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Death of a Scoundrel (DVD Review)

9 Jan, 2012 By: Mike Clark

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
$19.95 DVD
Not rated.
Stars George Sanders, Yvonne De Carlo, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Victor Jory, Nancy Gates, Coleen Gray.

Sometime during my formative elementary school years, my all-knowing Grandmother Clark told me that of all the men Zsa Zsa Gabor had ever known, she rated third husband George Sanders as the stingiest — which, if true, would be something for a guy to put on his resume, considering the voluminous historical competition in Zsa’s knowledge/experience base.

Neither performer likely made much money off this late-in-the-game RKO release, which does a good job of concealing what had to be a frugal budget, thanks in part to its Max Steiner score and James Wong Howe cinematography (would that more of today’s minor movies hit in this league). Sanders and fast pacing, even over a full 120 minutes, carry the day — as does some intriguingly topical stock market finagling practiced by its fact-inspired protagonist. We are talking about real-life con man Serge Rubenstein, whose real-life 1955 murder was never solved after his body was found in the kind of posh New York apartment you’d expect a wheeler-dealer/femme magnet to have. The real Rubenstein ended up bound, gagged and strangled (an in silk pajamas, too), but here the fatal deed is more conventional. Sanders, as fictional stand-in Clementi Sabourin, is simply pumped full of lead. And this is no spoiler because the killing opens the movie, with only the assailant’s identity (not necessarily the one you’d expect) concealed until the end.

The quality of Sanders character gets established early when he informs on his brother (played by the actor’s real-life brother, Tom Conway), indirectly getting the poor guy killed by authorities amid a scheme to get out of post-World War II Czechoslovakia. Ravenous to bolt, Clementi is barely in America off the New York boat when he’s party to bilking a Canadian oil speculator — the prime bilker being a comely down-on-her-luck type (Yvonne De Carlo) “working the docks” with a male partner who soon gets fatally hit by a truck (give Clementi another assist). She eventually becomes the serial manipulator’s partner but (to her regret) never his lover.

There are other women around in addition to the one played by De Carlo — a decent enough actress despite her studio-imposed name and later “Munsters” baggage, a trouper who even emerged from Cecil B. De Mille’s gloriously over-the top The Ten Commandments (which opened the same month as Scoundrel) with dignity intact. We also get a glamorous moneybags widow played by Gabor (this a couple years after she and Sanders divorced in real life); a theatrical ingénue (Nancy Gates) who turns out to be Sabourin’s unconsummated true love; and another rich looker he manages to talk into adultery (Coleen Gray). By this time, Gray’s career was on the downside — but in its first decade, she was in Nightmare Alley, the original and far superior Kiss of Death, had that wonderful opening wagon train scene with John Wayne in Red River and watched the money fly away with Sterling Hayden in Kubrick’s The Killing — an embarrassingly richer career than Katherine Heigl will ever have right there. Later, I seem to recall Gray doing TV spots for 5 Day Deodorant Pads, a product I am amazed to see still exists. I will never forget Jack Paar saying, maybe 50 years ago, that though he didn’t want to be a snob about it but that most of his friends didn’t go five days without showering.

What our scoundrel does with stock manipulation gives the movie a little extra narrative oomph in these troubled times. There were probably a lot of people around who would have savored investing in penicillin right after the war, but this Sabourin actually does. With a stolen check. Which he then endorses to himself. Which he then manages to retrieve before it’s cashed and his forgery discovered — but not before he makes a windfall profit. Well, at least it’s a product that does more for international health than 5 Day Deodorant Pads.

In a career that included only a handful of features, Scoundrel writer-director Charles Martin also managed to become the only filmmaker who ever directed Guy Lombardo (1946’s No Leave, No Love) and a Blaxploitation pic (or precursor of the same) whose lead actress did a Playboy tie-in layout (1968’s If He Hollers, Let Him Go!). This Sanders showcase was probably his career high point, but maybe someday I’ll be able to give Hollers a fairer chance with added concentration. When I saw it theatrically, I was the only Caucasian in a large movie palace. And when some woman in the audience, reacting to on-screen action, shouted out, “Kill the white man!” — it kind of distracted me.

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