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Monsieur Verdoux: The Chaplin Collection

MK2 / Warner Home Video

Starring Charles Chaplin, Martha Raye,
Marilyn Nash, Isobel Elsom, Margaret Hoffman

Written and directed by Charles Chaplin
Based on an idea by Orson Welles

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Review by Mark Bourne                    

It was Orson Welles who approached Charles Chaplin about a project based on the real-life French serial wife-killer, Henri Landru. Welles would direct and Chaplin would star. Rather than act in another director's movie, Chaplin bought the idea from Welles and made it his own vehicle, one that would forever banish the Little Tramp from Chaplin's new work. The result, 1947's Monsieur Verdoux, is Chaplin's anti-Tramp. Here in his most pessimistic film, there's not a jot of the sweetness and sentimentality that characterized his previous work. The intensely felt social criticism that audiences had seen growing in Modern Times and especially The Great Dictator is elevated to an astonishing level of sarcasm and subversive irony.

Subtitled "A Comedy of Murders," this mordant satire features Chaplin, at 58, as Henri Verdoux, an urbane Parisian bank clerk who loses his career in the Great Depression. Verdoux devises another means to care for his dear wheelchair-bound wife and the young son he loves — using make-believe jobs as cover for his travels, he woos rich widows in other cities, marries them, then murders them for their money.

This dapper and charming Bluebeard is the paragon of civilized man. He dotes upon his (legitimate) family. He tut-tuts his boy to not be cruel to animals. As he tends his roses (with an incinerator smoking ominously behind the garden) a caterpillar gives him the willies. He dispatches his victims with a painless poison, proof of his generous nature. And he justifies his murderous activities as simply "business," ruthless and above traditional morality, as defined by our morally confused age. Eventually, Verdoux is caught and loses everything, including his wife and son. But then he becomes the accuser, a murderer taught to kill by the society that spawned him. He stands at his trial and — more as Charles Chaplin than a fictitious character — makes a speech indicting the corrupted ethics and power politics of bourgeois society. "Wars, conflict," he says in prison before his execution, "it's all business. One murder makes a villain. Millions a hero. Numbers sanctify."

*          *          *

You can't talk about Monsieur Verdoux without mentioning the critical and commercial hostility it received in the United States. The New York Herald Tribune lamented a "woeful lack of humor or dramatic taste.... It is a pity to see so gifted a motion picture craftsman taking leave of his audience." Bosley Crowther's review in The New York Times savaged it. Chaplin responded in The New York Times by saying, "I saw a great chance to take a tragedy and satirize it, as I did with Nazi Germany in The Great Dictator. Crime becomes an absurdity when it is shown incongruously, out of proportion. Under the proper circumstances, murder can be comical. Von Clausewitz said that war is the logical extension of democracy; M. Verdoux feels that murder is the logical extension of business. But he is never morbid, and the picture is by no means morbid in treatment."

The negative blowback wasn't directed solely — or even chiefly — at its shortcomings as a film. Instead, with World War II only two years past and the Cold War's McCarthyites spurring the country's more troglodytic impulses, Chaplin couldn't have picked a worse time to spout off about perceived defects in a capitalist society whose military was credited with recently saving the world. The film fed ammunition to the reactionary conservatives and pecksniffs who had already been gunning for Chaplin all along. J. Edgar Hoover had been keeping files on him since 1922. After The Great Dictator's pacifist message-making (which entreated the audience as "comrades") and his outspoken support for the Soviet Union during WWII, the filmmaker all but jumped onto the hooks of the Red-baiters. An April 1947 press conference, ostensibly for Monsieur Verdoux, boiled over with anti-Communist hysteria heated by personal attacks from witch-hunting representatives of archconservative organizations.

As if that weren't enough, before production a paternity suit brought by a disturbed young actress, Joan Barry, smeared Chaplin in sensationalized fat-font headlines. The case dragged on for months and two trials, during which the FBI arrested him for violating the Mann Act. A blood test proved that he was not the baby's father (it was likely J. Paul Getty, who was never charged), but that evidence was inadmissible in a California court. The chief prosecutor vilified Chaplin in the courtroom with shocking, and successfully poisonous, invectives.

Some theaters refused to play Monsieur Verdoux. Theaters that did were picketed by members of Catholic War Veterans and the American Legion. The city of Memphis banned it outright. Because of a scene in which Verdoux's dialogue with a priest is flippant and unrepentant, it was decried as blasphemous. Soon United Artists withdrew it from distribution altogether.

The public had forgiven him his peccadilloes before, during the production of The Circus. Now after twenty years the people and times were different, and zealotry always seeks out convenient targets. So the ad hominem attacks that greeted Monsieur Verdoux killed it as surely as any objective thumbs-down. America's villagers-with-torches treatment climaxed with Chaplin's forced exile in 1952 after the opening of Limelight.

The film played better in Europe, not surprisingly. Even in the U.S., though, it had its distinguished champions. Harold Clurman in the July '47 issue of Tomorrow called it "one of the most fascinating documents of our day. To question whether it is funny is to discuss it like a cultural moron." He admired it as "truly unique in being the only picture ever made that is truly the expression of the individual who made it...to say what he feels about the world he lives in."

The editors of The Nation granted James Agee extra space for an impassioned three-part review/essay. Calling it "one of the best movies ever made," he asserted that "most of the press on the picture, and on Chaplin, is beyond disgrace." Agee's piece (reprinted in Agee on Film) counterpoints the arguments used against Verdoux — its morals, its alleged bad taste, the cast, Chaplin's writing and directing, and so on. Although Agee comes across more as a smitten fanboy than a convincing debater, it is illuminating reading.

Hollywood nominated Chaplin's screenplay for an Oscar. Director Luis Buñuel paired Monsieur Verdoux and The Gold Rush as Chaplin's two best films. For its 1964 re-release, The New York Times's Crowther gave the film a kinder re-evaluation after his drubbing seventeen years earlier, calling it "an engrossingly wry and paradoxical film, screamingly funny in places, sentimental in others, sometimes slow and devoted to an unusually serious and sobering argument." Critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, one of the best we have, places it on his irreligious list of 100 greatest American movies.

*          *          *

So for some viewers, Monsieur Verdoux could be the most interesting film in the Chaplin canon. An argument that it was "ahead of its time" could find support in today's independent films, at least in those that exhibit uncompromising personal points of view with sardonic/caustic/cynical stances on hypocrisy in contemporary American values, societal mainstays such as capitalism, or the "military-industrial complex." Certainly the film was created to be subversive. You betcha Chaplin saw himself as a cultural critic and provocateur. So it's a shame that the genius who helped lift movie comedy beyond pratfalls and pie fights proved that he was not George Bernard Shaw or Luis Buñuel. Or even Michael Moore.

Clurman and Agee and uncounted Europeans notwithstanding, Monsieur Verdoux's flaws strictly as a movie are quite real. It shows us Chaplin accelerating a steep decline he never reversed. It's burdened by problems he didn't even try to overcome in his sound films: a staid directing style, his stilted verbosity, and his insufferable pomposity.

Bitter in a black licorice way, Monsieur Verdoux lacks the lightness and flair of Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) or The Ladykillers ('55), superior murder-comedies that darken absurd situations with delicious mean streaks. Verdoux is too serious-minded to be an Ealing Studios farce. It prefers being obvious and dawdling over witty and fresh. Rather than supporting a thoughtful social parable, Chaplin's metaphors display the heavy-handedness of a cheap political cartoon. He uses every trick up his sleeve to place our sympathies on the side of the murderer — the victims are strident harpies, fanning that whiff of misogyny that seemed to run through Chaplin's personality — but his twee performance of Verdoux as a stereotyped stage-farce Frenchman, with an "oo-la-la" and a black beret, is too arch by half. One bright spot is Martha Raye, memorable as the low-comedy would-be victim who unknowingly keeps slipping through Verdoux's schemes. She adds welcome life to an otherwise dour film.

While his compositional skills as a director are in view (as the documentary featurette on this disc points out), his "styleless" style makes the production fusty and old-fashioned even for 1947, like a drawing-room stage play from the previous generation. Throughout his career Chaplin rehearsed, revised, and reshot individual gags and scenes with obsessive attention to detail. That exacting fastidiousness did not apply to his feature films' overall narratives, which often are weakened by gaps in plot logic and structure. For Chaplin the parts were more important than the whole. Monsieur Verdoux is no exception, with its fuzzy internal time, ungraceful contrivances, and characters, including his family, whose fates remain ambiguous — all glitches that could have been fixed in one weekend during the three years Chaplin worked on the screenplay. Its leaden pacing and hackneyed elements (e.g., using train wheels to signify movement) make for a tiresome rather than gripping experience.

Granted, Monsieur Verdoux does presume to have more on its mind than its contemporaries (indeed, more than most mainstream films ever). Yet Chaplin chooses to make up our minds for us by talking at us instead of engaging us in his considered ruminations. When he has a point to make his dialogue sounds as stilted as a highway billboard hired to quote a Bible verse or political manifesto. In twenty years of Tramp films from World War I through Modern Times, he respected his audiences as co-participants, like the music-hall patrons of his youth. Often that simply meant we accepted his invitation to hook our heartstrings onto his warm sentimentalism. However, in the chilly Monsieur Verdoux and its successors, and arguably The Great Dictator before it, he places himself on a pedestal so high that a two-way conversation isn't part of the plan.

In Monsieur Verdoux Chaplin had some defensible arguments to make — naive and ill-conceived ones too. But a sense of righteousness can't justify lecturing us like a school principal. He philosophizes in a paternal, superior tone. Verdoux/Chaplin's earnest and well-meaning, yet prissy and muddled and smug, closing declarations remind us of the indulgent speechifying that belched the air out of The Great Dictator's climax. For a second time (with a third coming in A King in New York) we've been suckered in only to receive a simplistic rant that mistakes intellectual naiveté for profundity and treats a blowhard "message" as something good for us, like an all-asparagus diet or Clear Channel. While Monsieur Verdoux is not as painfully tendentious as A King in New York, already the great old comedian had forgotten that to move an audience it's all in the delivery.

The MK2/Warner Home Video Chaplin Collection DVDs

In 2001, the rights to many of Chaplin's films became available. Several companies vied to license them. The Chaplin estate chose the Parisian company MK2, which holds the rights to the films for 12 years.

With distribution through Warner Home Video, in 2003 MK2 began releasing The Chaplin Collection, two boxed sets containing definitive, authorized editions of Chaplin's feature-length films. Each film receives an exhaustive, features-rich DVD presentation. All have been digitally restored and remastered from Chaplin estate vault elements. Volume 1 of The Chaplin Collection includes The Gold Rush, Modern Times, The Great Dictator, and Limelight. Volume 2 brings us Monsieur Verdoux, The Circus, The Kid, City Lights, A King in New York / A Woman of Paris, and The Chaplin Revue. Plus, exclusive to the Volume 2 boxed set is Richard Schickel's acclaimed documentary tribute, Charlie: The Life and Art of Charles Chaplin, a highlight of 2003's Cannes Film Festival.

These discs feature, among their many extras, never-before-seen footage, behind-the-scenes glimpses, exclusive family home movie footage, and specially made documentaries in which Chaplin biographer David Robinson as well as world-famous film-makers discuss the films and their personal, professional, or cultural impact.

Starting in the 1940s, Chaplin went back to several of his earlier films and tinkered with them, snipping bits here, changing footage there, and adding his own musical scores for reissue prints. Under the authority of the Chaplin estate, MK2's The Chaplin Collection delivers the films in their final state, "as Chaplin intended."

How's the picture and sound quality?

Looking brand new, Monsieur Verdoux arrives with a black-and-white print that's clean and striking. The graytones are as strong and balanced as we could ever wish. If any flecks or nicks remain in any frames, this reviewer didn't see a one. It looks superb. The aspect ratio is the original 1.33:1. The film's duration is 1:58:39.

The English language track comes in two Dolby Digital remastered options — the original monaural (DD 2.0) and a new 5.1 remix. Each offers audio that's strong and clear and free of hiss or wear, although sometimes it's a bit thin and bright even for a film of this vintage. The 5.1 option keeps itself mostly in the front, with the satellite speakers widening the sound without directional tricks. There's also a French language track in DD 2.0 monaural.

Subtitles are in English, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Chinese, Korean, Thai.

Special features

Introduction (5:14) — Biographer David Robinson (Chaplin: His Life and Art) surveys the film's conception with Orson Welles. Chaplin's emotional investment in Verdoux remained strong over the years, as Robinson notes that in his 1964 autobiography he described Monsieur Verdoux as "the cleverest and most brilliant film of my career."

Chaplin Today - Monsieur Verdoux (26:56) — This documentary by Bernard Eisenschitz explores the political fallout surrounding the film's history. Chaplin's victimization by the House of Un-American Activities Committee gets a spotlight. Also, French director Claude Chabrol, whose 1962 film Landru revisited the inspirational source material, extols Chaplin's virtues as seen within Monsieur Verdoux.

Trailers (4:49) — The original American and German trailers.

Photo Gallery (5:07) — A silent video slide-show offering almost eighty behind-the-scenes production stills, PR photos, and candid shots of Chaplin and the actors.

Plan drawings for the sets and preparatory sketches (8:17) — A silent video slide-show of blueprints with dozens of comparisons between the stage designs and the sets used in the film.

Film Posters — A click-through collection of 13 posters for Monsieur Verdoux from various countries.

The Chaplin Collection (10:42) — This video montage presents scenes from all eleven films in both volumes of The Chaplin Collection. It's a nice touch that they're arranged in chronological order of their original theatrical runs.

—Mark Bourne

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