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…
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.