Crime and Punishment, U.S.A. (1959)

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One of the greatest things about the Warner Archives series is that it encourages film fans to take another look at films that aren’t talked about a great deal and yet can still entertain and pack a punch just as well as their better-known counterparts.  Crime and Punishment, U.S.A. is a case in point.

Starring George Hamilton, the films takes Dostoevsky’s classic tale and transplants it in America in the late 1950s in what is a rather loose adaptation.  Hamilton, in his first film role, plays Robert Cole, a young law student who murders a woman and then finds it difficult to deal with the consequences – both the suspicion towards him from the police and his own conscience.

It’s all been done before, of course, and since, and yet this take on the story manages to be entertaining, and Hamilton’s performance is almost hypnotic.  Somehow, he manages to take what should be a highly unlikeable character and makes the audience care about him.  We know early on, from when he tries to help a man having a heart attack, that he has redeeming features, for example.  In some ways, he’s just yet another “mixed up kid” from the 1950s that could have been played by James Dean, Sal Mineo, James MacArthur or any number of other young actors of the decade.  And yet there is something more going on.  This is, more than anything, a character study – there really isn’t much story going on as such – and Hamilton manages to make his character believable.  Sure, there are times when he appears to overact, but for a first film role his performance is impressive, and Hamilton won a Golden Globe for most promising newcomer for his efforts.

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This was Denis Sanders’ first feature film as director, and he comes across as a talented thirty year old here.  There are some sequences that look a little cliched, but others have an urgency and vibrancy which don’t reflect his relative lack of experience.   However, he had already won an Academy Award five years earlier for the short film A Time Out of War, and so his talent was never really in question.  But, despite another Oscar for a later documentary, Sanders never seemed to fulfil his potential.  Crime and Punishment should have been the start of a fine career in film, and yet odd to a slightly bizarre resume, often with several years between projects and jumping from feature films to documentaries to TV episodes with little rhyme or reason.  Perhaps he is best known now for the cult film Shock Corridor and the documentary Elvis: That’s the Way It Is.  I confess I haven’t seen Shock Corridor in a number of years, but one watches That’s the Way It Is and wonders what happened to all the promise shown in his first feature film ten years earlier.  The Elvis documentary is well-regarded because of Elvis’s fine performances, but not for Sanders’ pedestrian direction or the the sometimes sloppy editing.

Oddly, though, if Sanders never fulfilled his potential, neither did Hamilton.  Despite his fine performance here, he never really hit A-list status in Hollywood and, looks and talent notwithstanding, by the mid-60s he had drifted into television work and, for the most part, continues to work in that medium today.

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