Death of a Scoundrel
George Sanders playing a rotter, a cad, a bounder, a scoundrel? Surely not. Less typically, he plays a character by the name of Clementi Sabourin. Not for Sanders, attempting an elaborate accent, though. Sabourin may be Czech, but he went to school at Oxford. So he sounds exactly like George Sanders. If Death of a Scoundrel ultimately pulls its punches (a sign of the era in which it was made) and spells out its message for anyone who may have mystifyingly failed to grasp it, its scenario of a corporate tycoon doing anything he likes to get ahead, personally and professionally, is entirely topical.
Writer-director Charles Martin fashions his tale as a flashback (the title’s a bit of a give-away of how this all turns out, so it was probably a wise move), with Sabourin found dead in his mansion and secretary Bridget telling the police the tale of his rise; from refugee to hated super-rich. Other films of the era have gone the tale-told route with more craftsmanship (D.O.A., Sunset Boulevard) but Martin compensates for the lack of finesse with a incident-packed plot. We’re never more than a minute or two away from Sabourin’s next act of philandering or queasy business deal. And, because we’re so used to Sanders as the sly old fox who exudes superiority over anyone else in the room, we don’t doubt that his schemes will pull off, no matter how much plate spinning is required in the process. Sanders is less comfortable on emotional terrain; it isn’t really his forte, and you look forward to his getting through the turmoil towards the next acid put-down.
If Martin succeeds with his script (albeit asking us to swallow a number of unlikely coincidences), he is less successful as a director. I’m not familiar with any of the other five films he helmed, but there were another twelve years between this and his subsequent picture. His shots are static and theatrical; even with the RKO banner suggesting decades past (they would only be distributing films for another year after this), the look suggest a picture from another era, not the mid-50s. That might be partly down to a Spartan budget, but Martin fails to imbue compensating atmosphere.
The too-good-to-be-true rise of Sabourin is almost a satire of criminal enterprise. He uses a stolen cheque to vouch his first stock market sweep (itself a result of a lucky conversation with a doctor extracting a bullet from his side; a little miracle called penicillin is mentioned), and then employs the blackmailing O’Hara as a partner. He habitually shows generosity to those he takes for a ride; when he uses underhand means to buy up stock in an oilman’s company, he sweetens the bitter pill by giving him a position on the board. Then, when he successfully manipulates the share price by announcing a fake oil strike, he is distraught to learn that, having sold his shares, an actual strike occurred (“To think that I told a lie and it turned out to be the truth!”) Later, he sets up a shell company called Suboranium and buys a plot of land; he hasn’t found any uranium, he just wants the market to believe he has.
It’s this kind of behaviour that puts one in mind of a precursor to Gordon Gekko. Sabourin was based on Serge Rubinstein, a millionaire playboy and all-round bad egg who was found murdered (strangled) the year before Death… was released. He had a raft of female companions whom he treated appallingly, was a skilled blackmailer and left a vast list of suspects that included his own mother (“They’ve narrowed the suspects down to 10,000”). Rubinstein fancied himself as a latter-day Napoleon and, like Sabourin, was skilled at playing the markets to unscrupulous effect. Like Sabourin, Rubinstein had his mother installed in his house (although Sabourin’s move is a late-stage desperate end game to prevent his deportation – something with which Rubinstein was also threatened). And, like Clementi, Rubinstein went to Oxbridge (Cambridge; should I take back what I said about Sanders’ suitability?) Rubinstein’s background is so colourful it scarcely needs fictionalising; his father was financial advisor to Rasputin and Serge was a refugee of the Bolshevik revolution. One aspect the movie misses is Rubinstein’s ascendancy amongst the political classes; perhaps intimating at corruption at that level was out of bounds?
If the wheeler sustains Sabourin’s, his dalliances provide his entertainment. Leading the lovelies is Yvonne De Carlo as Bridget; De Carlo firmly embedded herself on the popular consciousness a few years later as Lilly Munster. While I recognised her, I couldn’t place her as The Munsters matriarch (the plastered make-up is probably the reason why). Bridget is sassy and hard-talking, disguising that de rigueur soft interior and her unrequited affection for the boss (Clementi starts off coming on to her – “You’d make a fascinating course in anatomy” – but it’s merely a means to pursue his financial goals). Unlike Sabourin she has a moral compass, which leads to both spluttering invective from Sanders (“Don’t you moralise with me, you tramp!”, “You’ll be joining the Salvation Army next”) and her amusement when Sabourin’s tactics go tits up. He plans out the acting career of a young ingénue, but first night turns into a sub-Claudius experience as the content of the piece plays the conscience of the king (the champagne-fuelled seduction Sabourin plans is virtually the same as the one he and Bridget see rehearsed on stage). Her amusement at his squirming unleashes a succession of pointed quips (“Did you write this play?”, “He’s doing your job for you” she says of the lead actor, spurned by Stephanie).
The rising starlet plotline is over-familiar, but provides a pointed reminder that Sabourin can buy almost anything except someone’s heart. It’s just that the interactions are heavy-handed and Nancy Gates doesn’t have the presence (or characterisation) to invite sympathy. Sabourin flippantly begins his escapade as a fait accompli (“See, you don’t understand. She’s a nice girl. She’s clean and wholesome – I might even marry her”), but his eventual reversal of the cruel punishment he inflicts on Stephanie for spurning him is a softening too far (particularly when he’s simultaneously engaged in an arch-manipulation of his mother).
He also forms attachments to a rich widow, Mrs Ryan. She’s played by Zsa Zsa Gabor, back before she was old and crazy. This was just a couple of years after her brief marriage to Sanders. You don’t expect an acting master class from Gabor, but she most certainly has presence and she elicits one of Sanders’ best lines (“Well, I always admire someone who can outsmart me”).
Coleen Gray, who appeared in The Killing for Stanley Kubrick the same year, is the object of Sabourin’s plot to take control of her husband’s company and again, it’s the sparkling dialogue that you remember.
Edith: I’m taken.
Sabourin: Well, I don’t want to take. I just want to borrow.
Rounding out the womenfolk are Celia Lovsky as Clementi’s stricken mother, who discovers that her son only invited her back into his life in order to use her, and Lise Ferraday as his vengeful sister-in-law (and one-time fiancé). Early on we see Sabourin, escaped from a concentration camp (a backstory that doesn’t really mesh with Sanders’ natural persona), learn that his brother married his intended under the assumption that he was dead. Clementi delivers Gerry (played by Sanders’ brother Tom Conway) to the police. His spite has unintended consequences when the police get jolly beaty on him (“He died. It was one of those unfortunate things”; very deadpan). This is intended to underpin his eventual reversal, but it’s a character note that doesn’t quite gel. Also guesting are Werner Klemperer (Colonel Klink in Hogan’s Heroes) as Clementi’s lawyer and John Hoyt as O’Hara, his business partner.
The problem in the closing stages is the need for Hayes Code-era repentance. The camera focuses on a placard bearing the Biblical verse “What shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul?”, and Sabourin’s desperate “I need your forgiveness” as his own mortality looms, is overkill and unmeshes the convincing immorality of his earlier behaviour.
But the key to an anti-hero tale like this is to make you root for the villain; it’s a trick Michael Douglas pulled off in Wall Street by virtue of being the most powerful presence on the screen. Sanders’ brand of magnetism is a different property; he is purringly seductive, and more than compensates for being a little too old for the role. It’s Sanders charisma that carries Death of a Scoundrel, but credit is also due to Martin’s witty dialogue and tricky stratagems; mostly they ease us through the bare production values and lacklustre direction.