Gray. Zina ended her life blaming Clementi in a suicide note for her death.
Clementi also used very rich and connected women like the beautiful widowed Mrs. Ryan, Zsa Zsa Gabor who he left high and dry and the mega rich Mrs.Van Renassalear who's marriage he destroyed to get cash, that he was alway desperately in need of, for his financial adventures. The only woman that Clementi fell in love with Mrs. Ryan's secretary Stephanie North,Nancy Gates, rejected his crude advances and thus gets even with Stephanie by destroying her career as an actress that he himself helped financed.
The last straw to Clementi's rottenness was when faced with being deported back to Communist Czechoslovakia as an undesirable alien he tries to get his old and sick mother( Celia Lousky), whom he ignored for years, come to America in order to declare him, in court papers, as being her legitimate son! Clementi wants his mother to tell the court that he was actually born in Switzerland with his father being a Swiss citizen! In order to prevent him from being shipped back behind the Iron Curtain and into a Soviet Gulag.
It's at this point that Clementi finally realizes what a heel and scoundrel he really is and in a show of contrition plans to give all his money away to those he stole and cheated it out off but. By that time it was already too late for him since not all of his partners in crime, who profited from his sleazy ventures, weren't that "saintly" and one of them Mr. O'Hara (John Hoyt), who was involved with Clementi's dealing right from the start, wasn't at all that willing to go along with him and depart from his ill-gotten gains.
In the end all Clementi wanted was forgiveness for what he did from those that he hurt over the years and in a strange and mystifying way, after his death, he did in the end get it.
George Sanders was a fine actor that just isn't that well-known to
Americans today. In this movie, he is completely in his element playing
a charming but morally bankrupt jerk. He uses EVERYONE around him and
is the complete sociopath until eventually he gets his due. His
character was created as a WARNING against being conned by the likes of
him and he is NOT glorified in any way, nor does he ultimately get away
with this behavior. I loved the picture and it sure gave me a lot more
than I was expecting.
By the way, if you would like to see a couple more of Sanders' best movies, try "All About Eve" or "Village of the Damned". Also, for a similar film to "Death of a Scoundrel", try "The Great Man" or "A Face the Crowd".
Finally, it was interesting to see Sanders in the same movie as his wife, Zsa Zsa Gobor (though whether or not they were married to each other at the time, I don't know) as well as his brother, Tom Conway.
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