Beware of Pity (Maurice Elvey, 1946, UK)

While Austrian writer Stefan Zweig is perhaps best known in the film world for Max Ophuls’ 1948 adaptation of his novella Letter from an Unknown Woman, as well as his influence on Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, Zweig’s work also inspired a number of lesser known films. Beware of Pity is one of them. Based on Zweig’s only novel, Beware of Pity was a failure upon its initial release, garnering a lukewarm reception in its native UK. It fared no better in the United States, where Times critic Bosley Crowther called it “tedious” and “tortured”. Notably the film only found success in the Soviet Union. The overall reception was so poor that director Maurice Elvey (the most prolific director in British film history) didn’t work again for another five years after the film’s release.
In retrospect, it is hard to understand why the film was so poorly received. It seems to be a standard British melodrama of the era. Zweig’s original novel is heavy on internal psychological monologue and backstory, but the film’s script - by Elizabeth Baron, W.P. Lipscomb, and Marguerite Stern - is remarkably faithful to the source material. There are a few notable changes - unsurprisingly, the writers changed the protagonist Anton’s last name from the German-sounding Hofmiller to the Czech-sounding Marek. They also omit many of the back stories, including Baron Kekesfalva’s Jewish origin. This neuters Zweig of his cultural specificity, and lessens some of the impact of his observations around class and identity that are so prominent in the novel.

The performances are serviceable, although Lilli Palmer as Edith de Kekesfalva lacks the mania present in the novel, and Albert Lieven as Anton Marek feels a bit too mature for the role. One wonders what a master of melodrama such as Douglas Sirk would have done with Zweig’s rich source material.



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