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Monsieur Verdoux
Director: Charles Chaplin
Screenplay: Charles Chaplin (based on an idea by Orson Welles)
Stars: Charles Chaplin (Henri Verdoux / Alias Varnay / Alias Bonheur / Alias Floray), Mady Correll (Mona, His Wife), Allison Roddan (Peter, Their Son), Robert Lewis (Maurice Bottello, Verdoux's Friend), Audrey Betz (Martha, His Wife), Martha Raye (Annabella Bonheur), Ada May (Annette, Her Maid), Isobel Elsom (Marie Grosnay), Marjorie Bennett (Her Maid), Helene Heigh (Yvonne, Marie's Friend), Margaret Hoffman (Lydia Floray), Marilyn Nash (The Girl), Irving Bacon (Pierre Couvais), Edwin Mills (Jean Couvais), Virginia Brissac (Carlotta Couvais), Almira Sessions (Lena Couvais)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1947
Country: U.S.
Monsieur Verdoux Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
Monsieur Verdoux Charles Chaplin will always be remembered for his iconic Little Tramp character, who he played in dozens of one- and two-reelers and five features between 1914 and 1936. Chaplin, one of the early cinema’s greatest artists, and the Tramp, always the scrappy underdog battling against social hypocrisy and longing for love, became virtually synonymous in the public mind, which partially accounts for the astounding levels of worldwide popularity that Chaplin enjoyed throughout much of his career. Thus, when he sent the Tramp off into the sunset at the end of Modern Times (1936), it was a daring move, as he essentially divorced himself as an artist from his greatest and most popular creation, a move on which he partially backtracked four years later in his first full “talkie” The Great Dictator (1940), where he simultaneously played an absurd Hitler parody named Adenoid Hynkle and an amnesiac Jewish barber who looked and acted quite a bit like the Little Tramp.

Chaplin’s next film, Monsieur Verdoux, a self-described “comedy of murders,” completed the divorce, and for Chaplin it could not have come at a worse time. The popular highs he had enjoyed in the 1920s and ’30s were crashing on the rocky shoals of the fickle American public imagination, which has been inundated with tabloid stories about Chaplin’s marital infidelities, paternity suits, and ridiculous accusations of communist sympathies. In Monsieur Verdoux, Chaplin plays the titular character, a charming, aristocratic serial killer who preys on wealthy older women, marries them, and murders them for their money. Although still an underdog of sorts, Henri Verdoux is a far cry from the Little Tramp, even though Chaplin daringly (ruthlessly?) evokes his most famous creation in the film’s final moments when Verdoux is marched to the guillotine (a detail I don’t mind revealing since the film opens with Verdoux’s headstone and a voice-over narration in which he assures us that his life as a “bluebeard” has not led to a good end).

Based on an idea by Orson Welles, who was inspired to make a film about the early 20th-century French serial killer Henri Landru, Monsieur Verdoux is a pitch-black, arguably bitter comedy that wasn’t so much a departure for Chaplin (he had, after all, lampooned Hitler in his previous film) as it was an opportunity to fully engage with his darker comedic impulses. It also continued his increasing desire to make “message films,” although this time the message was not delivered as smoothly as it was in Modern Times or The Great Dictator. The film was a flop when it was first released, partially due to Chaplin’s dwindling popularity and image issues, although it is now considered one of his more daring features, a film that may not generate the kind of laugh-out-loud moments characteristic of his most popular films, but nevertheless develops a tone of ruthless comedic timing and satirical intrigue. Chaplin goes for big laughs here and there, but mostly he’s content to let the film simmer as Verdoux goes about his amusingly bloody business.

The film’s comedic high points involve Verdoux’s interactions with Annabella Bonheur (Martha Raye), one of his many “wives.” Unlike the other women on whom he preys, who tend to be dour and humorless, Annabella is a shrill-voiced live wire with a mind she doesn’t mind speaking. Made wealthy by winning the lottery, she is the very epitome of “new money,” as the uncouth tendencies of her previous life have become horribly ensnared with a new sense of privilege and power. Raye, a vaudeville veteran with impeccable timing and a larger-than-life screen presence, is the perfect foil for Chaplin’s Verdoux, whose studious attempts to maintain an air of decorum and cultural richness contrasts with her strident demands and complete lack of propriety (in many ways she plays the same role that comedian Jack Oakie played in The Great Dictator, whose Benzino Napaloni, dictator of Bacteria, hilariously undercut all of Hynkle’s neurotic attempts to convey superiority). It is no wonder that he has an awful time trying to bump her off; she’s a force of nature beyond his control, and he never looks more foolish (or small) than when he’s in her presence. Perhaps the funniest sequence in the film finds Verdoux trying to hide from Annabella when she unexpectedly shows up at his latest wedding, unaware of who the groom is.

The daring of Monsieur Verdoux lies in the fact that it makes no bones about presenting its title character in a sympathetic light. Chaplin does not play Verdoux as a monster, but rather as a man whose economic victimization (after 30 years, he was laid off as a bank clerk following the worldwide depression) has forced him into a life of crime as the only means of supporting his wheelchair-bound wife (Mady Correll) and young son (“These are desperate days,” he says at one point). Chaplin, often accused of being a sentimentalist, further complicates our relationship to the character, however, by suggesting that Verdoux’s wife is perfectly happy being poor, which lends his criminal deeds an air of selfishness, as if he is using his family as an excuse to fulfill his own monetary desires. He is using them just as surely as he is using the matrons he seduces, fleeces, and murders. Yet, Chaplin plays the character with such a mix of ruthlessness, silliness, and sympathy that we can’t help but like him on some level, even admire his audacity. (It’s little surprise that the Production Code Administration, which could not accept any film that showed criminal conduct in a sympathetic light, initially rejected the film at the script stage; Chaplin’s eventual dealings with the PCA were so extensive that it took 12 pages of his autobiography to detail them.)

Chaplin’s own audacity leads him into the film’s final act, where he reveals that Monsieur Verdoux is not just a darkly comic portrait of a sociopath, but rather an indictment of society’s violent tendencies, the kind that makes bumping off old widows seem paltry by comparison. After being tried and convicted, Verdoux essentially exonerates himself by blaming the whole of society, suggesting that his own turn to violence is the only option in a world constantly going to war and living under the threat of atomic destruction. “Wars, conflict—it’s all business,” he tells a reporter near the end of the film. “One murder makes a villain; millions, a hero. Numbers sanctify, my good fellow!” Chaplin’s moral indictment spoken through Verdoux is undeniably spot-on, but the manner in which he addresses it is problematic for the film as a whole. Much like he did at the end of The Great Dictator, Chaplin, who resisted synchronized dialogue for so long, relies heavily of speechifying through his characters to make his point. It worked in the previous film, but here it feels tacked on, even if we recognize in retrospect how it informs the previous two hours of the film. Had Chaplin found a way to better integrate the film’s philosophical ideas with its narrative, Monsieur Verdoux might rightly be considered one of his masterpieces. Unfortunately, as it stands it is more of an interesting experiment, a daring attempt by a popular filmmaker to call society as a whole to the carpet for both its misdeeds and its blind eye.

Monsieur Verdoux Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
Monsieur Verdoux is also available from The Criterion Collection on DVD.
Aspect Ratio1.33:1
Audio English Linear PCM 1.0 monaural
SubtitlesEnglish
Supplements
  • “Chaplin Today: Monsieur Verdoux” featurette
  • “Charlie Chaplin and the American Press” featurette
  • Illustrated audio interview with actress Marilyn Nash
  • Radio advertisements and trailers
  • Insert booklet featuring an essay by critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky and reprinted pieces by Chaplin and critic André Bazin
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    SRP$39.95
    Release DateMarch 26, 2013

    VIDEO & AUDIO
    Criterion’s Blu-Ray boasts a beautiful new 2K digital restoration of the film that has it looking as good as I imagine it did during its theatrical release in 1947. The transfer was made from the original 35mm camera negative and looks virtually flawless, with few if any signs of age and wear (there is a pesky vertical hairline during some of the early scenes in which Verdoux is introduced, but it is barely noticeable). The image is sharp, clear, and finely detailed without losing its celluloid quality, and it has much better contrast than the previous DVD releases. The uncompressed monaural soundtrack was transferred at 24-bit from a sound negative and digitally restored, leaving it clean and clear.
    SUPPLEMENTS
    Although not as stacked as Criterion’s earlier Chaplin releases, Monsieur Verdoux still has a number of notable supplements. Recycled from the 2003 release, we have “Chaplin Today: Monsieur Verdoux,” a 27-minute featurette about the film’s production and release that features interviews with filmmaker Claude Chabrol and actor Norman Lloyd. New to Criterion’s disc is “Charlie Chaplin and the American Press,” a 24-minute featurette in which Kate Guyonvarch, director of the Chaplin company Roy Export, and author Charles Maland discuss Chaplin’s treatment in the U.S. press throughout his career. From the archives we have seven minutes of excerpts from an audio interview with actress Marilyn Nash conducted by Chaplin biographer Jeffrey Vance. The disc also includes radio advertisements and trailers, and the insert booklet contains an essay by critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, an article penned by Chaplin to coincide with the film’s release, and the original review of the film by French critic André Bazin.

    Overall Rating: (3)

    Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick

    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection


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