Tuesday, February 9, 2010
Monsieur Verdoux (1947, Charles Chaplin)
Political persecution had not yet driven Charlie Chaplin back to England in 1947, yet he was clearly an already bitter, bitter man. Monsieur Verdoux has a premise which has been explored in films ranging from horror to comedy over the years, that of the "Bluebeard" - the 17th century French folktale of a nobleman who marries and murders for money. Given that Chaplin's screenplay mentions Bluebeard by name, it's bizarre that he supposedly paid Orson Welles a million dollars for the idea and gave him an original story credit. Welles had starred in a film just the year before which placed a Nazi war criminal into the formula, and Hitchcock made Shadow Of A Doubt just three years earlier - surely Chaplin had at least heard of them? Did he just want to give Welles some helpful extra recognition during that rocky Hollywood period, empathizing as he went through a rocky period of his own?
Verdoux was the first talkie Chaplin made after The Great Dictator seven years earlier and while I'm not surprised a film without Hitler isn't as funny, I'm amazed that a film which doesn't satirize Hitler's rise to power could actually be more cynical. The potential for black comedy in the story of a male black widow is fertile, as the lighter moments in the amazing horror-thriller The Stepfather would demonstrate decades later. Being aware of Chaplin's demonization for political gain by American anticommunists at the time of this film's making I was eagerly anticipating a satirical skewering of some sort. The only real objects of derision to be found in the story is a nouveau riche floozy whom Chaplin is waiting for the right moment to dispatch while in the meantime he can barely conceal his contempt. Martha Raye plays the part so hilariously it's a shame that she appears so late in the episodic layout of the story.
In the preceding chapters, Chaplin is like a stern parent making us eat every last piece of cabbage before desert: showing us how Verdoux's machinations elude the police, the procedures of the unexpectedly dignified investigator (why not make him like J. Edgar Hoover? Or humorous in any way?) and a lengthy sequence involving the testing of a new untraceable poison on a beautiful young tramp girl whom Verdoux decides to spare after she professes her faith in the basic goodness of humanity. Such sequences between Chaplin and his ingenues have been his trademark since City Lights and this one is very well done. Unfortunately the first half of the film which the scene demarcates is sporadically amusing at best and seemingly deliberately so. When Chaplin repeats the same fast money-counting bit more than once it's like he's mocking the audience's desire for some different gags in this ostensible comedy, black or not. Chaplin manages to make Verdoux himself sort of odd without actually being amusing, the way the Little Tramp's little movements could be funny in themselves. The one dramatic subplot established in the interminable first half which actually would have been worth following up on - the existence of Verdoux's pre-Bluebeard wife and child whom he rarely sees - is dropped as soon as it's introduced.
The film ends with a speech from Verdoux that's the anthithesis of the one which caps The Great Dictator: that idealistic and queasily naïve call to "fight for a world where science and progress will lead to all men's happiness" at the same time science and progress were being used to melt children into soap. At the end of the film Chaplin pithily paraphrases Stalin's famous line about how one death is a tragedy and a million is a statistic, just before he is lead to the gallows. I've heard people throw this line at me in the heat of political debate like some great moral profundity, not the nihilistic self-justification of history's biggest mass murder, and the unsettling thing about Chaplin's quotation is his probable lack of irony in the wake of World War II (which makes a cameo appearance.) If he didn't want HUAC to come after him as they did, maybe he shouldn't have given such a half-sympathetic shout-out. Monsieur Verdoux is little more than a free form exercise in world weariness from a former champion of life's beauty. While some of Chaplin's comedic artistry remains, only total curmudgeons will be entertained from start to finish.