19 May 2009

Monsieur Verdoux (1947)

d. Charles Chaplin / USA / 124 mins.

The following review discusses major plot points.

The appeal of Charles Chaplin's Monsieur Verdoux is, I think, rooted in the dichotomous fact that it's profoundly anti-Chaplin and yet a near-pure embodiment of his philosophy and creativity. A story about a struggling banker during the 1930s global depression who marries wealthy women, coolly knocks them off, and casually pockets their money to support his invalid wife and charming son is not the sort of film an audience would expect from Chaplin, particularly because it's also a blistering post-war critique of western society. But it also makes a great deal of sense that Chaplin, whose ferocity in politics had grown to match his famously gigantic ego, would come to end up with something like Monsieur Verdoux, a curious and complex and ultimately flawed black comedy. The distance between this film and his silent films is quite remarkable; Chaplin as Henri Verdoux doesn't just kill women for their life savings — he kills The Tramp as well, once and for all.

At its best, Verdoux is methodical in its take-down of war and violence, less bombastic than The Great Dictator and more pointed than A King in New York. All three films possess urgent political messages, but only Verdoux's continues to feel crucially relevant. The lasting impression is of Chaplin's mind at work, and for sympathetic liberals what he has to say is rousing and sincere. Words matter more in Verdoux than any Chaplin film previously; although he had already done sound and dialogue in The Great Dictator, it wasn't until Verdoux that he made his first true film in sound. The film lacks the elaborate and virtually silent setpieces that are worthy many good laughs in The Great Dictator. The topic here may be murder and death — the most corporeal of subjects — but for Verdoux Chaplin took everything out of the physical realm and made it more cerebral. The dialogue is punchier, wittier, subtler than any he'd written before. The metaphor built into the man is stronger in Verdoux than The Great Dictator, and the satire is less an indictment on something singular (Hitler and totalitarianism) than it is on something more dynamic, widespread, and fragile (democratic Western societies).

"Under the right circumstances, murder can be funny," Chaplin is to have said, and Verdoux is a funny film. For long stretches, Chaplin plays his hand close to his chest, preferring to drop his jokes with dainty wit and boyish insouciance. His murders have an air of the Hitchcockian — in one he menacingly ascends a staircase after one of his wives, cautioning her that everything has been taken care of, and awakens the next day to jaunty music. Others, or rather other attempts I should say, are patent Chaplinesque absurdity. Comedienne Martha Raye plays Annabella, an ingratiating and extraordinarily lucky lottery winner who continually and unknowingly foils Verdoux's attempted slayings. (The director Claude Chabrol has suggest Annabella epitomizes the obnoxious pluck of Americanism that the Europeans were never able to kill off.)

So when Verdoux takes Annabella fishing with the intent to drown her, and just as he's about to chloroform her she rocks the boat and he falls backward, the cheesecloth landing on his own face, Chaplin's humor radar is exacting. Ironically, if Verdoux were simply a comedy of these murderous errors, it might have been more successful upon its initial release. What makes it thrive, especially today, is Chaplin's equally shrewd ability to do math. One murder can be funny; one murder repeated for a film can build rhythm; any more than that, particularly as you begin to approach the level of warfare, and there's nothing worth joking about. In that regard, although it's considerably darker and bleaker than his other films, Verdoux is no less humanistic than Chaplin's previous works. The most famous and poignant scenes come at the end, where Chaplin is as moralistic as The Great Dictator but with a softer touch. On the stand at his trial, he revels in his own homicidal amateurism compared to the industry war complex, scientifically honed and encouraged around the globe. As he awaits his beheading, a few of his final words to a reporter loom as some of the best Chaplin ever penned: "Wars, conflict — it's all business. One murder makes a villain; millions, a hero. Numbers sanctify."

The production history of Verdoux contributes to understanding how the film succeeds when it does. Orson Welles, fresh off Citizen Kane, wanted to make a film about Henri Désiré Landru, a real Bluebeard serial killer, and offered Chaplin the lead. Always one to call his own shots, Chaplin bought the idea from Welles and wrote the script for himself to direct. Although the entire script was initially rejected by Joseph Breen and his readers at the Production Code office as "unacceptable," "blasphemous" and atheistic, and guilty of trivializing murder, Chaplin only had to make a few tweaks in dialogue and scenes to gain approval. More significantly, however, is the fact that for the first time in his long career, Chaplin was forced to make certain concessions. He had previously had such broad creative control over his films that he was able to take his time, experiment on the set, and feel his way through to the end. However, the soaring cost of film stock after the war canceled his traditional creative process of improvisation and perpetual tweaking. Whereas he'd previously film a scene dozens of times, trying something new with each take until he proclaimed he'd found it and was ready to move on, Verdoux forced Chaplin to be completely prepared — he began filming with storyboards, a finished script (which was new to him), and a shooting schedule. Writing the film took years; all told, making it took less than three months.

The controversy that followed, however, would last a lifetime. Chaplin planned the film's Washington, D.C., premiere to follow the day a close friend was scheduled to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, intentionally stoking the flames already burning around him. Because the film pulled no punches in its critique of war and mass murder, throngs of sore post-war Americans came out in protest. (Incidentally, it was a hit in Europe.) United Artists caved and withdrew it from circulation. Congress called Chaplin a communist, senators called for his deportation, and in the coming years his reentry visa would be revoked and he'd spend the rest of his life living in Europe. (Still, Chaplin's script, which had originally been rejected in toto, was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, which went to the decidedly happy Miracle on 34th Street.)

And certainly one of the more intriguing footnotes is that Verdoux has a cinéaste favorite, even more than his silent masterpieces. Bosley Crowther of the Times, writing in a retrospective of cinema's 50th birthday, called it "the most extraordinary of all Chaplin's films." André Bazin and Federico Fellini embraced as a masterpiece. Jonathan Rosenbaum and others count it among the century's finest comedies. The great James Agee devoted three essays to it in The Nation, continuing to praise it even after it closed. (I've even seen it sitting in the cushy #1 spot on a reproduction of Agee's list of favorite films.) All of this praise doesn't surprise me — film criticism can sometimes serve as a necessary corrective to previous artistic misunderstandings. But the greatness of Monsieur Verdoux, if it's there, continues to elude me. The wit is sharp, yes, and Verdoux's failed attempts at murdering Annabella do provide some belly laughs, but the strongest sections of the film bookend a soggy middle, which I think keeps it from true greatness. But this is still a wicked and important film, and above all, a testament to the fact that there was and will only ever be one cinematic mind like Chaplin's. You can't ignore a fact like that; as Verdoux himself says, numbers sanctify.


R. D. Finch 20 May, 2009  

T.S., I agree with many of the things you say about "Monsieur Verdoux"--about its total difference from the silent films, about "Verdoux" being less bombastic than "The Great Dictator," about it being "his first true film in sound," about it containing the best dialogue he ever wrote, about the obviously meticulous planning that went into the movie. But my overall assessment is higher: I find it a masterpiece and would give it a full 5-star rating. I didn't really perceive the flaws you did. I thought it maintained its interest even in the more serious middle section, which Chaplin managed to make poignant while still keeping his tendency to sentimentality reined in. There are a number of great set pieces in the movie, but they're better integrated into the plot than in some of his other films, so should perhaps be considered semi-set pieces. Although not all of them are as humorous as the encounters with Anabella, some of them are. I'm thinking especially of the encounter with Mme. Grosnay at the beginning and the scene in the greenhouse near the end. Many of the set pieces are more ironic than humorous. If you're interested in reading my views in more detail, check out my post about "Verdoux" (in which I also discuss "The Great Dictator") from last year at THE MOVIE PROJECTOR. (There's a link in the sidebar under "Charles Chaplin.") Still, as usual you make your case very well. The reasons for your views are thoroughly explained and documented, and that's the most important thing for me in any critical evaluation, even more important than the opinion expressed. And you do acknowledge that some people with pretty impressive credentials view the film more favorably than you do. Even if I don't totally agree with your assessment, I do admire the enviably high quality of the writing.

T.S. 20 May, 2009  

R.D. - Thanks for the comment, particularly your generous assessment of the review. And thanks, too, for the tip to yours. As someone who is such a Chaplin fan, I'm enviable of the people who feel this is a masterpiece. On many levels I want to agree; the idea and philosophy of the film is so wonderfully executed (pardon the pun) and what Chaplin has to say in his critique is really admirable, both for its restraint and its bite. And when a hero of mine like James Agee says I should love something or drop dead, I want to love it. Still, there's this feeling inside me when I'm watching Verdoux that isn't there with many of Chaplin's other films. Not the discomforting feeling Chaplin intentionally wants you to feel, but just a general lack of excitement. Even Limelight as a whole, for all its sentimentality, captivates me slightly more than Verdoux. I admire the hell out of it, though, and I was torn — more so than usual — at the star rating here, between 4 and 4.5. I would have loved to have split the difference, and one of these days might just change it to 4.5. (It's so arbitrary, anyway, but it's the best approximation of how I feel about content, form, and general watching pleasure.)

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