Review by Evan Kindley
Posted on 12 June 2008
Source 35mm print
While all movie actors carry somewhere on their person the sum of all the parts they have previously played, some tend to retain more than others, and famous comedians are the spongiest of all. It is in the very nature of the comedy star to maintain a consistent image, to be familiar, and to function as much as a marker of genre as he does a performer in his own right. Some of this is linked to the peculiar prerogatives of film comedy, as opposed to drama, which has an entirely different tempo attached to it: if it’s part of the pleasure of drama to watch a character slowly take on significance, to start from zero and build an emotional world, with comedy we prefer to start laughing as soon as possible, in order to get our money’s worth. (A corollary to this is that actors don’t usually become funny over time; they either are or they aren’t—and this holds true over the span of a career just as it does over that of a specific film.) Thus the peculiar longevity of major film comedians, who circulate within the industry like a form of credit, assuring a film’s generic status (if not its quality). In return, their own peculiar status, the comic’s all-important identity to himself, is reinforced, regardless of whether the film is any good or not, as long as they continue to be themselves.
Within this system, however, there is room for a few symbolic deviations. Thus we get the relatively undistinguished subgenre of the comic self-abnegation. This is not to be confused with the much more common phenomenon of the comedian who “stretches himself,” taking on a dramatic role in order to win respect or prestige (in the mold of a Jim Carrey or a Steve Carell; or, in the directorial sphere, a Woody Allen). On the contrary, what I have in mind is more like a systematic deformation of one’s usual role, with the original type always implicitly in play, in order to produce a kind of cognitive shock on the audience. The best recent example of this procedure is Adam Sandler in Punch Drunk Love: if Sandler’s usual persona is confident, boorish, and childishly sexual, then his Barry Egan was an elegant reversal of these qualities: shy, polite and deeply repressed. This is a trick that can’t be repeated too often in a comedian’s career, perhaps not more than once, without sacrificing the purity of the original persona; do it too many times and you’re simply an actor among others (witness Spanglish, or Reign Over Me). It’s a risky move, to be sure, and it needs a great movie to justify it, one that isn’t afraid to exploit the comedian’s lapse of persona to the maximum, while at the same time making it signify in a whole new register.
With Monsieur Verdoux, Charlie Chaplin interrupted his life’s work of being loved and tried out being hated. (He had, admittedly, had some practice a few years earlier by impersonating Adolf Hitler.) Abandoning the Little Tramp character that had brought him international fame, fortune and affection, Chaplin cast himself as Henri Verdoux, a serial killer of women (an idea suggested by Orson Welles and inspired by the famous “French Bluebeard” Henri D ésir é Landru). If ever there were a character crafted to be as alienating as possible to Chaplin’s former audience, it’s Verdoux. Not only is he a murderer, but he’s immaculately groomed and mincingly precise, where the Tramp was disheveled, awkward, and only accidentally graceful. Chaplin plays off the long tradition of the European bon vivant, making Verdoux a snobbish, effeminate, finicky, entitled figure, forever sniffing flowers, counting his money, and fixing his hair: in other words, the very antithesis of the culturally disenfranchised “little man” Chaplin had played to international success for decades. Further dramatizing his difference from the Tramp, and by extension from his audience, Chaplin opts to speak in his real British accent for the first time onscreen. The resulting creation codes as generically “European” in the same way that, a few years later, Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert would for American readers of Lolita. Indeed, a certain confusion of nationality is part of the film’s effect: while Monsieur Verdoux is nominally set in France, Chaplin stocks the all-American cast with harsh Midwestern accents, as if to underscore the vulgarity of the people surrounding Verdoux, and his own desperation at stooping to associate with them.
Chaplin plays this basic scenario – Verdoux slumming it in the world of the hopelessly declass é – three different ways: as melodrama, as fish-out-of-water comedy, and as political parable. The melodrama comes in with the eventual revelation that Verdoux, having lost his position as a bank teller, is forced to seduce and murder rich women in order to provide for his wheelchair-bound wife and young child. (The striking and potentially brilliant decision to delay this information until the middle of the film ultimately misfires, perhaps because Mme. Verdoux, portrayed by Mady Correll, is such a non-entity.) As for the comedy, it comes and goes, seeming more like a touchstone or area of comfort for Chaplin than an integral part of the structure of the film. The funniest moments consistently belong not to Chaplin but to Martha Raye as Mme. Bonheur (“Mrs. Happiness”), an ill-bred lottery winner propelled into the first rank of society. Raye brings a little screwball zest to the picture, allowing Chaplin to play Cary Grant to her Katharine Hepburn as well as James Mason to her Shelley Winters. A scene with the two of them in a rowboat is the only fully successful comic scene (and contains the best line, when Raye looks at her reflection in the water and screams: “It’s a monster! Oh no, it’s me”).
Unfortunately the rest of the women Verdoux seduces are not nearly as lively as Raye, and as a result his cruelty to them is considerably less amusing. It’s here, too, that the political concerns of Monsieur Verdoux begin to emerge. Interestingly, one of Verdoux’s primary mechanisms of control is his keen awareness of the global situation: Verdoux frightens one of his paramours into withdrawing all her money with stories of an impending financial crisis, which does eventually occur; he also warns of a “revolution.” This is a double game Chaplin is playing, pointing out Verdoux’s unfair manipulations of his victims while at the same time manipulating his own audience, who had just lived through the dispiriting period of Depression and World War that Verdoux is cynically predicting. The implication is that Verdoux is not so much evil as simply a little ahead of the historical curve: given a few years, these women will be ruined, humiliated, and quite possibly killed anyway. Isn’t it better that the job is done by a dashing French dandy than by the collapse of the world economy or a fascist regime?
This plot, which combines tragedy with economic determinism, suggests Chaplin’s budding leftist tendencies, and it was this that postwar American audiences primarily objected to in the film. But if the real energy behind Verdoux is political, it has less to do with world affairs – wars, stock crashes, man’s inhumanity to man – than the attendant cataclysms taking place in the domain of culture. The movie’s patron saint could be Theodor Adorno, the radical German philosopher who theorized the rise of “the culture industry” from his involuntary exile in Los Angeles. What interests Chaplin is clearly the man of culture caught in the maw of world events, forced to either make his cultivation pay or else give it up entirely. We see this most clearly in the film’s recurring motif of taste, which it literalizes and links to that of poison. Early on, Verdoux moves from strangling his victims to poisoning them, pleased to have hit on a more civilized form of murder (he gets the idea from a chemist neighbor, in one of the clumsier scenes). The idea (perhaps borrowed from Don Quixote, via David Hume) is that these people’s palates are so uneducated or debased that they don’t even know what they’re being poisoned, just as true refinement or intelligence on their part would allow them to see through Verdoux’s cynical role playing. In what is clearly intended to be the philosophical centerpiece of the movie, a beautiful Belgian refugee escapes poisoning by impressing Verdoux with her learning and sophistication. “This wine has a little cork in it,” he tells her, taking away the glass, “let me get you another one,” thus paying compliment to her discernment at the same time as he shows mercy by not killing her. If the underlying raison d’ étre of Chaplin’s film is contempt for his bourgeois audience, then this single scene plays out as a dream of the perfect viewer: a woman of true distinction, which is in turn the prerequisite for a true recognition, still possible even in this decaying and compromised world.
Despite its obvious interest as an anomaly in the Chaplin filmography, I’m not quite sure if I buy the oft-repeated claim that Monsieur Verdoux was “ahead of its time.” After all, black comedy was nothing new in the late 40s (for instance, the theme of a genteel poisoner had already been treated three years earlier in Frank Capra’s Arsenic and Old Lace), and in subject matter the film is decidedly behind its time, looking back at the early 30s, the Depression, and the gathering storm of war (though admittedly to reconsider these events in 1947 might have been considered forward-thinking). While certainly distinct from Chaplin’s earlier films, it doesn’t really point the way toward any future cinema, as far as I can see: indeed, as even James Agee’s famous rave review in The Nation emphasizes, what formal virtues it has are conservative.1 Likewise, the political theme is sophisticated and seems deeply felt, but doesn’t quite get across; to be really successful, the film either should have been starker and more didactic (a Brechtian treatment of the scenario would have been interesting) or else closer in tone to Chaplin’s typical fare, so that the substitution of Monsieur Verdoux for the Tramp could have been played for maximum contrast. At 123 minutes, Monsieur Verdoux is overlong; it improves significantly in the second half, becoming both funnier and more morally coherent, but it never really becomes a good film, let alone a masterpiece on the level of Modern Times or City Lights. Tonally it’s all over the place, mixing up black comedy, drawing-room farce, populist sentimentality, mock-Dostoevskian philosophy, and classical (if not quite classic) slapstick, held together only by Chaplin’s willful and singular performance.
Which brings us back to the film’s original gamble, which ultimately fails to pay off. Much of the film’s interest comes from seeing Chaplin in a role other than that of the Tramp, and a speaking role at that, and I must admit that seeing him in Verdoux made me wish that he had acted more often in other people’s films. He is as fascinating dialing a telephone or arranging a bouquet of flowers as he is executing some typically Chaplinesque move (falling off a sofa without spilling a cup of tea, for instance), and for a silent actor he is surprisingly subtle and adept with dialogue. Monsieur Verdoux proves beyond a doubt that Chaplin had the capacity to be more than the Tramp, but it also suggests that, as a director, he lacked the skill, or the sense of distance, to set himself off to advantage in any other role. The fact remains that, in spite of its admirable daring, the primary value of the film is Chaplin’s own self-abnegation, and this is simply not enough to make a gestalt on its own. What we are left with is an oddity, and an accomplishment, but not an achievement. No one else could have played Monsieur Verdoux but Charlie Chaplin; but the suspicion remains that someone else – Welles, perhaps? – could have made a better Chaplin film.
1 Much of Agee’s three-part review praises Verdoux’s very lack of innovation: “Chaplin … obviously believes that if you can invent something worth watching, the camera should hold still and clear, so that you can watch it. That is still, and always will be, one of the best possible ways to use a camera; Chaplin is the one great man who still stands up for it.” ↩