26 June 2008

Monsieur Verdoux (1947)

Written & Directed by: Charles Chaplin

Grade: B

In 1947, critics panned it and audiences avoided it, but in recent times Monsieur Verdoux has become a minor critical cause célèbre. Like many once and unfairly disparaged pieces of art, however, Chaplin’s cult film now boasts a reputation that exceeds it. Though its conclusion’s sharp leftwing speechifying is stirring, Verdoux, in spite of its admirable anti-capitalist politics, plays out too unevenly to be called anything but flawed.

With his signature moustache stylishly titled up at the corners, Chaplin otherwise abandons his usual tramp persona to play the title character, a bourgeois banker (i.e. icon of capitalism) who, after losing his position of 30 years, starts “liquidating members of the opposite sex” for profit: he hops around France marrying women, murdering them and making off with their cash in order to keep his wheelchair-bound wife and toe-headed boy in the lap of middle class luxury. Verdoux offers a contemptuous vision of the bratty idle class; Chaplin’s killer feels no compunction. (He is careful not to step on a caterpillar, though, and, yuk yuk, he’s a vegetarian!) Exposing the immorality, the murder, that logically follows free-market ideals, Verdoux is like a silver screen Godfather, executed with a wink and a smile.

As a comedy, the awkwardly paced film affords lots of laughs, but none boffo. (In a departure for Chaplin, the comedy is mostly verbal and vicious: suave sophistry—the usually silent Chaplin proves he has quite a way with words—and pointed barbs, respectively.) The idea, which Orson Welles devised, ought to be deliciously vile but what sounds daring on paper never comes across as pleasantly repulsive as it should. Taking such a class conscious idea to the screen in post-war Hollywood took courage (five years later, Hoover’s FBI would bar Chaplin from re-entering the United States after a trip to England), but little of that courage actually makes it to the screen. Dark without ever quite showing its darkness, Verdoux is executed too conservatively. Chaplin’s performance lacks nuance; his eyes never twinkle with a twinge of homicidal lust. Instead, he persistently maintains his composure; all we ever see is what the women he kills see—his unflappable charm. The murderer in him only exists off-screen.

Though in its second half, a few set pieces, classically Chaplin in their complex choreography, pick things up, as does a film-stealing performance from Martha Raye as one of Chaplin’s many murderable wives. These final scenes, more of which may have made a great film, culminate in the Great Depression, which, to Chaplin, means two things: mass suicide and Nazis. The real tragedy comes too late. After The Crash, only the munitions manufacturers are left with any money, Chaplin cynically suggests, and Verdoux ends with a sermon. On killing, he asks, “does the world not encourage it?...As a mass killer, I am an amateur by comparison…wars, conflict, it’s all business.” In New York last week, the audience began spontaneously applauding. Regrettably, what was once so radical has now become boilerplate fodder, rectitude-reinforcing historical artifact, for the modern armchair liberal. Like Michael Clayton, Verdoux no longer asks anything of us but to feel gratified, which must be why its reputation has, over the last several decades, blossomed.

Watch the trailer:

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