On Tuesday, the Criterion Collection released its edition of Charlie Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux (1947), which in addition tobeing one of the most interesting of Chaplin’s films is also one of his most controversial, largely because it challenged postwar audiences to accept Chaplin in a role decidedly different from his Little Tramp persona. (“Chaplinchanges! Can you?” the posters taunted.)
It was Chaplin’s first film since the well-received The Great Dictator seven years before. In the interval Chaplin’s reputation had been tarnished by a paternity scandal that mutated into the star’s prosecution by federal authorities whocharged him with violating the Mann Act, which prohibited the transportation of women across state lines for sexual purposes. Chaplin was eventually acquitted, but audiences would have a difficult time divorcing the star from either scandalor politics. (It didn’t help that The Great Dictator had ended with a six-minute political speech in which the actor stepped out ofcharacter to directly lecture his audience. Even in the context of opposing Hitler, this ending struck many critics and moviegoers as inappropriate.)
Monsieur Verdoux is a talking picture, and the first in which Chaplin avoids overtly invoking the Little Tramp. (Although technically the Tramp did not appear in The Great Dictator, and Chaplin had said he would never use the character in a talking picture, the “Jewish Barber” he portrayed in the film - the doppelganger of the titular dictator “Adenoid Hynkel” - bore a strongresemblance to the Tramp.) Instead he played against type as Henri Verdoux, a dainty yet cold-blooded French bank clerk who turns Bluebeard to support his wife and family during the worldwide Depression. Under a variety of aliases, Chaplin romances and weds lonely women of means, persuades them to convey their assets to him, then murders them.
The film was based on an idea by Orson Welles inspired by the real-life story of French serial killer Henri Desire Landru, who preyed on French widows during World War I. Welles meant to direct the film with Chaplin as the star, but Chaplin was uncomfortable with the idea of being directed by anyone other than himself. Eventually Chaplin bought the story from Welles and made the film himself.Welles later claimed that he’d written much of the script and that Chaplin had added only a few flourishes. Nevertheless, it was Chaplin who picked up the Oscar nomination for the screenplay.
The film was not well received when it opened (Chaplin famously began one news conference with the words, “Proceed with your butchering”), probably because the film ran counter to the optimism that inundated the country after World War II. Chaplin had yanked his audience back into the prewar ’30s, and once again he had seeded a film with heavy-handed political themes. One woman who Verdoux spares later returns as the trophy wife of a munitions manufacturer. At the end of the movie, Chaplin once again steps out of character to lecture his audience on how the military-industrial complex makes mere murderers like Verdoux seem “like amateurs.”
Viewed today, Monsieur Verdoux seems extraordinarily contemporary, perhaps the spiritual antecedent of the highly influential Heathers (1988). Some of its best moments are also its grimmest.There is a curious but not unpleasant sense of disconcertion available to modern viewers in the sight of Chaplin acting with stars - Martha Raye, William Frawley - we perceive as belonging to a different era and medium from his own.
Unfortunately, the heavy-handed notes and Chaplin’s overreaching for empathy detract from the overall effect. While he had forsworn the Little Tramp, you can catch a glimpse of the old silent Chaplin, flashing his fingers through a stack of francs or crossing his legs in that odd, sweet way. Contemporary audiences may have been loathe to accept Chaplin as a full-fledged adult, susceptible to appetites of the flesh and grown-up opinions, but for me what mars the film is Chaplin’s reluctance - or inability - to make Verdoux a chillier monster. He comes across as a needy sociopath.
Aside from a couple of wonderful bits of physical comedy - a scene with Chaplin and Raye in a boat is remarkable - the film is more sour than funny. Chaplin changed, all right. But notfor the better.
MovieStyle, Pages 31 on 03/29/2013
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