Saturday, 18 January 2014

Monsieur Verdoux

Released seven years after Chaplin’s last film The Great Dictator, Monsieur Verdoux arrived after yet another turbulent period in the actor/writer/director’s life. Based on an idea by Orson Welles which Chaplin bought from his friend for $5,000 in 1941, the film is loosely based on the life of a famous French bigamist and murderer called Henri Landru. Here Charlie Chaplin plays Henri Verdoux, who after losing his steady job during the Great Depression, marries several wealthy old women before murdering them and stealing from their estates. Chaplin plays Verdoux as a dapper and cunning gentleman. Charming and flirtatious he is an expert salesman - his product, himself. Cleverly he woos unsuspecting women, keeping several on the go at once and when money becomes tight he strikes. Speaking accurately about his work to a neighbour he declares, “Yes I have a job. If I lose one, I can always get another”. It’s this kind of pitch black humour that runs through Chaplin’s darkest film and the same humour that drew mass criticism from journalists and the public alike.

Stepping back in time for just a moment to understand where Chaplin found himself in 1947 it’s not difficult to see why he was given such a hard time in the press. Following several highly public failed marriages, often with women several decades younger than himself, Chaplin found himself in 1943 at the centre of the biggest celebrity scandal since the Arbuckle trials over twenty years earlier. An inspiring actress who Chaplin had privately tutored called Joan Barry had publicly declared the star to be the father of her new born child and a paternity case was played out in the full glare of the media that same year. Although two blood tests proved Chaplin was not the father, the court still ordered him to pay child support and the media backlash was something that Chaplin never really recovered from. Added to this was Chaplin’s refusal to become an American citizen after over thirty years of working in America and suspicions of Communist sympathies in an ever more paranoid and right wing country. So when in 1947 Chaplin released a film that not only did away with his popular Tramp character but also appeared to glamorise murder and polygamy, the knives were out.

The film itself was a commercial failure in the US and was even picketed and briefly withdrawn from cinemas by United Artists. The once darling of his adopted country became public enemy number one in a series of events which themselves would justify a film. The movie didn’t align with the post war optimism of the United States and the dark gallows humour was ill at odds with American sensibilities. It made just $300,000 at the American box office compared to the $5 million of 1931’s City Lights. It’s interesting to note that the film faired much more favourably in Europe, grossing $1.5 million outside the US. As well as drawing criticism when finished, the film also fell foul of the powerful Hays Code by now under the command of the fearsome Joseph Breen. Breen’s office made substantial changes to characters and plot which included the changing of one character from prostitute to vagrant and the removal of any depiction of a married couple sharing the same bed. Many other suggestions were ignored by Chaplin and to this day the tone, suggested violence and subject matter still remain surprisingly dark.

Monsieur Verdoux can be considered the first true Chaplin film for several decades not to feature his iconic Tramp character. Although not present in The Great Dictator, the character of the Jewish barber can safely be considered an extension of the same creature. Chaplin proves throughout the film to be a masterful actor, expertly altering the character for his various wives and giving subtle looks to camera, letting us in on the joke. The breaking of the forth wall is something that is synonymous with Chaplin’s film career but away from the Tramp, it means a lot here. We become complicit in his deeds and almost egg him on with our eyes. His acting is sincere and well constructed and a delight to watch. Unusually for a Chaplin film, there is a large cast on hand to help share the load. Not unusually the standard of acting from the co-stars is not high. Martha Raye is the only actor who appears capable of holding their own with Chaplin, playing a vulgar, larger than life wife of the killer. Marilyn Nash looks out of her depth and several others overact in search of comedy, failing to notice it’s the under acting of Chaplin that is so powerful in this piece.

The comedy is pitched as black as it comes. Chaplin once quipped that “Comedy is never far from tragedy and horror” and he’s correct in this case. Early slapstick scenes featuring a murdered wife’s family fall far short of laughter and it takes a long time to settle into the rhythm of the humour. The script is witty and wicked in places but this isn’t funny in the same way as an early Chaplin short like One A.M or A Dog’s Life. The comedy doesn’t come thick and fast and you have to wait for it. When it comes though, the audience is rewarded with some fantastic lines and amusing set pieces. My favourite moment of comedy comes when Verdoux thinks he has accidentally poisoned himself. It’s one of several excellent clowning scenes. Overall though the comedy isn’t always the primary concern. For years Chaplin had been willing to remove wonderful jokes in favour of improving the story of his films and it’s the story that comes first here. Verdoux’s moment of slight redemption comes when he hatches a plan to kill using a new poison which leaves no trace in an autopsy. Deciding to try it out on a vagrant he meets a young girl (Nash). After hearing about the girl’s recent suffering he has a change of heart and sends her on her way with a stomach full of food and pocket full of money. This small change in the killer’s heart shows he isn’t the monster he’s later made out to be but has a conscience, however small and exhibited however late.

Chaplin makes an attempt at showing Verdoux in a good light throughout his film (perhaps further incensing the American public), first explaining how he lost his job after decades of hard work and then by showing us his family, with special (if overbearing) mention of his real wife’s disability. Verdoux isn’t a man born evil but rather a murderer by necessity. Living in a world with high unemployment and no chances for a man of his advancing years, he opts, like many people for a life of crime. It’s just his crime is slightly more severe than stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving family. Even when tried and convicted Verdoux gives a speech in which he states “As a mass murderer I’m an amateur by comparison”, drawing direct contrast between his private killings and the public, state funded killing of the Second World War. It’s understandable that this isn’t the sort of talk an American audience wanted to hear in 1947 and even now, his logic sounds slightly askew but it’s a brave statement for a comedian to make, especially given the public pressure already on him.

On the technical side, Chaplin’s film making remains largely unchanged from his early shorts. He’s still a fan of shooting a room square on at mid distance with close-ups for dramatic or comedic effect. His sets look magnificent with external Parisian sets looking like the real thing. He also retains some clever techniques from his silent days such as over cranking the camera to make it look as though he’s counting money at super human speed. This joke is repeated a couple of times including once with a phone book. The film quickens in pace as it progresses until the final scenes feel frantic and exciting. The climax slows in pace though and takes on a more solemn note. Chaplin worked on the script for several years and indeed this was the first film for which he had a complete script and filming schedule. Due to post war film rationing, Chaplin was no longer able to film numerous takes over days or weeks as he had once done. As with all of his features, Chaplin composed the score. This one successfully evokes the tone and mood and while rather obvious is solid. Something of interest to Chaplin fans is that his long time co-star and former lover Edna Purviance tested for the role of Madame Grosnay but didn’t win the part. It's rumoured that she can be briefly spotted however behind Chaplin as an extra in the garden party scene. I personally didn't spot her. One further interesting fact about this film is that it was the first time that Chaplin had actually grown a real moustache for a role. Although one of the most famous moustache wearers in history, his iconic toothbrush moustache was merely a stick on prop and it wasn’t until Monsieur Verdoux that he grew genuine facial hair.   

It’s come to that time when I need to sum up Monsieur Verdoux. Personally I think it’s an incredibly brave and clever film which showed Chaplin’s impish misbehaviour to its fullest extent. He goads the censors and public with his film and speaks to them directly in latter scenes, almost accusing them of judging Verdoux while being complicit in the deaths of millions. Whether this is correct is debatable but the film itself is at times funny and dramatic though overall ever so slightly dull. It’s not Chaplin at his best but he’s raw and angry and hungry to take people on. Despite all this, he leaves Monsieur Verdoux as a tired and broken man an idea which is exemplified in the closing shot of the central character, adopting the slight gate and walk of the Tramp being lead to his death. 


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