Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Monsieur Verdoux

I have just recently finished my first viewing of Charlie Chaplin's Monsieur Verdoux. I had no idea what to expect going into this film. I knew Chaplin as "the little tramp". I knew his great silent work like The Gold Rush and City Lights. I knew him for The Great Dictator, one of my five or so favorite films of 1940. But I frankly thought little of this film whenever I heard of it. Oh, that's just one of those movies he made when he started making talkies that didn't do very well I used to think. And then I saw it.

If you consider yourself a fan of Chaplin's work and have not seen Monsieur Verdoux then you have done yourself a disservice. I thought I'd get some relatively bland story about a Frenchman. What I got was "a comedy of murder". It's certainly one of Chaplin's darkest screen comedies; it's a very black sort of humor. While there was a touch of this in Great Dictator, that was mostly about undermining a great enemy: making him buffoonish. But here we are expected to side with the murderer. And laugh both with him and at him.

The basic plot concerns Monsieur Verdoux, a Frenchman who, when laid off from his job in the post-war depression of the 1930s, takes to marrying and murdering rich women for their assets. He is called a Bluebeard, a reference to the fairy tale of the husband who is a closet serial killer (also of French origin). This is dark material, and indeed was suggested by Orson Welles, but Chaplin makes it funny. To make a character like this funny he must be likable, and Chaplin is the perfect man for it. His amiable manner allows the audience to be always on his side, to be sympathetic to him, as well as allowing him to cozy up to a multitude of partners. We know that the things he does are despicable, but the deft way in which he does them are endearing. There are moments of Chaplin's visual wit such as the speedy way Verdoux counts money. A gag like that would fit in nicely in one of Chaplin's silent comedies. And yet, he handles dialogue in this picture with amazing dexterity. There is a real wit to the wordplay and banter, surprising in a way when we consider this is only his second talking picture.

What I was also struck by in this film was the pace. The two hours flies by. Two hour comedy is a dangerous animal, and one that very often falls flat. Anyone who's seen a recent Apatow film can attest to the bloated feeling a long running time can have. Similarly, such films suffer from an over-reliance on improvisation. This movie in contrast was tightly scripted. It breezes by as we go from one wife to the next, one situation to the next, events building on each other in an almost Hitchcockian way. Much as I love The Great Dictator, there is no denying it drags in its latter half, and gets very talky and didactic at the end. Chaplin does again make social commentary in Verdoux, but it is kept more succinct and in the character's own perspective. There's less of an obvious sense of breaking the fourth wall. The film makes for good social satire.

There are a number of memorable sequences in the movie. One of Verdoux's wives is a hilarious loudmouth, and the scene where Verdoux takes her out in a boat "fishing" in order to drown her is a hoot. It's a much stronger marriage of words and visuals than his previous film. Also, watch for a pre-I Love Lucy William Frawley. The film opens unusually with the family of one of the women who has been conned by Verdoux. They go to the police with no evidence of the man at all, but insist "I'd know him if I saw him!" While humorous in itself, this leads to another wonderful comedic moment later in the film.

I mentioned above that Orson Welles suggested the film. He had been developing the idea as a drama, based on a true story of a French serial killer who was beheaded in the 1920s. It might have been a good property for him, and actually seems similar in tone and material to Welles' The Stranger from several years prior. Welles ended up giving the idea to Chaplin (with the agreement he get an onscreen credit), and Chaplin took that idea and gave it an even more interesting life by making it funny. At times I find myself rooting for the serial killer as he kills people. This is a deceptively difficult tone to walk well, but it's always played for the joke of the situation. Verdoux is SO likable that it doesn't feel so sinister.

Monsieur Verdoux was not well-received upon its initial release. Many seemed to question Chaplin's politics and motives. Some felt it was slow, though I consider this inappropriate criticism. Whatever the film is, it is NOT slow. It is almost perfectly paced. It slows a bit at the very end, but this is certainly not intolerable. Perhaps this lack of glowing reception is what left me dubious of seeing it. I'll be honest, going into this movie felt like homework; something to do just to get it done. But 20 minutes later, I was hooked. This is not a movie with huge guffaws, but it is strong all around. Chaplin himself considered it one of his finest works, and I must agree. If you like your comedy dark, or seek another side of Chaplin, Monsieur Verdoux is an underrated classic of the post-war '40s, and one that I highly recommend.

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