Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Charlie Chaplin's Monsieur Verdoux Movie Review

The only film for which Charlie Chaplin grew a real mustache.
The vast majority of silent film stars faded into obscurity rather quickly with the advent of synchronized sound. Directors tended to fare better as their craft was built around telling stories. We forget (or in most cases don’t know) that John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock started in silent films. Actors tended to have the most trouble transitioning to sound films. Charlie Chaplin was most famous for his iconic tramp character who was necessarily a silent character. He made some headway by continuing to make artistically viable and successful films in the silent tradition with City Lights and Modern Times. But eventually something had to give.

The Great Dictator was his first dialogue-driven film, but even that had strong roots in the silent traditions. Truly it was not until Monsieur Verdoux in 1947 when Chaplin released his first film conceived entirely as a talking picture. Think for a moment about how incredible that is – that’s fully 20 years after the beginning of the talkies.

Monsieur Verdoux was based on an idea by Orson Welles which he essentially gave to Chaplin. It is subtitled “A Comedy of Murders” and as such it is one of the blackest of comedies from that era. Chaplin is the title character, a long time veteran banker who lost his job at the start of the Great Depression and took up a new method of supporting his wife and child – marrying rich widows and murdering them for their money. Verdoux narrates from the grave so we know he won’t reach a happy end.

Chaplin’s work as a director early on involved a lot of static shots. His early short films are almost exclusively single camera stationary setups and even his early features had limited dynamism. With Verdoux he tries to break out of that mold more. The way his camera pans deliberately from one character or thing to another in unbroken shots reminded me of Hitchcock. Incidentally, so does Chaplin’s score for the film. I’m sure it’s no coincidence that Monsieur Verdoux has a very Hitchcock subject matter. He might have made a very interesting and different film from this script.

Incredibly, Chaplin makes Verdoux a sympathetic murderer. He accomplishes this by retaining a classic comic sensibility and by never showing the acts on screen. There are a couple of Hitchcockian suspense scenes involving a poisoned glass and a potential victim, but we never see him commit murder. A police inspector who catches him unwittingly consumes the poisoned glass, but that’s fate – not malice – of which Verdoux takes advantage to escape.

Structurally I love the way we don’t meet Verdoux’s family until after he’s been established as a cold-blodded killer. We know from the opening narration that he’s a family man who uses murder for financial ends. Somehow we forget that until we are surprised when he is welcomed home by a loving wife and child. He believes he’s honorable and morally justified. It’s not that we agree, but in spite of our better instincts we sympathize with him.

If there’s one thing I take away from Monsieur Verdoux that gives me a sour taste, it’s the politics. This was the film that sealed Chaplin’s branding as a Communist sympathizer and launched him into European exile. I don’t particularly care if someone is partial to that ideology, but the overall message of the film, spelled out clearly during his criminal trial at the end, is that there’s no difference between what Verdoux does and what governments do in waging war. His assertion that “numbers sanctify” is a potent philosophy to be sure, but it’s an awfully simplistic and not very nuanced view of world politics.

This film was conceived between world wars and made during the second. All around was death and destruction of innocent lives on a massive scale. But drawing a simple line between that and callously murdering rich women to support your family is tenuous. I know it’s more of a parable or a fable this idea of robbing the wealthy to give to the needy, but the politics are extreme unlike I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, another film about a criminal born out of need and desperation.

I understand how people can so easily succumb to Chaplin’s way of thinking, but I don’t sanction it and it’s what gives me reservations about labeling Monsieur Verdoux a great film.

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