Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, and Hitchcock: The Motifs of Crime and Punishment on British, Russian and American Screen

Lily Alexander, University of Toronto

My presentation will focus on the three screen interpretations of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment: the two adaptations close to the text of the novel – Lev Kulidzhanov’s version of 1969, and Michael Darlow’s 2003 (BBC, UK), as well as Alfred Hitchcock’s original film Rope (1948), which is a direct reference to the novel.

My presentation will explore the interpretation of the relationships within the “symbolic triangle”: the victim(s), the transgressor(s), and the investigator, which are significantly different in the three cases under discussion. The styles of acting in the three films deserve special attention as they employed several outstanding actors and “movie stars.” The protagonist’s motivations, as well as social background also significantly differ, as well as the philosophy behind his criminal actions, as interpreted by the directors. In the context of dialog and polyphony, defined by Bakhtin as the central issues of Dostoevsky’s poetics, I will investigate the forms of the monological/dialogical in the three films. Each adaptation is closely connected with the ideological issues of its time, and place: United States at the end of WWII, Russia at the end of the Thaw, and Great Britain at the aftermath of the Thatcher’s era. All three films mark the transitional times of political change, and have their own – rather controversial - ideological agendas, which range from the liberal to conservative. The films challenge the philosophy of Nietzscheanism, but do so from three distinctively different platforms, referencing the political debates of their time, and using diverse nonverbal rhetoric to communicate their ideologies. The three film texts function as the subversive socio-political commentaries, using the complex symbolism of the novel to promote their messages.

The films are also very interesting in comparative analysis of their chronotopes: the interpretations of time and space. Two of the three adaptations have innovative and groundbreaking techniques of cinematography, carefully designed to represent both physical and psychological space (a room, an apartment, a city / a dream, a nightmare, a memory of the murder), in the context of the key ideas of the novel. The dynamics of space and movement – or in terms of method acting – the psychological goals behind the physical actions - plays an important role in all three films. The approaches to cinematic Time - screen dynamics, and psychological development - are also diverse in the works of the three directors. In conclusion, I will address complex relationships between the hero and the author, adding to this Bakhtinian topic the controversial dynamics between the “co-authors,” who in this case include the writer, and the director.