The Mad Bunk

As long as Mother Russia is in the hands of men with the word “putin” in their name, things well never go smoothly.

Pierre Chenal’s THE NIGHT THEY KILLED RASPUTIN is a late work and a bit of a Euro-pudding, so one should be merciful. I’m not going to be, but I will admit that one should. Actually the original title of this Franco-Italian co-concoction translates as NIGHTS OF RASPUTIN, which gives you a better sense of the intent — the movie wants to make Rasputin sexy, and I’m morally certain there’s a European print out there studded all over with nipples like barnacles on a hull.

But I only had the English dub, so I could enjoy John Drew Barrymore, usurping his father’s role as Prince Youssoupoff from RASPUTIN AND THE EMPRESS. Chenal and his co-scribes have rewritten Prince Y as a weakling, which explains why he’s so ineffectual through most of the story, and is certainly within JDB’s range as actor (was anything else?). But Y is only a small part in the film, where even the Tsarina (Gianna Maria Canale, either brilliantly dubbed or possessed of a convincing cut-glass accent) is almost a walk-on.

Chenal has had one great idea, and it’s to make Rasputin the hero. He is the story’s most interesting, amusing and competent character, so it actually works. The fact that he’s a terrible bastard makes him complicated and fun to be with. That single decision would make this a terrific movie, were it not for the casting of…

Can you imagine how bad Gregory Peck would be as Gregory Rasputin? All stiff and uncomfortable and trying to hard, glowering unconvincingly, putting on some kind of voice, waving his arms about? Now imagine…

Edmund Purdom.

Yes, Edmund “The Englishman has a hard-on!” Purdom. If you don’t know his work, I can’t explain, just picture Gregory Peck in a big beard and smock and then take away the… the… anything you can think of that might help him. I can’t actually think of a worse casting idea. A one-legged Dudley Moore as Tarzan would at least convince while he was swinging from a vine, sort of.

I asked a friend to suggest a terrible Rasputin, and he named Rod Steiger. But Rod, wherever you place him in your personal hamtheon, would have given it his all. And he would have had enough “all” to give, probably too much. You’d have felt discomfort, sure, but it wouldn’t all have been based on embarrassment and pity. Really, everybody would be better than Edmund Purdom. Jay Robinson? Hugely preferable. Wendy Craig? Interesting call. Joe Pesci? That could work. Mickey Rooney? Only if he played it Japanese.

Purdom tries to rise to the occasion, but he can’t lower himself. He rasps his voice trying to evoke something, and just comes off like he’s been dubbed. In fact, Purdom trying to act sounds exactly like those awful put-on voices you hear straining to do fifteen different voices in a badly-translated martial arts film, spaghetti western or porno.

The challenge of making Rasputin work as protagonist has still to be met, but Chenal at least demonstrates that the goal is a worthy one.

The movie has its moments, but most of them involve baroque print damage.

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21 Responses to “The Mad Bunk”

  1. John Drew Barrymore had a very sad life, but managed to produce several great performances in spite of it : While the City Sleeps and The Big Night being the most important. He wasn’t in his daughter’s life at all at its start. But Drew took care of her father at the last. She’s a lovely person and a very original talent — the full flowering of which we haven’t seen yet. (Her Edie Beale in the Grey Gardens TV movie was teriffic.)

  2. In fact, Prince Felix Youssoupoff and his wife Irina were leaders of the White Russian emigre community in Paris. They managed to escape the Bolsheviks with some of their fortune intact – and were renowned for their generosity to scores of refugees who were less fortunate.

    Prince Felix was also, allegedly, a flamboyant homosexual who swanned around Oxford (in his undergraduate days) wearing jewelled silk turbans and flowing fur capes. A bit like Liberace, but with infinitely more class. His initial encounter with Rasputin came when his family sent him to the holy man to ‘cure’ him of his unfortunate tendencies. Don’t worry…it didn’t work.

  3. That sounds more like Sabu in Black Narcissus than Liberace.

  4. Von Sternberg used to rock the silk turban look in Hollywood. Sadly that kind of dressing the part has fallen by the wayside.

  5. Waris is bringing it back!

  6. Pretty slick!

    I have a pair of special Directing Trousers but they don’t always work.

  7. Those Directing Trousers are on their last legs. Their powers are waning, just like the crotch. (and knees)

  8. Christopher Says:

    I’m glad there are others not impressed with el Peck….Dick Van Dyke as Rasputin!

  9. Joseph von Sternberg was a sulty Semitic dish. I think he would agree.

    Is this the beginning of Rasputin Week? Or just some spare Rasputin you found lying around?

  10. My crotch is NOT on the wane. Though admittedly my knees are in a shocking condition.

    Dick Van Dyke would be awfully good. I bet he could do that Russian squatting dance very well, with those legs of his (nothing wrong with the Van Dyke knees).

    Is that a typo of “sultry” or a typo of “slutty”?

    I seem to have written about a lot of Rasputin movies, so many that there may not be enough left for a week. But I do still intend to get around to Agonia, Rasputin the Mad Monk and Nicholas and Alexandria sometime. I’ve tried to watch the latter two several times and never made it. I only just realized who wrote the Chris Lee, and that explains the turgidity and lack of structure…

  11. The 1971 Nicholas and Alexandra is truly an ordeal! At one point, the Dowager Empress asks – “Is there anything more boring than a room full of Romanovs?” After 3 and half hours of this snore-fest, your answer has to be NO.

  12. I feel to drawn in by the lure of Tom Baker, but there’s all that pageantry in oppressively carpeted rooms to sit though.

  13. I meant sultry, but “sulty” is better.

  14. Christopher Says:

    No Romanov-Rasputin movie can hold a candle to the decades long myth that Anastasia still walked among us which in turn ignited the imagination of riches,ballrooms,madmen and imposters of yore..My heart literally broke when it was finally proven that the girl was killed afterall.

  15. It was a very powerful story, even though it never seemed exactly plausible. But it was obviously preferable aesthetically for it to be true, so one wanted to believe.

  16. kevin mummery Says:

    Timothy Carey would have been the Rasputin to end all Rasputins, I believe…maybe Liberace as Youssoupov, or would that be too extreme?

  17. Perhaps a tad. I’d LOVE to see Carey play R though. He’s one of those guys who Brings The Entertainment, every time.

  18. There were even theories floating about that the entire Romanov family had, in fact, survived – and their execution was just a PR stunt to convince the Russian people they were dead and the old order was never coming back!

    All totally implausible, of course. Although I do seem to remember that, when the bodies were exhumed, there were only three corpses of young girls…and Nicholas and Alexandra had four daughters.

  19. Yeah, but one was boneless due to inbreeding so no remains were left.

    Possibly.

  20. david wingrove Says:

    Let’s just say the bloodline was highly selective.

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