Death of a Scoundrel (1956)
Written, directed, and produced by Charles Martin
Music by Max Steiner
Cinematography by James Wong Howe
Stars: George Sanders, Yvonne De Carlo, Zsa Zsa Gabor, John Hoyt, Tom Conway, Werner Klemperer
“He was the most hated man on earth, but he could have been one of the great men in history. He was a genius.”
“Finance is the basis of most relationships, don’t you agree?”
While lazily using Google to try and find an address during my recent visit to Manhattan, I noticed that an adjacent address was notable not for its architecture but as the home of a legendary New York scoundrel.
The controversial financier Serge Rubinstein bought the Bache house in 1944. He had angered various governments with his currency manipulations and shady accounting. But it was a conviction for draft evasion that resulted in different living quarters — two years at Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary.
In 1955 he was found in the town house dead in his silk pajamas, his hands bound. The murder was never solved. Mr. Rubinstein had many enemies; Time magazine quoted a reporter as saying, “They’ve narrowed the list of suspects down to 10,000.”
“Hmm,” I said to myself – as I often do, during the day – and went about my business. That evening, however, as I was back at the shabby chic hotel, browsing the cable channel guide in search of some comforting viewing – as I often do, during the evening – a listing appeared on TCM for a film that I vaguely recalled watching a bit of several years ago, and everything fell into place: why that item had caught my eye, and why in turn this TV listing did.
The American Film Institute website points out that when Death of a Scoundrel was released,
Reviews noted the resemblance between “Clementi Sabourin” and real-life New York financier Serge Rubinstein, an amoral, Russian-born immigrant who had a genius for manipulating money. Rubinstein, a renowned playboy and swindler, was convicted of evading the draft in 1947. He was murdered in Jan 1955, and although an intensive investigation followed, the killer was never identified.
A little more research turned up a “true crime” account that I think you’ll find worth quoting in full:
He was the son of Dimitri Rubinstein financial lender of Tsar Nicolas II of Russia. During the revolution of 1917, his family fled the country with a fortune in diamonds. They sewed the gems into the lining of their jackets. They then settled in England where Serge studied economics at the University of Cambridge. Rubinstein became an unscrupulous financier in Europe and then in the United States. Serge Rubinstein was Napoleonic in size and ambition. He sought wealth and believed rules applied to everyone except him. He was a swindler and blackmailer nonpareil, and though many people suspected this, he had the veneer of manners and requisite pocketful of cash to blend with the upper crust. He was a convicted draft dodger, but when it came to fighting women, he was a real tough guy. He beat his first wife unconscious and ripped off her clothes. He used his money to attract models, always dating several at once, yet insisted on fidelity from all of them. He bugged their apartments to be sure they complied. In summation, Serge Rubinstein was a bad guy.
No surprise, then, that in January 1955 he was found strangled on the floor of his palatial Manhattan flat. Police first believed he’d been tortured for the purpose of revenge or for extracting business secrets. Then they started thinking it was a kidnapping gone wrong. The last person to see Rubinstein alive was one of his girlfriends, Estelle Gardner, but she had left his apartment around 1:30 a.m. Around 2:30 a.m. Rubinstein had called another girlfriend named Patricia Wray, but she had declined his invitation to come over. The apartment was protected by heavy doors and iron bars, which meant a key, had been used to gain entry. Rubinstein gave keys to staff and girlfriends. All were questioned and all were cleared. A year after the murder, police were still baffled.
Unsolved cases are always a risk to devolve into a sideshow, and this one followed form when Rubinstein’s mother contacted a well-known medium named Hans Holzer because she believed her son was haunting his old apartment. Holzer staged a séance and claimed that Rubinstein’s spirit had supplied the names of his killers. He passed the info to the police, but no arrests were made, because, list or no list, there were simply too many suspects and too little physical evidence. The murder went from sideshow to show biz, when it inspired the 1956 motion picture Death of a Scoundrel, starring George Sanders. The tagline could have been Rubinstein’s epitaph: Men, women… he used them, ruined them on his fantastic march to self-destruction. But even the revival of interest sparked by the movie produced no new leads. Eventually, the murder was forgotten. Serge Rubinstein’s killing was just another cold case, and his life was an example of how bad habits can produce fatal consequences.
Now that’s a picture I’ve got to see! And I think you’ll probably like to waste a couple spare hours on it as well.
DoS is one of those great B pictures that’s not quite an A picture, but provides its own kind of strange appeal. Though “ripped from the headlines,” the actual production manages to simulate the experience of several classic films. A black and white picture from RKO that explores, through flashbacks, the life of a rich prick who’s already dead when the film starts, with cinematography by a Hollywood legend, it’s not quite Citizen Kane. The same elements might suggest 1950’s Sunset Boulevard; and the presence of George Sanders can’t help but recall the same year’s All About Eve.
There are, generally, two things interesting about this movie: what’s in the picture, and what’s not.
DoS is clearly a B picture – despite moving the action from post-war Czechoslovakia to mid-century modern New York to Canada’s financial center, Bay Street, Toronto, it’s clearly set-bound, other than some rear-projection to suggest driving through New York.
Oh, but what fills those sets! To start with, there’s the cast, topped by George Sanders, obviously still an A-list star, what with that Oscar™ for a rather similar role in All About Eve, only this time instead of narrating about Eve, he gets to play Ever herself, with some lesser character handling the narration.
And there’s a lot to narrate: George sinks his teeth into the aforementioned studio scenery as Despicable Serge breaks hearts and lifts wallets all the way to the top, and beyond. It may not be his best performance, but it’s no surprise it was reputed to be Sanders’ favorite, as he may not be “acting” at all so much as letting his well-known streak of Total Bastard have full reign.
The rest of the cast is decidedly B, but unfailingly interesting in several ways. Sanders’ brother is played by – Sanders’ look-alike, talk-alike brother, Tom Conway.
Then there’s one of Sabourin’s victim/lovers, played by Sanders’ recently ex-wife, Zsa Zsa Gabor.
Rounding out the cast are a plethora of later TV icons: there’s Yvonne De Carlo, Lily Munster herself, giving a great performance as Sabourin’s accomplice and wanna-be lover; and Werner Klemperer as his attorney (when Clem calls him in the middle of the night one expects the rudely awoken lawyer to bellow “Hoo-gaaan!” into the receiver). There’s even a juicy bit for John Hoyt, familiar to fans of the Twilight Zone for his roles in the episodes “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?” (Serling’s narration describes him perfectly as “a bitter dandy”) and “The Lateness of the Hour.”
The script handles the usual B and noir-ish elements of coincidence – lifted wallets, counter-signed checks, long-lost relatives – with aplomb and some cleverness; for instance, there’s an improbable but interesting moment when Clem, intent on seducing an ingénue, a la All About Eve, contrives to get her cast in a play. It’s not until the Connecticut tryout that he discovers the play includes a plot point of a rich theatrical seducer whom the leading lady turns down flat (I guess Clem never bothered to look at the script); after having to sit through this in the audience (to de Carlo’s undisguised amusement) the same scene is later played out in real life (in effect, she’s rehearsed the role!)
To top it off, those aforementioned sets are filmed to maximum effect by the legendary cinematographer James Wong Howe – crane shots up and down Sabourin’s massive spiral staircase trace his rise and fall — and Max Steiner himself contributes one of his epic scores; it may be a B picture, but every character has his own Wagnerian leitmotif.
All this cinematic goodness is written, produced, and director by that Wellesian doppelganger, Charles Martin.
Who is this Charles Martin? Certainly not the runt from The Untouchables (Charles Martin Smith). Nor is he Charles Martin “Professor of English Emeritus at Queensborough Community College at the City University of New York,” no matter what Google says.
In fact, information on Mr. Martin is surprisingly sparse; even the Internet Movie Database provides only birth and death dates, besides a list of credits.
Martin wrote, director or produced a dozen or so films, although this is the only time he combined all three roles. The rest of his filmography suggests someone with a knack for jumping on a bandwagon.
One Man Jury, for instance, seems to combine Dirty Harry with Death Wish; If He Hollers… combines the Oscar™-baiting In the Heat of the Night with the lesser genre of blacksploitation. There there’s an Ed Wood-type descent into 70s-style sexy trash like How to Seduce a Woman; and Sweet Smell of Sex.
Nothing, in short, to suggest either the relative skill shown in the movie under review, or even how Martin managed, or was allowed, to put together for one time only such a cast and crew. Another Hollywood mystery to be solved!
Now, I said there were two things interesting here, what was in the movie and what wasn’t. What wasn’t is something of a Hollywood mystery as well, or rather, an example of Hollywood crypsis.
Remember this above:
Reviews noted the resemblance between “Clementi Sabourin” and real-life New York financier Serge Rubinstein, an amoral, Russian-born immigrant who had a genius for manipulating money.
Now, it would be gross racism and stereotyping to the nth degree to infer that a Russian-born immigrant who had a genius for manipulating money, who just happened to be named Rubinstein, was of a particular race.
So, let’s ask his rabbi, or at least the rabbi who performed the funeral:
At his funeral, rabbi Dr. Julius Mark of Temple Emanu-El made this assessment of Rubinstein’s life:
The word ‘paradox’ best describes the strangely complex, ambiguous and unquestioned psychopathic personality of Serge Rubinstein. He possessed a brilliant mind but was utterly lacking in wisdom. He had a genius for acquiring wealth, yet never learned that money is a good servant but a harsh master. He wanted friends and never had them, since he never seemed to realize that to have friends one must be a friend. He wanted love, but never knew that love must be earned, and cannot be bought. He declared that America was the finest of all countries, yet stubbornly scorned those who pleaded with him to answer America’s call to service. These remarks generated some controversy but were defended by other clergy.
Project much, Rabbi? For though the personality so described is surely “paradoxical,” it is not paradoxical that Rubinstein should have, nevertheless, been one of the Chosen, as the Rabbi wants to insinuate. Indeed, just this very constellation of traits has been recently characterized as ashkepathy:
The Hoaxin’ have on average a much higher incidence of both the genes which predispose to paranoia and the genes which predispose to psychopathy and aggression.
This gene combination appears to be stunningly effective at boosting IQ test scores and presumably the material success (and possibly sexual success, at least for the males — any reader have a study I could cite here?) of the people possessing it, but it comes at a great cost to the society in which this kind of person is numerically and socially significant.
The personality trait combination of high anxiety with high aggression/psychopathy is rare among human groups, and really deserves its own categorization: ashkepathy. On the B5 inventory, a person with ashkepathy would score high on Neuroticism and low on Agreeableness. There aren’t many studies specifically examining the Ashkenazi personality profile which could corroborate the emerging genetic evidence of a distinct Ashkenazi personality, but one study did find that Jews have a higher overall “General Factor of Personality”, which showed moderately higher levels of Neuroticism and (oddly) slightly higher Agreeableness.
All this, of course, is carefully hidden away in this Hollywood production, starting with “Clemenit Sabourini” as played by George Sanders. Sanders was literally born to play the role, since not only does it suit his off-screen personality, he was, like Rubinstein, born in Russia, despite his echt-British demeanor.
But, like the black enamel coating acquired by the Maltese Falcon, even the most anodyne sources can see something is up. Someone at a site called Pop Matters says:
It’s the story of a Czech refugee, fresh from a Nazi camp for unspecified reasons, who believes his brother (Tom Conway, Sanders’ real brother) has stolen his money and his girlfriend. In a fit of cold-blooded rage, he betrays his brother to the police (thus killing him) and makes his way to America, where it takes him five minutes to amass a fortune on the stock market thanks to a web of coincidence, chutzpah and larceny. Most of the film recounts his machinations with beady-eyed glee, from his various flirtations to the swindle that causes countless investors to lose their money while he stays rich. In other words, it hasn’t dated at all.
If you look closely, there’s something here about Old World corruption and moral bankruptcy transferred to postwar America, with the brutal tactics of fascism supplanted by the tender mercies of the market.
“Old World corruption”? Yes, “Clementi Sabourni” as played by Sanders is a “old world” figure, a poisoned bit of marzipan, right out of The Third Man (Welles again!). When I think of financial swindlers, I think of checks – I mean, Czechs. Especially the ones with those hoity-toity accents.
And in a typical touch, Sabourni is assisted by his second-generation Irish immigrant pals, “Bridget Kelley” (de Carlo) and one known only as “Mr O’Hara” (tells you all you need to know). Thus is the WASP’s suspicions deflected to his hereditary foe, the dishonest Micks.
As another reviewer ingenuously points out:
Overlong and repetitive, the action follows Sanders as he treads the familiar path from stony-broke immigrant to spendthrift playboy – movie moguls never tire of telling us that America was the land of opportunity.
And we know who those “moguls” are, don’t we?
Death of a Scoundrel is definitely a guilty pleasure, but a pleasure nonetheless. TCM’s website says that “While Death of a Scoundrel is no masterpiece compared to Citizen Kane, it’s still enormously entertaining trash,” but strives for significance by observing that,
In many ways, Sanders’ cynical attitude toward romance shares a philosophical link with the cinema of German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder where love is often viewed as a master-slave relationship between two individuals.
Why not drag Hegel in too? Or Marx – wait, don’t bring him up. But forget Fassbinder; the significance lies in its hidden in plain sight exemplification of ethnic crypsis.
 A story in itself: “Rubinstein made extensive attempts to avoid the draft during World War II. He claimed that he was the sole support for seven dependents, with only a relatively low income. (He had married in 1941 to Laurette Kilbourne and they had two children, Alexandria and Dianna.) He also claimed that he worked for vital defense industries. Later, he claimed as a Portuguese citizen from a neutral country, that he could not serve in the United States armed forces. He was indicted for lying about his income to the draft board, when he claimed he only earned $11,000 in 1940, but actually earned $337,000. He was convicted as a draft evader and served two years in the federal penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania from 1947 to 1949.” – Wikipedia, here.
 Itself, apparently “inspired” by an hour-long TV documentary in 1955.
 In addition to online streaming, Amazon.com now makes copies of this DVD, on demand, at a typical price, and it otherwise belongs to Warner Bros., which somehow took it over from RKO Radio Pictures. So far, Warner Bros. seems OK with this setup. Incredibly, there was a laserdisc release, also available from Amazon.
 Always good to see my Canadian cousins get a shout out!
 While Welles assumed he needed multiple narrators to convey all the needed information, writer-director Martin, in true B fashion, solves the problem by just ignoring it, letting De Carlo narrate the everything, whether she was there or not, and even the Czech scenes before she meets him.
 He’s not entirely one-dimensional, though, which does give Sanders some room to “act.” The New York Times noted in its original review that “It should be mentioned, however, that the scenarist-director apparently was not certain whether to make his central character a complete villain or merely a dastard with some decency. As the story is unfolded in flashback, he is shown as being contrite on occasion. He begs for his mother’s forgiveness although he has wounded her to the quick. He changes his mind about ruining the career of the decorative young actress who spurned his advances. And he does an about-face in admitting that he loves the girl he dragged from the gutter to financial respectability. In short, it is often difficult to ascertain whether our “scoundrel” really deserves that designation.”
 The brothers had previously appeared – again, as brothers – in The Falcon’s Brother (1942), part of George’s successful run as suave film sleuth The Falcon (which Leslie Charteris, creator of The Saint, called “a bargain-basement imitation”), after which Conway took over the role. Conway later played The Saint on radio, which Sanders had already played in his own series of films before The Falcon. By 1956, his career had declined to the point of appearing in The She Creature (ironically, with Chester Morris, who had had his own brief career as a film sleuth, Boston Blackie, during the same period as Conway’s Falcon), later found worthy of appearing on Mystery Science Theater. The filmmakers must have thought his undisguised British accent signaled upper class, though he’s apparently playing an American. When Conway gives Morris his hard-nosed marketing philosophy – “Hit ‘em and hit ‘em hard!” – in accents of a Cambridge don, Mike Nelson exclaims “Lord Knute Rockne!”
 Another link to Welles, through Touch of Evil. Sanders later married one of her sisters.
 A search for Charles Martin pulls up a little sidebar on Google, which gives this guy the birth and death dates of our Martin, along with “people also search for” suggestions of our guy’s movies and their stars.
 Perhaps a return to form, suggesting the 50s hit Sweet Smell of Success?
 “In 1840 it appeared in Paris. It had by then acquired a coat of black enamel so that it looked like nothing more than a fairly interesting black statuette. In that disguise, sir, it was, you might say, kicked around Paris for more than three score years, by private owners too stupid to see what it was under the skin. Then in 1923, a Greek dealer named Charilaos Konstantinides found it in an obscure shop. No thickness of enamel could conceal value from his eyes. You begin to believe me a little?” Kasper Gutman, The Maltese Falcon (Huston, 1941). Gutman is another Judaic conman under a thick coating of British upper-class voice and mannerisms.
 No doubt a reference to Tribesman Madoff.
 An absurd, made-up name, it seems to me; typically, online reviewers seem confused about the spelling and even nationality, many naturalizing it to Sabourini or such, but the credits and in-film headlines have it as Sabourin.
 Though, absurdly, played by John Hoyt, another echt-WASP who was born John McArthur Hoysradt in Bronxville, New York, the son of Warren J. Hoysradt, an investment banker, and his wife, Ethel Hoysradt, née Wolf. He attended the Hotchkiss School and Yale University, where he served on the editorial board of campus humor magazine The Yale Record. He obtained a bachelor’s and a master’s degree from Yale. He worked as a history instructor at the Groton School for two years. He was a talented imitator (crypsis!) and his impression of Noël Coward got him the starring role in the Broadway version of The Man Who Came to Dinner.
 It’s a trope with a long history and long legs; 60 years after DoS, the producers of Mad Men present their Tribesmen as plucky, put-upon outsiders, while the Jewish takeover of advertising is presented in the form of an Irish agency, McCann (Leif?) Erickson. For more on crypsis in Mad Men, see James J. O’Meara: The End of an Era: Mad Men and the Ordeal of Civility (San Francisco: Counter-Currents, 2015).