Monday, June 4, 2018

Monsieur Verdoux (1947)

Director: Charles Chaplin


It had been seven years and numerous tabloid controversies since audiences had seen a new Charlie Chaplin picture. The famed filmmaker and the most influential comedic entertainer of the silent era had turned his professional attention to sharing his thoughts on sociological affairs, a drastic turn from his simpler days as The Tramp. Here Chaplin brings to audiences a darker comedy which he uses as yet another soapbox to impart his message of peace. Completely devoid of any Tramp-like characteristics along with its direct liberal message in a far more conservative time, this film, its plot inspired by true events, is a clever comedy that was doomed to fail.

Chaplin and Martha Raye
Monsieur Verdoux is a dark comedy about a French gentleman who charms wealthy widows in order to murder and collect their fortunes. The film opens on a family anxious about a fellow family member named Thelma, who quickly and mysteriously married a man by the name of “Varnay,” then suddenly disappears with her bank account cleared out, suspecting this mystery man a crook. This is when we are introduced to Henri Verdoux (Chaplin), former bank teller laid off who found a creative way of supporting his wheelchair bound wife and son, by moonlighting under several aliases to woo wealthy widows into marrying him, at which he would murder the unsuspecting ladies and collect on their estates. His devious plans become comedic as his relationship with one of his purposed victims, the loud and boisterous Annabelle (Martha Raye), proves to be too difficult to slay out of dumb luck. Furthermore his relationship to Annabelle spills over into his hopeful wealthiest pursuit in Maria Grosnay (Isobel Elsom), as she appears at as a guest at the purposed wedding, leading him to running away before being caught.

In the end Verdoux cannot continue like this, losing everything, his money and even his family before allowing himself to be arrested for his crimes. At his conviction Verdoux, with upmost gentlemanly manner, makes known his feelings on the matter of murder in the world he is living in. Before being ushered to his execution he answers to reporters with questioning how his few killings make him a criminal, while those that design weapons for mass murder for war are hailed as heroes. With a justified demeanor Veroux accepts his fate.

It is a peculiar motion picture that is dark and fascinating at first before turning into a morbid comedy of attempted murder. Ultimately the film serves as Chaplin’s self-constructed pulpit to share his thoughts of war, his disagreement with the world’s perception on it, while preaching a message of peace. The film really goes several different directions which helps and hinders it in many ways.

It is unique to see Chaplin, once the king of the silent comedy, take on a dark subject. Initially he does so in a dramatic earnest manner before turning it into a series of Chaplin-style comedic sequences that evoke his earlier style. The comedy is humorous and harkens to what audiences loved of his prior work, but can be considered jarring to the overall flow of the initial stage so the picture, depending on how engrossed one is in the plot. The feature’s conclusion becomes a preachy moral that is clearly Charles Chaplin talking directly to the audience, teaching a message worth listening too, but feels out of place in context of the movie and polarizing audiences. On a whole the picture is strong, but its ending would be the film and its filmmaker’s undoing.

Chaplin and Marylin Nash
Monsieur Verdoux is first and foremost a Charles Chaplin picture, and it makes no qualms about it. Chaplin is the director, producer, star, composer, and editor. The entire structure of the production is based solely around his appearing on the screen. His numerous female associates play merely as pawns to his performance with only a couple of exceptions to stand out. Martha Raye provides wonderful comedy as the loud and troublesome Annabelle, bringing her years of comedic acting to the film’s second most utilized role in the feature. The most touching character in the picture comes from Chaplin discovery Marylin Nash, who portrays a young lady whose sincere core for others sways Verdoux from attempting to make her a victim. Her nameless character stir within him a sparks of faith in the humanity he is systematically hunting down for his own gain. Like Nash most of the remaining female cast features no name actresses, so to never outshine the film’s star.

With this picture it is evident that Chaplin’s filmmaking style has evolved very little since his heydays of the silent era, this being only is second “true” talking picture. His camera work is predominately static with most scenes with extensive dialogue playing out similar to a stage play with the camera affixed to one side of the set. For his more comedic scenes the delivery and editing smack of the classic Chaplin style, which remains entertaining as ever, even refreshing with nostalgia for his classic work. However, much of the picture feels outdated as the filmmaker had not been able to progress beyond the film language of his silent days. Even the opening credits somehow feel like a silent movie, Despite this perception really not mattering at all, somehow it just feels as if Chaplins was stuck in his own time despite all the other cinematic examples he had to be familiar with since the days where he ruled Hollywood.

Monsieur Verdoux marks the first time Chaplin had produced a picture that did not feature the Tramp character. Albeit The Great Dictator did not officially feature the character of “The Tramp,” the character known as The Jewish Barber did embody all the attributes that The Tramp was known for from the toothbrush mustache and bowler hat to his peculiar walking style and cane. Here Chaplin is a unique character, a swindler of dervish intent that is suave and gentlemanly to mask his ugliness.

From the perspective of the audience, this was their first look at Chaplin in seven years. Previously Chaplin was last seen the year before America joined World War II in the close of The Great Dictator talking directly to the camera pleading the world to not go to war with Hitler, causing himself controversy. Since then Pearl Harbor was attacked, US joined the war, the atomic bomb was created and used, and the United States came out of the conflict one of the world’s superpowers with eyes on affixed on the threat of foreign communism infiltrating “American values.” In that time Chaplin became a name attached to controversy, including a legal battle over childcare with a woman he had an affair with, and subsequent 1943 marriage his fourth wife who was only 18 years old compared to his far more senior age of 54. With the 1940s Chaplin was a name that was more common with a term of controversy than filmmaking.

The production of Monsieur Verdoux was several years in the making, with Chaplin stating his trails kept him from creative endeavors. The project’s origin came from Olson Welles who was interested in producing a film based on story of French serial killer Henri D├ęsire Landru with Chaplin as the star. Chaplin was not interested in working under any other director, but propositioned Welles to purchase the story from him with the idea to turn the gloomy story into a comedy. Desperate for income since being nearly run out of Hollywood, the director of Citizen Kane sold his story to Chaplin for low price of $5000 and screen credit. In time Welles would attempt to disassociate himself from the production, claiming how little he had to do with Chaplin’s final version of the film.

This brings up a wonderful question of what the film would have been like if Olson Welles was able to produce the picture he wanted with himself as director and Charles Chaplin as star. Welles saw Chaplin one of cinema history’s greatest acting minds, but a poor director. Chaplin still delivered a great performance, but imagine what it would have been like with the mind behind Citizen Kane creating the script and the visuals, devoid of Chaplin’s preachy ending. Chalk this up to one of cinema’s great “what if’s?”

Upon release Chaplin was booed at his own premiere, taking flak from critics and audiences alike for his political views. Sine before WWII the FBI had internally questioned Chaplin’s possible communist sympathies due to his outspokenness on matters, and now following the war the seemly anti-capitalist filmmaker would be major target of the agency with the rise of the Cold War. Monsieur Verdoux was a massive flop for the filmmaker domestically, finding better acceptance internationally. Patches of praise would be bestowed on the film, one in the form of a Best Screenplay nomination at the Academy Awards as well a surprising victory as Best Film by the National Board of Review.

The Great Dictator was a masterpiece that brought Chaplin a great deal of controversy for its day, but Monsieur Verdoux would cement him has a politically controversial figure in the mid-century for  the United States officials, despite his peaceful message, leading to his essential banishment from the United States. This picture was a manifestation of his continual appeal to the masses years after his prime, and how his political views would bring him down. Chaplin was just a filmmaker with peaceful ideals he wanted to share, but sadly his way of sharing them would hurt himself as they came at a poor time in a poor manner. It is a good picture, but in the budding days of the Cold War, it would make him a rogue in his adopted country.

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