Based on Dostoyevsky’s novel and directed by Josef von Sternberg, a student of crime kills a selfish woman to get money for his family and is often questioned by the police inspector who admires his knowledge of crime.
At a university graduation ceremony Roderick Raskolnikov (Peter Lorre) is honored as the most outstanding student while his mother (Elisabeth Risdon) and sister Antonya (Tala Birell) watch with pride. Afterward Antonya makes fun of her brother, and she meets his friend Dmitri (Robert Allen). His mother kisses Roderick and gives him a watch that was his late father’s.
An article notes that young Raskolnikov has written an outstanding article in criminology. He dresses proudly and tries to sneak past the door of the landlady, who demands his rent. He promises that he will pay her in a half hour by robbing a bank. She warns him he must pay that night or else. Downstairs he greets Dmitri with a hug, and Dmitri shows him the article that Roderick wrote anonymously. Roderick says he gave the money to his mother. Dmitri offers to loan him money, but he declines.
Roderick and Sonya are knocking on a door and are let in by the pawnbroker (Mrs. Patrick Campbell). Sonya pawns her family Bible that is studded with jewels. She says she reads it every night. The pawnbroker offers her eight rubles and quickly reduces it to six; she gives her only one ruble because of what Sonya owes her. The pawnbroker gives her the money and pushes her out. She looks at Roderick’s watch and reads the inscription. He asks for fifty rubles, but he accepts the ten he gives her. By the stairs he sees Sonya looking for the ruble she dropped, and he says she should be pushed into the next world. He lights a match and says they could use the pawnbroker’s money. He says she should be stamped out. Sonya tells him not to talk like that. He finds the ruble and gives it to her. She cries and says her brother and sister have not eaten all day. Her father drinks, and her mother scolds. She thanks him, and he says he forgot there is still some beauty. Sonya ties the ruble around the wrist of her little sister, and Roderick gives money to her little brother and tells him not to say who gave it to him.
In front of a bookstore Roderick picks up a copy of The Current Review, but a policeman tells him to move along and takes it from him. Roderick bumps into a drunk man and says, “Excuse me.” The man tells him to say it again loudly, laughing at him.
Roderick is writing that he feels the impulse to commit a crime. His mother comes in with Antonya and Mr. Lushin (Gene Lockhart), who has two government positions. Roderick says he is doubly honored. Antonya lost a position and had to keep a revolver to protect herself. She says Mr. Lushin helped her. The mother says they are engaged. Roderick says he does not understand. The mother says he has not asked for any dowry and that he will employ Roderick as a private secretary. Lushin says he did not promise, and he says he does not want to be contradicted. Sonya comes in and thanks Roderick for the money he gave her family. He introduces her, and Lushin resents being introduced to a nameless acquaintance. Roderick criticizes Lushin as not understanding honor. Lushin insists that Antonya never see her brother again. Roderick asks her not to go with him. She tells him to leave her alone and goes with Lushin. The mother tells Roderick that without Lushin they have no place to stay that night. She leaves, and Roderick is upset about money.
Roderick leaves his room and gets a poker from the basement. He ties up a package and imagines a conversation with the pawnbroker and remembers what others said to him. He goes to the pawnbroker, who says it is after hours. He says he has a valuable cigarette case, and she lets him in. She tries to open the package, and he hits her over the head with the poker. He closes the door and locks it. He searches for valuables and finds a box under the bed, putting things in his pockets. He hears a knock on the door. Outside two men discover it is locked from the inside. They go down to get the porter. Roderick leaves the room and drops his watch on the way out. He hides while the two men and the porter go upstairs. The porter opens the door and calls “Murder!” and “Police” from the window.
Roderick goes back to his building and puts the poker back, taking a few newspapers. A man sees him, and he says he has not seen a newspaper for days. In his room he reads the inscription on his watch case. A woman knocks and comes in, saying someone is there to see him. A man leads a policeman in. The policeman tells him he is wanted at headquarters and must go with him.
They enter the police station and hear three people talking. A woman is making a complaint, and a man tells her to cool off. Roderick gives his name and is told he owes his landlady thirty rubles and refused to vacate the premises. Roderick realizes it is the rent and shouts. Two policemen bring in an older man. Inspector Porfiry (Edward Arnold) comes out of his office to find out what is going on. He asks if that is the man who tried to sell the earrings, and the policeman says yes. The woman screams because Roderick fainted. The clerk (Johnny Arthur) tries to revive him. Roderick says it is the heat and starts to leave. Porfiry asks who it is and says he wants to see Raskolnikov. He finds him and praises him for his knowledge of crime. He invites him into his office to see how “blundering police” work. He says the pawnbroker was killed last night. The older man is brought in, and Porfiry says he is a criminal type. He explains that such a man gives himself up by fear. He questions the man about what he was doing last night. The man explains how he got blood on his clothes from his own hand. He went home and beat his wife. Porfiry notes that Roderick classifies men as ordinary and extraordinary. Roderick says that some men like Napoleon should not be judged by ordinary standards. Porfiry says that Roderick resembles Napoleon. Porfiry asks the man where he got the earrings and asks him about the poker. He asks the man about the tied package and says how the man killed the woman. The man cries that he knows nothing about it. Porfiry orders him taken away. He says that the murderer wiped the blood off the poker on the woman’s apron. He asks Roderick if he is guilty or not. Roderick says he is not guilty, and he has no case. Porfiry says he could convict him to keep his record clear. Roderick asks about his conscience. Porfiry says the real criminal must answer to his conscience. Roderick says he cannot assist any more and starts to leave. Porfiry asks him why he calls him “Professor,” and Roderick says because he professes to know about crime.
Roderick asks to borrow money from Dmitri, who gives it to him. Roderick says he will see them at eight. Roderick buries items from the pawnbroker under a large rock. Outside the bookstore he tells a policeman that he is admiring himself. He goes in and insists on seeing the editor without an appointment. The editor (Thurston Hall) comes out, sees who he is, and welcomes him into his office. Roderick says he is advising the police inspector. Roderick says someone else wants him to write a series of articles and will pay him 750 rubles. The editor offers him 1,000.
Roderick has a new suit and is drinking. He goes to a hotel to find Lushin. He pays back the thirty rubles he borrowed from Dmitri and goes up to the room. He walks in and greets his mother, followed by Dmitri. Roderick gives Antonya some flowers and apologizes to Lushin, who says he is not unforgiving. Roderick introduces Lushin to Dmitri as Antonya’s fiancé. Roderick praises Lushin with mockery. Antonya is glad for the ring she got. Lushin complains he is being insulted, and Roderick flattens his hat. Lushin insists that Antonya choose between him and her brother. She gives him the ring back. Roderick pays Lushin for the hat and pushes him out. They ask him where he got the money, and he says he only has to ask for it. They go out and celebrate at a restaurant. Dmitri asks Antonya if he can call on her tomorrow, and she agrees.
Porfiry is questioning Sonya, who says she has had no trouble with police. He gives her Bible back to her. He asks if she saw anyone else at the pawnbroker’s, and she says she saw Roderick there. She says he gave her brother nine rubles. Porfiry tells his clerk to check Roderick’s address. Sonya says she went to where he was living. Porfiry says the pawnbroker got what she deserved, and Sonya says that Roderick said the same thing before she was killed. The clerk tells Porfiry that Roderick paid his landlady the rent he owed the next day after he was there. Porfiry tells Sonya that he does not suspect her friend, whom he regards highly.
Roderick sees Sonya leaving, and she tells him her address. Roderick goes in to the Porfiry’s office. Porfiry is glad to see him and gives him some brandy. Roderick says he came to claim a watch he pawned. Porfiry acts surprised that Roderick went to the pawnbroker. They look in her book and find his name. Porfiry says he is the first client to come in voluntarily. Roderick says the others are probably afraid. Porfiry says his watch is not listed, and the murderer must have it. He asks why Roderick did not mention his watch before. Porfiry winks at him and notices his new clothes. Roderick drinks some more brandy. Roderick says he is going to visit his mother, and Porfiry asks to go with him.
Roderick introduces Porfiry to his family and takes another drink. Everyone advises him not to drink so much. Porfiry says Roderick fainted after hearing of the murder. Dmitri says he borrowed the thirty rubles from him. Roderick criticizes Porfiry for accusing him of murder in his house. Roderick argues with him. If he was guilty, he would hide the items under a big stone. He says Porfiry is going to convict an innocent man to keep his record clear. Porfiry leaves.
Sonya is waiting and glad to see Roderick. Grilov (Douglas Dumbrille) says he needs to rent a room. Roderick says he saw him at the police station and is afraid they are following him. Sonya asks what he is afraid of. He says nothing. They go into her apartment. He learns that she told Porfiry that she saw him at the pawnbroker’s and that he said that she deserved to die. Sonya says she tried to take it back. Roderick says he told him himself. She asks if he killed her. She apologizes and says she would not want to live if he did. She says he is the finest man she ever met. They go out and look at the water. They realize that they are both lonely. She shows him her Bible she got back. She says she believes in God, and she needs her faith. He says he needs his unbelief. He leaves.
Roderick goes upstairs to the pawnbroker’s room and rings the bell before leaving. At home he opens his door and sees Grilov, who introduces himself. He says Antonya worked as a governess in his home. Roderick is suspicious, Grilov explains he has been wanting to see him. He asks Roderick to intercede with his sister. He asks Roderick to give her 500 rubles that he puts on the table. Roderick accuses him of trying to buy his way into his sister’s life. He throws the money out the door and tells him to get out. Porfiry picks it up, and Grilov snatches it from him as he goes out. Porfiry notices the pictures of Napoleon and Beethoven, who tore up his dedication to Napoleon. Porfiry explains how he pieced things into a pattern but denies he still connects him to the crime. He asks if he can smoke and tells how he acts in front of a guilty man. Then he does those things. He mentions a poker and says he gives hints that he is watching the guilty man. He says a guilty man will do something to make his guilt plain. He wonders how near the guilty man is to him, and he laughs about going to the crime scene, ringing a bell, and running away. He invites him to come see him at four.
Roderick goes to see Porfiry at three and shouts at him not to torture him. Porfiry says his nerves are going to pieces. Porfiry advises him to find peace, the greatest blessing on earth. He says he can wait because the man will confess to find peace. Those who confess get a shorter sentence. He says conscience tortures a man day and night. Roderick tells him to take his hands off him. The clerk comes in and tells Porfiry that the older man has confessed. He is brought in and says he did it. Porfiry says he did not do it and tells them to take him away. Roderick congratulates Porfiry with mockery of first accusing him and then changing after he confessed. Roderick tells Porfiry to take a walk and leaves.
Roderick goes to Sonya and says he is going away because he is free from the police. They go in her apartment. He asks her to go away with him. She asks if they found the guilty man, and Roderick says he confessed. She reads from the Bible about taking away the stone in the story of Lazarus being raised. Roderick cries in her lap. Grilov is listening outside the door. She asks why he did it, and Roderick says he was mad. She says he has no faith. If he has faith, she suggests that he confess to the police. She says he had no right to take life. Roderick says he was strong enough to commit a crime and can live with it. He asks if he can kiss her before he goes. She sits down and cries.
Antonya reads a letter from Grilov that he must see her at once if she values her brother’s life. She puts a revolver in her purse.
In his room Grilov tells Antonya that Sonya lives next door and that he heard her brother confess to murder. She does not believe it. Grilov says he will do anything to help him. She does not believe him. He says then it is his duty to tell the police. He says they can get married and go away together. She tells him to keep away from her and points her gun at him. She drops the gun, and he embraces her. She asks him to leave her alone. He hands her the key, and she unlocks the door and leaves.
Roderick finds Porfiry in his room. Porfiry shows him the poker he found that is bent like the murder weapon. Roderick says that is not enough evidence. Porfiry says that Roderick is the murderer. Roderick says he cannot prove it. Porfiry offers to hear his confession so that he will get a shorter sentence. Porfiry asks how long he can do this. He says he will have to send an innocent man to Siberia, and that is even a worse crime. Porfiry asks him to leave a note where the stone is if he loses his nerve. Then he leaves.
Sonya finds Grilov in her room, and she asks what the money is for. He says he is doing it for himself. He says he overheard what Roderick said to her. She says the only thing Roderick has to fear is himself. Grilov agrees that a man only needs to fear himself. She says she must find him. He says he is probably with his sister.
Antonya’s mother asks why Antonya has been crying. Roderick comes in, and the mother asks him what is wrong. Antonya goes in her room, and Roderick follows her. He asks if she knows, and she asks what he is going to do. He says he is leaving the country. She cries and embraces him. He tells her to take good care of mother. He asks her to be a friend to Sonya after he is gone. Roderick goes back and kneels before his mother, putting his head in her lap. She recalls how he did that when he was a boy when he hurts a cat by accident. She says the greatest feeling a mother has is when her child comes to her for comfort. She asks when she will see him again. He says tomorrow perhaps, and they embrace.
Roderick walks slowly. Sonya comes to his mother, and Antonya says she wants to be her friend. Sonya leaves, and the mother insists that Antonya tell her what Roderick did. Antonya says he did it for them. The mother screams and collapses.
Sonya finds Roderick by the river and asks what he is doing. He is thinking of escaping. She says he wanted to kiss her. He says she is a saint. She says they can go away together, and she will help him to forget. He asks about the man who would be condemned instead of him. She says he is an animal. He complains his own words are coming back to him, and they are ugly. He thinks about Napoleon doing ugly deeds and calling them acts of humanity. He won’t let her throw away her soul for him. She says she loves him. He asks if she will wait for him if he goes to Siberia. She says she will go anywhere with him. He says the years will pass like a day.
Roderick and Sonya walk into Porfiry’s office, and he says he has been waiting for him. Roderick looks up.
This drama explores the psychology involved when an arrogant man commits a murder to help others as well as himself. The clever inspector understands how conscience may bring a murderer to confess in order to find peace. The story implies that Napoleon and other political leaders who go to war are murderers also.