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Up to Date: 'Death of a Scoundrel'

By far the most distinguished film of writer-producer-director Charles Marti's career.


Death of a Scoundrel

Director: Charles Martin
Cast: George Sanders, Yvonne De Carlo
Distributor: Warner Archives
Rated: Not rated
Year: 1956
US Release Date: 2011-11-16

In a very grabby opening, a young woman (Yvonne De Carlo) hammers on the door to the mansion of nouveau millionaire Clementi Sabourin (George Sanders). When the butler answers, she rushes upstairs to Sabourin's room and discovers his picturesquely staged corpse sprawled across the bed, eyes open, frozen in a pose out of an E.C. horror comic. When the cops arrive to ask what happened, she says "I know all about it" and recounts the flashback that comprises the rest of the film, even though she's not in half the scenes.

It's the story of a Czech refugee, fresh from a Nazi camp for unspecified reasons, who believes his brother (Tom Conway, Sanders' real brother) has stolen his money and his girlfriend. In a fit of cold-blooded rage, he betrays his brother to the police (thus killing him) and makes his way to America, where it takes him five minutes to amass a fortune on the stock market thanks to a web of coincidence, chutzpah and larceny. Most of the film recounts his machinations with beady-eyed glee, from his various flirtations to the swindle that causes countless investors to lose their money while he stays rich. In other words, it hasn't dated at all.

The resolution is unconvincing for many reasons, but it doesn't matter. We've had our fun. If you look closely, there's something here about Old World corruption and moral bankruptcy transferred to postwar America, with the brutal tactics of fascism supplanted by the tender mercies of the market. Many sources report that the film is inspired by shady manipulator Serge Rubenstein, whose unsolved murder made headlines the previous year.

This is by far the most distinguished film of writer-producer-director Charles Martin. His script discreetly ignores holes and conveniences by papering them over with clever dialogue and cleverer playing. His style is sleek enough, with several crane shots up and down Sabourin's curving staircase (thanks to cinematographer James Wong Howe) to echo our anti-hero's rises and falls amid Max Steiner's romantic scoring. The movie is freshly available on-demand from Warner Archives.

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