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Category:    Home > Reviews > Drama > Comedy > Dark Comedy > Thriller > Murder > Greed > Politics > Monsieur Verdoux (1947/Chaplin/Criterion Blu-ray)

Monsieur Verdoux (1947/Criterion Blu-ray)


Picture: B+     Sound: B+     Extras: A-     Film: B+



Upon its initial release in 1947, Charlie Chaplin told Collier’s Magazine that “[Monsieur] Verdoux is the only one of my films with which I have been satisfied. Funny as it is, it has a great morality.”  At the time, critics and audiences mostly disagreed.  Monsieur Verdoux was Chaplin’s second talkie and first out of the Little Tramp guise, and it seemed to trivialize the decidedly untrivial matter of serial killing.  (In short, Verdoux (Chaplin) is a French banker left unemployed when the Depression hits, so he goes about providing for himself and family by turning Bluebeard, seducing, murdering, and robbing a litany of lonely, gullible, slightly nutty women.)  The film was a box office failure, and despite a vocal minority (James Agee, Gilbert Seldes, and Andre Bazin among them) crushed critically.


The rejection followed three points:  Chaplin wasn’t the Tramp, Chaplin was moralizing, and Chaplin was a commie.  The last point was bound to graft itself on to anything Chaplin made in this period. Postwar America was an unkind place to anyone not in lockstep with the increasingly conservative majority, and Chaplin was not only a nonconformist he was a foreigner with a record of quasi-un-American wartime sentiments and morally-questionable decisions – three strikes in the eyes of frothing nationalists.  But seen today, 66 years later, how you react to Verdoux still mostly comes down to how you deal with those first two issues.

The easiest one to swat away is that he’s not the Tramp. It’s undeniable that Chaplin is decidedly a different character in Verdoux (to my knowledge, the Tramp never bludgeoned dozens of people over the head with his cane and hid their lifeless bodies in the name of earning a living), and if all you know of Chaplin is the stick-swinging slapstick icon then watching this film might be jarring.  But we’re far enough removed from the Tramp’s moment that we watch Modern Times or City Lights today for Chaplin, not the character he plays.  The Little Tramp film has become a subgenre of the broader categorization of the Chaplin picture.


As such, Verdoux is, today, a Chaplin film delightfully free of the Tramp’s baggage and we can appreciate the comedy on its own terms.  The film isn’t Chaplin’s funniest movie, or even his most sophisticated, but it’s arguably his most mature.  The humor is born out of trapping characters in double speak and linguistic cul-de-sacs.  Verdoux engages his victims in the rat-a-tat-tat style of screwball comedies (something of a tell that Chaplin is playing catch up with cinema comedy), while they look bemused, befuddled, or bored by his antics.  The film hits its high note in this regard when Verdoux tries, gloriously unsuccessfully, to separate dimwitted millionaire Annabella (Martha Raye) from her riches and life.  Unlike his other victims, Annabella is kind of a floozy and intellectual lightweight, but she keeps Verdoux off balance thanks to her blunt character.  The scenes between Raye and Chaplin are inspired moments of verbal and physical comedy (the scene of the two on the lake is particularly excellent), on par with anything in his other, “funnier” films.

But despite its comedic achievements, Verdoux is saddled with an overwrought, hypocritical moralizing that’s impossible to ignore or justify.  As he does at the end of The Great Dictator, Chaplin presents, via a speech directly to the audience, his statement of principals. After Verdoux is captured, tried, convicted, and sentenced to death, he stands in the courtroom and says, in essence, human life is so devalued by war and industrialized killing that his crimes are hardly worth the outrage:


“However remiss the prosecutor has been in complimenting me, he at least admits that I have brains.  Thank you, Monsieur, I have.  And for 35 years I used them honestly.  After that, nobody wanted them.  So I was forced to go into business for myself.  As for being a mass killer, does not the world encourage it?  Is it not building weapons of destruction for the sole purpose of mass killing?  Has it not blown unsuspecting women and little children to pieces?  And done it very scientifically?  As a mass killer, I am an amateur by comparison.”


If a speech like that were given in, say, an episode of Law & Order by a man arrested for the murder of dozens of women, we would recoil in horror if not for how patently ridiculous the equivalency is.  But since it comes from Chaplin, we’re apt to shout “Hurrah!”


Yet, after turning this over in my head, I’m not sure what we’re supposed to take away from it.  Is Chaplin condemning Verdoux as an insane psychopath, or is he using Verdoux as a cipher for his beliefs about how humanity is destroying itself?  I’m inclined to think it’s the latter, given the tone, tenor, and naivety of the speech at the end of The Great Dictator.  And while there is a kernel of truth in the sentiment that war is business and killing is the cost of doing it, in no civilized society does that excuse the crimes Verdoux commits.  In fact, he’s so nihilistic and devoid of empathy that “serial killer” seems his natural state – he just needed a nudge to get him to embrace it.


The enigmatic nature of this speech is, ultimately, what doomed Verdoux on its original release.  No one wanted to hear Chaplin try to justify serial murder as globally inconsequential.  And yet, the film endures – not because it’s great, it isn’t, but because it continues to challenge us and our conceptions of Chaplin and cinematic comedy more than 60 years after its release.  But it’s not an easy film to watch or crack, despite its moments of comedic bravado.  We’re not left euphoric, as after something like City Lights, nor do we feel vicariously satisfied, as with The Great Dictator.  Instead, we feel kind of grimy and spent, even a little dead inside.  Indeed, we’re made complicit in his acts by virtue of watching the film, and therefore condemned to Verdoux’s fate. We’re Verdoux’s final victims.



Monsieur Verdoux was released by the Criterion Collection in March and joins Modern Times, The Great Dictator, and The Gold Rush in the Criterion Chaplin catalogue.  While it isn’t the best of the Chaplin releases, it more than holds its own against the standard bearers (Modern Times, The Gold Rush) and is a marked improvement over previous releases.


The new 2K digital restoration of Verdoux found on the Blu-Ray looks great. The picture is crisp and clean, with excellent contrasts in blacks, whites, and grays. There are only a few moments of softness, grain, and wear, but they hardly distract from watching the film. Similarly, the uncompressed PCM Mono soundtrack is solid. Verdoux isn’t a particularly dynamic film, aurally speaking, but sound effects like the pop of a wine cork, the rustle of a suit, or the low hum of a rumbling furnace have room to breathe alongside the film’s otherwise treacly score (composed by Chaplin).


As you’d expect from a Criterion release, Verdoux is packed with extras, included two documentaries: Chaplin Today: “Monsieur Verdoux” from 2003 and the new Charlie Chaplin and the American Press.  Both features provide excellent context for the making of the film and the issues surrounding Chaplin at the time of its release.  Additionally, there is an illustrated audio interview with actor Marilyn Nash, who plays the one woman in the film who is spared Verdoux’s wrath, and a collection of radio ads and trailers.  The customary booklet features an essay from critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, a letter written by Chaplin at the time of the film’s release, and excerpts from a piece defending Verdoux written by André Bazin.


If you’re a fan of this film – or of Chaplin, or of unique Hollywood moviemaking – Criterion’s Verdoux release deserves a spot next to their other Chaplin releases on your shelf.



-   Dante A. Ciampaglia


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