Velikiy uteshitel / The Great Consoler (1933, USSR)
This is not a film to watch during a pandemic. Much of the action takes place in a shared cell, in which one of the prisoners is coughing and spluttering and dying from tuberculosis. No-one is wearing a mask, no-one practises social distancing (although the cell is admittedly very roomy), the prison is not locked down, and a major outbreak looms. But there are other, (intended) horrors which make this an interesting early talkie.
We’re used to seeing Hollywood depictions of life in other countries, with all the characters conveniently speaking English. It’s not so common to see films like this one – a Soviet depiction of life in America. Or life in and around an American jail, in 1899, with all the characters speaking Russian.
The story is wrapped around some true-life biographical details of the short-story writer O Henry, who, under his real name of Bill Porter, was imprisoned for embezzlement at a Texan bank where he was a bookkeeper. (The film has him innocent, blaming sloppy management practices for the missing money, around $1,000. What it doesn’t show is him fleeing the country to live in Honduras rather than face trial, and only returning to his wife and daughter when his wife was dying, stricken with TB, and then surrendering to the court – the actions of a guilty man, you’d think, or someone who really didn’t fancy his chances of acquittal).
For the whole of the film, Bill (Konstantin Khokhlov), is in the Ohio Penitentiary – where he lives very comfortably. He is the dispensary attendant, is not housed with the other prisoners, and gets to write when he’s not dispensing medication on his own or drinking medicinal wine. His warden (Vasili Kovrigin) seems benign and approachable, and is something of a patron; Bill shares his literary works with him and the warden spoils him with cigars and whiskey.
Bill advocates for his friend Jimmy Valentine (Ivan Novoseltsev), who has been in prison for 16 years and is the one afflicted with TB, to move to better quarters. But Jimmy has just taken the blame for a cut bar in his cell window that was the handiwork of another prisoner, Al (Andrei Gorchilin), and, although sick, is beaten by the guards. “Why did you do that?” he’s asked. “I wanted to do something consoling,” he says. Al does the honourable thing (albeit a bit late) and comes clean to prevent Jimmy from having to unfairly wear the escape bid. Meanwhile, Jimmy’s elderly mother tries desperately to see him after 16 years; it is all in vain, however, and her request is rejected brutally and arbitrarily.
Out of the blue a detective, Ben Price (Andrey Fayt), approaches the warden to see if there is anyone in the prison who can break into a safe without explosives: a banker, Adams, has absconded with $2m and there are some documents inside the safe that the investigators want to retrieve, intact. Bill nominates the ailing Jimmy, who has perfected a way safe-breaking that involves filing down his fingertips and not much more. Jimmy is approached and promised release if he can open the safe. He does the job. Hooray! The authorities renege on the deal, and tell him that he will never be released. Boo!
Betrayed, bloody-handed Jimmy returns to the prison, shattered. Bill, full of righteous anger, sees the warden to protest, but is waved away and given a box of cigars, a promotion, and bottle of whiskey to buy his silence. Maybe the warden wasn’t quite so benign. His silence thus bought, Bill reflects on his cowardice. Jimmy, broken, promptly dies. Al and the third prisoner in the cell, an unnamed African American (Weyland Rodd) riot (well, riot as much as they within the confines of their cell), in support of their friend.
In short, a straightforward and not so uncommon theme; the little people almost always acting nobly and honourably, the powerful doing the opposite.
But inserted into this main story – dropped, stylistically, right in the middle of it – are a couple of others. A woman, Dulcie (Aleksandra Khokhlova), who voraciously consumes O Henry stories and adores the nobility of his heroes, tries to resist the sexual advances of Detective Price. He gets her fired so that she is dependent on him, then treats her as a prostitute. Not nice at all. And then, like a dream sequence, one of O Henry’s stories, A Retrieved Reformation, is played out; a film within a film. A silent film, no less, it concerns a safecracker, Jimmy Valentine, who sets himself up as a shoemaker, Ralph Spenser (Novoseltsev), in a new town in order to get close to a bank vault, but he falls for the banker Adams’ daughter, and is about to sell the tools of his trade to another when Adams’ granddaughter gets trapped inside the safe. Spenser has to reveal himself as a safecracker as he saves the girl. He expects to be recognised and exposed by the police, but is allowed to carry on, his good deed rewarded. The outmodedness of the silent film suggests that such a generous, optimistic view of the world is a thing of the past… and we are soon brought back to the reality of officialdom in the present day acting deplorably and without honour.
Is it, like The Ghost That Never Returns (1929), a sly critique of the Soviet regime under the guise of a film about another country, or a not-so-sly commentary on the United States? Both, maybe?
Perhaps it matters little. For me, the interest in the film lies not so much in the political parallels, but in the complex characterisations of Bill and the Warden and their unusual relationship. Bill is ‘the great consoler’ of the title but finds it easier to endow his fictional characters with principle than be that person himself. And the Warden (who incidentally has one of the great prison moustaches), seems obliging, complaisant – is overly solicitous, if anything, in Bill’s company – until he isn’t, when he very effectively stifles Bill’s protests and very firmly aligns himself with those who tread on the noble downtrodden.
Worth checking out. After the pandemic.
Posted on September 27th, 2020 at 10:58 pm. Updated on September 27th, 2020 at 10:58 pm.
#277 in the Top 500