Saturday, October 4, 2014

Monsieur Verdoux (Criterion Collection) (1947)

Monsieur VerdouxIf the willingness to take risks is the mark of a great artist -and I believe it is -then Monsieur Verdoux is one of Charles Chaplin's greatest films. And amidst all the controversy stirred by his portrayal of a serial wife killer, it's easy to forget that it's also a hilarious black comedy with plenty of sharp lines that would have succeeded even without its sociological message.

Chaplin's ability as an actor is pushed to a new level on this film through his portrayal of a morally ambiguous, unscrupulous ex-bank clerk who has no qualms about putting a body into an incinerator in his backyard. While much has been said about this film's break with Chaplin's Little Tramp character, careful examination reveals that Henri Verdoux is just a logical, and daring, advancement in the character: The more devilish, sometimes sadistic sides of the Little Tramp taken to their inevitable conclusion, where comic mischief crosses over the line to villainy. And it's highly compelling, the perfect foil to Chaplin's most heartwarming films (eg. City Lights and Modern Times), allowing Chaplin to express an insidiousness hitherto unexplored. Martha Raye nearly steals the show as the airheaded, supernaturally unkillable Mme. Bonheur (the name itself means "happiness"), and Marilyn Nash is winning as the Belgian derelict who inspires a spark of compassion in Verdoux. The conclusion of this character relationship is one of Chaplin's most complex writing feats: Imagine the ending of City Lights twisted into a dark, steely, uncompromising version of itself.

There are certain moments when the film does threaten to fall into self-involvement -in his later years, Chaplin did let his ego take ahold of his work -but in the case of Monsieur Verdoux, he uses this larger-than-life persona so well, and it fits the character so snugly, that the ego becomes an advantage and adds to the depth of the character. And the script has none of the self-conscious mix of silent film and talkies that plagued The Great Dictator; Chaplin had grown quite well into dialogue writing, allowing him to formulate moments of murderous irony that are cuttingly funny. ("Don't pull the cat's tail...") I have no problems with the ending speeches in this film as I did with the final speech of The Great Dictator: In the context of this story, they fit in quite well. Verdoux at the end is a man who has given up all hope, and he seems to mock his own fate and character while unmercifully unveiling his anger at the world. The speeches are not meant to be taken for face value, and I find them thought-provoking and fascinating rather than moralistic or self-important.

I first saw this film at Symphony Space in New York City and the audience was laughing so hard it was in tears. With modern audiences generally less inclined to judge a film by its "moral standing" (Kill Bill, anyone?), Monsieur Verdoux can be seen for what it is: A hilarious, complex sociological examination which identifies social ills while at the same time taking part in it. In that, it is unique in the Chaplin canon and deserves to rank among his most important films.

A quick note about this DVD edition: For some reason, the bonus materials for this film are far less numerous than on the other DVDs in this series -hence the single-disc package and lower price. By the standards of this series of reissues, the DVD materials are really quite scant -a useful yet brief half-hour documentary featuring good insight from director Claude Chabrol, a trailer, some storyboards. The picture and sound are of good quality, however, and the film is one to own. Highly recommended.

In his autobiography, Charlie Chaplin called "Monsieur Verdoux" (1947) "the cleverest and most brilliant film I have yet made." Though not without its faults, this sardonic black comedy remains his best foray into sound. Chaplin's detailed performance as the business-minded Bluebeard is a masterpiece of screen acting. However, the supporting cast ranges from excellent (Martha Raye) to amateurish (Marilyn Nash) while the final minutes get bogged down in endless talk. Chaplin later admitted that "Monsieur Verdoux" could have used a bit more pantomime and less dialogue. Still, it's a thought-provoking and hard-hitting film. Henri Verdoux and the Little Tramp have much in common.

Buy Monsieur Verdoux (Criterion Collection) (1947) Now

That was the campain in the 40's, when the public didn't want to accept this film. After a few weeks of running, it was abandoned in all cinema's. The people expected a Little Tramp, instead, they got a Bigamist Lady Killer. En mass they decided to boo the film and stay away.

However, this is not what Monsieur Verdoux deserves. In every scene you see Chaplin's quick brain, keen eye and swift feet at work. Some of the love scenes are absolutely hilarious, even in this day. Martha Raye (the wife who refuses to me murdered) is a scream. The film is intended as a parody on Society prior to WWII; if you watch it with this in mind you'll be able to enjoy it tremendously.

Before Chaplin decided to make this film, he had just gone through one of the most turbulant periods in his life. His divorse with Paulette, being harrased by a neurotic former love, meeting Oona and soon to be banned from the States, accused of being a Communist had taken it toll. Chaplin fought back in the only way he knew how: by making a comedy to tackle the present cruel (at least to him) society.

This DVD quality is as good as you can get; there a no evidence of film aging. However, the text on the back of the cover is a great disappointment. I happened to read it before I watched the film (as most people do to see if the film is what they were looking for), and not only was this the dullest description of a film I ever saw, but worse, it actually managed to give away the entire film including the FINAL scene! If you decide to give this film a chance (which won't be a disappointment, garantueed), avoid reading the back of the cover at all costs.

This is a five-star film, but one star off for the cover. Shame on Image Entertainment!

Read Best Reviews of Monsieur Verdoux (Criterion Collection) (1947) Here

When Chaplin set about to tell the tale of MONSIEUR VERDOUX, he wanted an actress for the role of the indestructible Annabella who could hold her own in the comedy department. He looked no further than stage/radio/movie star Martha Raye, who was known for her improvisational skills and was fearless when it came to comedy. Raye considered this the high point of her career, to have been chosen by the man she considered The Master as a co-star. Without exception, critics hail the rowboat scene when Verdoux is trying vainly to murder the obnoxious Annabella as the highlight of the film. Given the right director, Raye was matchless in comedy and also proved to be a capable dramatic actress in a precious few roles (Jumbo, The Gossip Columnist). Watch this film, if only to appreciate the comedy genius of Martha Raye. Oh, Chaplin ain't bad either.

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Many people seem to have a hard time stomaching this movie, I think in large part because, despite all possible warning to the contrary, people go see this movie with the idea that it will be like Chaplin's earlier movies, with him playing a character that either symbolizes human virtue or directly espouses Chaplin's views. These people are sorely dissapointed, because Chaplin's character, Monsieur Verdoux, is neither virtuous, nor does he express Chaplin's personal ideology. In fact, sometimes people come out of this still holding the point of view that this is just a regular Chaplin movie and are disgusted with Chaplin's apparently murderous tendencies!

The basic plot has been oulined here many, many times, and I don't think anything can be gained from going over it again; I will simply provide my views on what the characters mean so that those who watch this movie for the first time can at least go into it without drastic misconceptions. Verdoux is a French bank clerk layed off as a result of the depression, he sees no alternative but to marry women, obtain their assets, and murder them, in order to support his family. He loves his family (son and invalid wife) dearly, but despite this is cynical about the world, viewing it as a hostile place where one has to be hostile in return to survive in it. NOTE: Chaplin is NOT Verdoux (although they have some similarities: more on this later), at least, Verdoux is not Chaplin's vision of an ideal human being. In fact, Chaplin's ideal, which in earlier films took the form of the Tramp, is most nearly expressed by a female ex-con that Verdoux runs into. I forget exactly what she says, but one essential point is that a little kindness can make the world a wonderful place. Her optimistic world view is at direct odds with Verdoux's cynicism, and in fact Verdoux tells her that her optimism is corrupting his philosophy. There is much else that I could say about the themes of Monsieur Verdoux, but it is better if you simply see the movie, which I highly recommend.

Looking at the film in a fair and balanced way, however, it does have flaws. The only one of real importance to me is that Chaplin makes the character of Verdoux too sympathetic, especially at the end, with his statement to the court, which comes off, at least partly, as an excuse for his atrocities, rather than as purely an indictment of the hypocritical, inhuman world he lives in. My view of Verdoux is that he is a product of the mechanized, impersonal, ungrateful world so briliantly satirized in Modern Times, as inevitable as the Sun rising in the East, and not that he is a wise person (not that his statements at the end are what I would call wise, but they contain elements of wisdom that invite one to place trust in what Verdoux says). Perhaps at least part of this half-sympathetic portrayal is that Verdoux's disillusionment, his lashing out at a world that has turned his back on him, were traits that Chaplin at this stage in his career deeply identified with, and perhaps he couldn't help but put a little of himself into Verdoux. At any rate, these minor quibbles are no reason, I think, to deny the film the status of a classic masterpiece.

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