The venerable English sardonic Beggar’s Opera was adapted by Kurt Weill (music) and Berthold Brecht (libretto) into Three Penny Opera, a much-produced stage work these last decades. The Nazis suppressed this film version.
Film was seen in New York briefly in 1931, in a cut version [of 97 mins.] and without complete English titles, and created no stir whatsoever. It’s a sophisticated, cynically jaunty look at a seamy society. Its only moral: crime does pay – if you’re clever enough.
As directed by G.W. Pabst, picture is a successful translation of a highly stylized stage work to the realistic screen medium.
Pabst, getting great help from the Weill score and settings by Andrei Andreiev, succeeds in creating a thoroughly believable never-never land, that is, a turn-of-the-century London as imagined by a German who has lived through the post-war chaos of his own land. Within this frame, the Brecht tale of the notorious cut-throat, Mackie Messer (‘Mack the Knife’) unfolds with complete honesty and a lot of wild, hard-as-nails social satire.
The relationship of Mackie with his one true love, Polly Peachum, and with the prostitute, Jenny, are defined with reality and insight. This is due, not only to the performances of Rudolph Forster as Mackie, Carola Neher as Polly and Lotte Lenya as Jenny, but, of course, to the Weill music. The 1931 Lenya (Mrs Weill in private life) is especially appealing with her odd and haunting ‘Pirate Jenny’ number. Camerawork by Fritz Wagner is firstrate.
[Review is of a 1960 restoration, with a re-recorded and equalized soundtrack, shown at the Museum of Modern Art, NY.]