A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Monday, April 3, 2017

Monsieur Verdoux (Charles Chaplin, 1947)

At the end of Monsieur Verdoux, Charles Chaplin, in the title role, walks away toward his execution by guillotine, just as his Little Tramp character used to walk away toward the horizon in his earlier films. It's a richly ironic moment, not just because Chaplin is parodying the endings of his other movies, but also because it would come to symbolize the beginning of the end of his career. He would make three more films, only one of which, Limelight (1952), would attract an audience (mainly in Europe) and earn some critical respect. Of the other two, A King in New York (1957) was not even released in the United States until 1973, and although The Countess From Hong Kong (1967) did get American distribution, it was generally panned even by critics inclined to favor Chaplin and was a major box office flop. Monsieur Verdoux is a key work in its revelation of Chaplin's strengths and weaknesses. His strengths are still there: He was, when he wanted to be, a very funny actor, and there is one scene -- Verdoux and Annabella (Martha Raye) in a rowboat -- that is among the most hilarious sequences ever filmed. His weaknesses stemmed from his desire to be more than funny: to make statements about the way he saw the world. The ending of The Great Dictator (1940) was marred when he shifted from satire to sermon, and the rather muzzy anticapitalism expressed by Verdoux in the final scenes strikes us today as banal. Unfortunately, in 1947 it struck many as worse than that. In the increasingly heated anticommunist fervor of the day it was at least heresy, at worst treason. Monsieur Verdoux was picketed and banned and eventually withdrawn from circulation in the United States, not to be seen here until 1964. It confused most of the critics in 1947 with its shifts in tone and its rather old-fashioned mise-en-scène and cutting, but it had its defenders, chief among them James Agee, who wrote a long, impassioned multipart essay for The Nation defending the film. "I love and revere the film as deeply as any I have ever seen," Agee wrote, "and believe that it is high among the great works of this century." Not many people would go that far today. Monsieur Verdoux has its longueurs and its unfortunate wanderings into Chaplin's particular brand of sentimentality, especially the wheelchair-bound wife and adorable child. It betrays Chaplin's perennial weakness for the pretty girl in his casting of the wooden Marilyn Nash in what seems to have been intended as a key role but which fizzles because it's awkwardly written and performed. Even the title role is inconsistently written and performed: Chaplin's dapper Verdoux suddenly turns into a slapstick clown and just as suddenly back into the suave and sinister serial killer, undercutting the high-minded pseudo-Shavian irony of his final apologia: "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." Monsieur Verdoux feels something like a scene from Act IV in the tragicomedy that was Chaplin's life. If the first three acts were about his rise to success, despite controversy over his personal life and his politics, the fourth act finds his artistic instincts failing him and the controversies forcing him into exile. Only in the fifth act does the adulation that once surrounded him revive.

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