Saturday, January 27, 2018

Death of a Scoundrel

TCM ran Death of a Scoundrel a few months back, and I finally got around to watching it off my DVR so I could do a full-length post on it here. It was distributed by RKO, so it's available on DVD courtesy of the Warner Archive.

The movie starts off with a bang. Bridget Kelly (Yvonne de Carlo) administrative assistant to the wealthy Clementi Sabourin (George Sanders), enters his house and demands to go up to his room, just knowing that he's been shot. Sure enough she opens the door to his bedroom, and finds that he's lying dead on his bed. Police are called in and Bridget is questioned, so she tells the whole story. Cue the flashback....

Some years back, Clementi was living in Czechoslovakia, having survived World War II and the concentration camps where he was interned for his criminal behavior. He'd left a girlfriend behind, and when he comes back to her, he finds that his brother (Tom Conway, Sanders' real-life brother) has married the girl! Clementi gains revenge by informing the authorities that his brother is dealing in black-market goods, so the authorities reward him by arresting the brother (who gets killed resisting arrest) and giving Clementi a (probably fake but this isn't really mentioned) French passport that will give the otherwise undesirable Sabourin a way out of the country.

Clementi arrives in America to find that a woman is picking the pocket of Wilson (Victor Jory), a man with whom Clementi had struk up a conversation aboard ship. Clementi follows the woman, who turns out to be Kelly, and plans to steal the wallet for himself. For his trouble, Clementi gets shot by Bridget's boyfriend. But Clementi gets treated with the new wonder drug penicillin, and since there's a cashier's check in the wallet, Clementi uses that to make a killing on the stock market investing in the company distributing the penicillin.

This is the first in a series of one fraud after another, blackmailing Bridget into working for him, as well as the stockbroker (John Hoyt), using a widow (Zsa Zsa Gabor, Sanders' ex-wife) as his personal slush fund more or less, and even getting control of Wilson's business out from under him. It goes on like this until returning home one night, he finds a gun pointed at him and at the other end of that gun... his ex-girlfriend/sister-in-law! Thanks to the Production Code, things spiral out of control from there.

Death of a Scoundrel is a wonderfully trashy movie. The plot is ludicrous, but the actors make it fun to watch. Sanders is a riot when he finds out that he actually made people money honestly for the first time, and delightfully hissable the rest of the time. De Carlo does well, although sometimes you wonder about her character's motivation. Gabor doesn't have a demanding part. The schemes Sanders comes up with are nuts and could never work in real life. Never mind their historical inaccuracy: penicillin, for example, was first mass-produced during World War II. Sabourin would never have gotten in on the ground floor.

But don't let wild historical inaccuracy dissaude you. Sit back with a bowl of popcorn and if you've got friends who like to yell at the screen at the idiocy, invite them. Death of a Scoundrel may become a guilty pleasure movie for you, too.

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