Thursday, 16 September 2010

Alexey Batalov: The Overcoat - Шинель (1959)

Director: Aleksey Batalov
Writers: Nikolai Gogol (story), Leonid Solovyov
Stars: Rolan Bykov, Yuri Tolubeyev and Aleksandra Yozhkina


SEVERAL memorable motion pictures have been made from (or inspired by) Nikolai Gogol's classic story "The Overcoat," the poignant tale of a humble clerk in 19th-century Russia who becomes obsessed with the possession of a new garment and then demented and destroyed by its loss. But the closest approximation of the original story—and quite possibly the best of the lot—is this Soviet film directed by Aleksei Batalov, which opened at the Carnegie Hall Cinema yesterday.
Like the great German silent film "The Last Laugh," which F. W. Murnau made on the theme of the Gogol story, with Emil Jannings in the leading role, this comparatively short, expressive picture represents a splendid collaboration of an intelligent and sensitive director and an actor of remarkable skill. The latter is Roland Bykov, whose work has not previously been seen in this country but who surely will be looked for in the future on the basis of his performance in this film.
Mr. Bykov, with the camera trained upon him in virtually every scene, usually close-to and skillfully angled to get the play of expression on his face, develops a deeply pathetic portrait of Gogol's sad, simple-minded little man whose lonely life as copy-clerk in a government office is brightened and finished by his adventure with an overcoat.
It is a patient, precise procedure, marked by detailed emphasis upon such things as his going to work on a snowy morning, being badgered by the younger clerks, facing his solemn superiors, receiving a bonus with which to buy a new coat, having fittings from a creaky, drunken tailor and then sallying forth in his new apparel. But the climax of triumph and tragedy comes in the stirring succession of scenes in which the coat is stolen by footpads after a joyful party and the little man goes mad and then dies.
Mr. Bykov's performance is a personal tour de force, a simple, human revelation, but Mr. Batalov has made the film bespeak the rigidity and artificiality of the bourgeois milieu in which the little man lives. The squalor of his poor home and his neighbors is subtly set against the elaborateness and pomposity of the office and his employers. And the irony of the coat as a status symbol is clearly and starkly made.
Excellent supporting performances are given by all in a large well-ordered cast, and a good musical score by N. Sidelnikov assists the strong atmospheric quality. This picture, made several years ago, is not likely to have wide audience appeal, but it should fascinate those who like fine acting and have a taste for Russian literature. Adequate English subtitles translate the dialogue.

You can watch the movie here.

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