Can't Shake Stroheim!
Realizing it was hasty to call The Crime Of Dr. Crespi "risibly cheap," I dug for and found a Sinister Cinema DVD got a while back, but unwatched till now. Here is to confirm it's indeed cheap, abominably so, and maybe risible too, though 63 minutes passed easier than on many a larger budget occasion --- difference being those didn't have Erich von Stroheim as hypnotic lead. There are personalities, only a few, who can withstand basest vehicles. Lugosi was one ... Stroheim surely another. I'll watch him in any circumstance, most happily as a Dr. Crespi who's mad, murderous, and there for virtually every scene. Von was debased, it's true --- they called him Saturday to report on Monday and shot the mess in a week, according to Lenig's book. Was the money good? ... no one's reported as to that, but enough for a fortnight's groceries would probably have bought him. When a great actor gets a part sufficiently bad, he'll resort to whatever tricks are at disposal to lend something of gifts accumulated. For Stroheim, that means gaming with props, eccentric line reading, and even fluffing words that left me wondering if it's really a slip, Crespi-filmers too strapped to do it again, or Von putting us on a bit.
There's business, constant business, with cigarettes and lighting them. Blowing smoke every which way, practically spitting it out ... EvS plays fags like music accompaniment. Stills dating years back showed him working the ritual. Imagine time in front of mirrors to get smoking effects down, probably as much effort Von-applied here as Bill Fields put to juggling. I'll bet Stroheim arrived at no set, even Crespi's, without full retinue of cigarette case, shot glass, a monocle perhaps or some such to adorn his features. There's a ceremony he does with said glass, four times at least in Crespi, where a drink is poured, Von positions it, then slings back his head for the gulp. It's a trick he'd used before and would again in Grand Illusion, a performing signature seldom overlooked. Stroheim will begin dialogue quietly, then suddenly raise decibels to throw co-players (and us) off center. You never know where he's headed with a scene, being not one to play by convention. Was all this genius or self-centered posturing? EvS reminds me of a vaudevillian with an act down pat that wouldn't stand for much variation, but when it's an act so good as Stroheim's, who's kicking? (although he was brilliant when great writer/directors like Billy Wilder or Renoir took charge). I haven't heard of actors patterning selves after EvS. Anyone lacking that face and scarred forehead would be hard put to approximate him.
The Crime Of Dr. Crespi reminds me of outlaw sleaze like Maniac and Damaged Lives, back-dooring into theatres not on Code-approved lists, yet it did enjoy first-runs a promoting equivalent of higher-powered horrors out of Universal and elsewhere, as evidenced here. Did 1935 viewers feel rooked as most still do coming away from The Crime Of Dr. Crespi? For all its economies, there are creepy moments, made more so by Stroheim's Man You Love To Hate-fullness. Burial alive of one victim borrows from Vampyr, a show fewer would have seen when Crespi was new. Dwight Frye is along via unaccustomed "straight" casting, always tough sledding for this oddest of screen presences. Do other women like Frye as does my Ann? She'll sometimes do his Renfield laugh when time comes to unsettle me, and likes hearing the story of how he took Dwight Jr. to see Dracula and Frankenstein at the Regina (as Dwight Jr. once told it to me at an Arlington monster conclave). Forget about decent prints of The Crime Of Dr. Crespi. Sinister's looks to have been dragged out of graves of its own (still the best around, however), another cast-off defining what an "orphaned" movie is ...
More Erich von Stroheim at Greenbriar Archives: Stroheim's Sartorial Splendor, Stroheim's Wearing That Suit Again!, and Climb Aboard The Mutilation Express (Foolish Wives).