starring Charles Chaplin, Martha Raye, Marilyn Nash, Isobel Elsom
screenplay by Charles Chaplin, based on an idea by Orson Welles
directed by Charles Chaplin
by Bryant Frazer Charles Chaplin augmented his trademark mix of physical comedy, sweetness, and lefty politics with a dose of suspense (borrowed, probably, from Hitchcock) and a sardonic worldview (informed, maybe, by film noir) in the playful, funny, but ultimately downbeat Monsieur Verdoux. In a scenario that originated with Orson Welles, who receives an "idea" credit, Henri Verdoux is a serial killer based on Henri Landru, a French Bluebeard who seduced, married, and then murdered a string of Parisian women in order to liberate their assets. Chaplin plays Verdoux as a charming fiend whose demeanour incorporates the barest echo of the Little Tramp, but whose murderous M.O. recalled the director's own reputation as a womanizer.
Sunset Boulevard would do it more famously a few years later, but Monsieur Verdoux, too, is narrated by a dead man. The film opens on Verdoux's tombstone; Chaplin's voiceover promises, "What follows is history." As we pick up his story, Verdoux is a dozen women into a killing spree he describes as "a strictly business enterprise." When Verdoux needs 50,000 francs on short notice, he travels from Paris to Corbeil to visit his wife, Lydia (she's one of several, all of whom know him by different names), who growls at him, "I thought you were in Indochina." Verdoux works against the clock (which is visible in the frame), convincing Lydia to empty her accounts before the local banks close. His apparently calm demeanour under intense deadline pressure is amusing--he's clearly done this before--but the long scene culminates in a supremely chilling tableau. Late in the evening, following the always-scowling Lydia upstairs, he hesitates for a long moment to bask in the moonlight glowing through open balcony doors. He stands there, his back to the camera, forearms bowed slightly outward and fingers extended as if in anticipation of a coming touch. Here, Verdoux murmurs, "How beautiful, this pale Endymion hour," then quotes the Keats poem--"Our feet were soft in flowers"--before stepping into the bedroom and killing the woman.
That's the most startlingly lyrical scene in the film. This disconnect between Verdoux's sensitive, sophisticated demeanour and his sinister intent is the purest indication of the character's generally unfailing poise, charm, and confidence, though in subsequent scenes, he has a somewhat harder time achieving his goals--all the better to showcase Chaplin's masterful comic performance. Chaplin comes on not as a cold-blooded killer but as a melancholy dandy, his Tramp's moustache replaced by a more wispy, upturned thing and that character's outsider status overcome. His attempted seduction of one Mme. Grosnay (Isobel Elsom) ends at first in a pratfall out an open window. His attempted poisoning of the brassy and apparently unkillable Mme. Bonheur (Martha Raye) is an exercise in frustration worthy of a Looney Tunes short. One effort culminates in a misplaced cup of sarsaparilla, a stomach pump, and some very bad hair. A subsequent outing on a boat, complete with noose and brick, is eventually foiled by an unexpected and hilarious disturbance back on land. Even Verdoux's attempt to hone his craft by picking up a random waif at the side of the boulevard (Marilyn Nash, decked out like a '40s dame who should be gabbing with Bogart, not Chaplin) is foiled once he discovers he has, still, too kind a heart.
With that, Monsieur Verdoux goes a bit maudlin. Chaplin indulges in a little character rehabilitation for old Verdoux, concocting a backstory in which he was sacked from his job as a bank clerk in the Great Depression after thirty years of service. Unable to care properly for his beloved wife (wheelchair-bound, of course) and son (an adorable moppet, natch), Verdoux turned to serial bigamy as a mechanism for profit through manslaughter. When Verdoux learns that this girl, credited as The Girl, once loved a husband of her own, a "hopeless invalid" wounded in the war, it triggers his long-dormant empathy reflex. "I'd have killed for him," she says, and he decides then and there to spare her.
When they meet later in the film, their positions have reversed somewhat, her status rising and his declining. ("You seem to have lost your zest for bitterness," she notes.) It's these scenes with The Girl that soften the otherwise quite cynical Verdoux, and he never does seem to get his groove back. Having learned that she has taken up with a munitions manufacturer, he muses, darkly, "That's the business I should have been in." Yet Verdoux is not just an opportunist; he has a philosophy. Opportunism would dictate that he follow the money, through, say, a back door into the arms trade that might assure financial stability. But Verdoux is a sentimental outsider in that world. He follows a moral code--or believes he follows one, anyway--that allows him to kill only one person at a time, and then only for financial expedience: the kind of malfeasance that amounts to a rounding error in any balancing of the cosmic books.
Verdoux tries out that line of argument at his murder trial, where he suggests that these modern times are to blame for his misdeeds. "As for being a mass killer, does not the world encourage it?" he asks, rhetorically. "Is it not building weapons of destruction for the sole purpose of mass killing?" While Verdoux is referring to the human tragedy leading up to World War II, Chaplin, living some 10-15 years in Verdoux's future, is likely making direct reference to the atomic bombs the U.S. deployed at the war's end. This was unlikely to have endeared him to stateside audiences, who had been conditioned by media reports to read Chaplin as an anti-American at best and an outright Communist at worst. After Verdoux is sentenced to death, he goes farther, again displaying his lack of contrition in conversation with a journalist. "One murder makes a villain, millions a hero," he declares. "Numbers sanctify."
Well, America loves contrition. Chaplin was daring his public to embrace an evil character, one who seemed no more fearful of God's judgment than he was of man's. (Visited by the prison's chaplain before his execution, Verdoux greets him with a friendly "What can I do for you?") He wasn't stupid enough to believe that Verdoux's sanctimony over the violent nature of mankind would let him off the hook, but he was asking audiences to tolerate a remorseless man who shrugged off the concept of sin and railed against 20th-century civilization. No insight into Chaplin's intentions has rivalled that of the French critic André Bazin, who saw Verdoux as a deliberate inversion of Chaplin's long-running screen persona, whom Bazin calls Charlie. Only in the film's final shot, Bazin noted, when Verdoux is led away from the camera and towards the gallows, does Chaplin allow Charlie's familiar, waddling gait to come through in his performance. And in that moment of recognition, Bazin saw Monsieur Verdoux as the culmination of all Chaplin's work in an elaborate and masterful joke. The audience would suddenly realize it, Bazin wrote: "They're going to guillotine Charlie!"
The complex relationship of Verdoux, Charlie, Chaplin, and his public is one for the film theorists to chew on. Let me say a few words on behalf of the wider audience that abandoned him here. Chaplin's insistence on explicitly politicizing Verdoux is a key failing. Monsieur Verdoux gets compared to Hitchcock's films because Hitch was an expert at infusing suspenseful drama with black comedy, and some of Chaplin's work in the picture really does approach that level of mastery. But Hitchcock got his points across without his characters resorting to self-righteous pontification about the shamefulness of war or the venality of man. Verdoux's gender politics, too, make me wince. When The Girl asks Verdoux, "You don't like women, do you?" the question seems uncomfortably on point. Although Verdoux's response is nuanced and long-winded, audiences will note that the movie's women are familiar sexist stereotypes: The harpy, the frigid battle-axe, and the cooing dowager all make appearances. It feels like we're meant to take some comic satisfaction in seeing these women placed under physical threat--imagine a scene in Singin' in the Rain where Don Lockwood tries to slip Lina Lamont a mickey--while Verdoux dotes over the young and sexy ones. (Even the bit players get in on the action. One minor character hushes an older woman with the line, "I wish you wouldn't open your large mouth. It's causing a draft.")
I mean to say that Monsieur Verdoux is a brilliant film. (Don't take my word for it--Chaplin himself described it as "the cleverest and most brilliant film I have yet made.") It's also an unmistakably arrogant one. One scene shows Verdoux seducing a mark by telephone, verbalizing his admiration in hopes of getting the high sign, like one of those "True Blood" vampires mewling at the doorway and hoping Sookie Stackhouse will invite him inside. I warmed to the scene once an eavesdropping shopgirl started rolling her eyes, thinking that she, at least, could see through his game. Alas, no--it turns out she's making faces because she, too, is falling under Verdoux's spell. The actress (Barbara Slater, who also appeared in two films by The Three Stooges) is quite good, and the scene is pretty funny after all. At the same time, it draws attention to Monsieur Verdoux's status as one more stanza in Chaplin's never-ending song of himself. It's self-aggrandizement, and it's unbecoming.
Then again, Chaplin is large; he contains multitudes. That Monsieur Verdoux can be simultaneously highbrow and vulgar, mean-spirited and humanist, is its triumph. It's a flawed masterpiece and a grand folly. Thoroughly satisfying, utterly maddening, and self-satisfied to a fault, it points up Chaplin's weaknesses as both a man and an artist. And it stands as an essential cornerstone of his career.
Monsieur Verdoux arrives on Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection in a fine if not eye-popping transfer. The 1.33:1 monochromatic image is rendered in fairly high contrast, with an appropriate level of grain, decent dynamic range, and plenty of detail in the frame, even in the abundant shadows. The picture is mostly clean, though vertical scratches are occasionally visible from top to bottom on the left-hand side in the early going, and a cluster of shorter scratches dances up and down the right-hand 5% or so of the picture throughout. The bit budget is generous, and there's no evidence that overzealous digital clean-up or image-enhancement filters were employed. Criterion's liner notes indicate its new master was sourced from the 35mm camera negative, so this is probably as good as it gets, barring a more aggressive go with digital restoration tools. (Vertical scratches are notoriously difficult to remove.) The uncompressed 24-bit/48Khz monaural soundtrack is solid, too, within the limitations of the original recordings--clean and clear and not overly noise-reduced.
The special features are generally informative, but I do miss the golden age of scene-specific audio commentary. Instead, the extras are led by the 27-minute "Chaplin Today" TV doc from 2003 dealing specifically with Monsieur Verdoux. There's some good Verdoux 101 material here, mainly V.O. narration interspersed with film clips; the main attraction is the subtitled contributions of Claude Chabrol, who describes Chaplin's formal accomplishments in some detail. His enthusiasm is infectious--a full-length audio commentary with Chabrol just going on and on about how awesome Chaplin's direction is would be a strong contender for extra of the year. The camera lingers briefly on a contract, signed by Welles and Chaplin, apparently specifying how Welles was to be credited on-screen for contributing the original idea for Monsieur Verdoux; later, we're offered glimpses of documents in which the Motion Picture Association outlined its objections to the original script. As swell as that is, I couldn't keep thinking about how much more swell it would be had Criterion actually reproduced copies of those crucial documents that viewers could peruse on their own.
A second, 25-minute short, "Charlie Chaplin and the American Press," was commissioned by Criterion specifically for this release and covers Chaplin's relationship with the American media over the course of his career, from his enormous early popularity to his eventual ostracization and expulsion from the U.S. It delivers a lot of information in a short period of time, but, again, I'd like to read some of this stuff at greater length. ( I guess I'm the only one who misses the old Criterion LaserDiscs and their mammoth, paginated archives of pictorial and textual material.)
The remainder of the on-disc supplements include an eight-minute audio interview with Marilyn Nash, who played The Girl, in which she recalls meeting Chaplin over tennis and describes how he quickly transformed her life at the age of 17. (She had intended to become a doctor.) Her reminiscences about her career, the production, and the witch-hunt that snarled up Chaplin's life are illustrated with production stills, picture postcards, and more. We also get a slew of mildly amusing radio ads (including a couple that sought to address the film's gender issues by appealing directly to women) as well as an unremarkable trio of trailers from France, Germany, and the United States.
The insert booklet is pretty nifty. Weighing in at 36 pages, it opens with "Sympathy for the Devil," a laudatory essay by critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, and goes on to reproduce in full "My New Film," Chaplin's own article intended to address the controversy swirling around him at the time of Verdoux's release. Finally, there's a lengthy excerpt from André Bazin's essential essay "The Myth of Monsieur Verdoux" that contains the meaty bits about Chaplin, his characters, and his audience. Taken as a whole, the supplements are informative but quite a bit less than exhaustive. They do an engaging enough job of exploring how and where Monsieur Verdoux fits in Chaplin's career, but only the contributions by Chabrol and Bazin really seek to carve out a place for it in the canon. Criterion has done better--and they will again, presumably, when iconic titles like City Lights take their place in the Collection.