The careers of Orson Welles and Charles Chaplin briefly intersected in the early 1940s, not long after "boy genius" Welles arrived in Hollywood and superstar Chaplin made his first film with dialogue, 1940's boldly political The Great Dictator. The extent to which Verdoux represents Welles' ideas depends on whom one believes of two men known for stretching the truth. What's agreed upon is that Welles approached Chaplin with the idea of the former directing the latter in a film based on the exploits of French serial killer Henri Landru, a real-life "Bluebeard." Staunchly opposed to acting for another director, Chaplin convinced Welles to hand over the idea, and Welles ultimately signed papers granting him the credit "From an idea by Orson Welles" and a fee of $5000. Welles later claimed that the finished film deviates very little from his own screenplay; as Chaplin would have it, he wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay himself (though his usually thorough archives are conspicuously inconclusive on the point of Verdoux's script development).
Whatever the truth in this matter, Monsieur Verdoux can boast a screenplay with a highly unusual moral complexity and a deeply philosophical bent. These are not terms one associates with a mass entertainment, which would have been the expectation of the 1947 following years of unqualified Chaplin hits (that the film flopped in America directly corresponded with Chaplin's entanglement in the "Red Scare," which led to boycotts and bad publicity). In its basic plot, Monsieur Verdoux poses challenge enough as a black "comedy of murders" (though Arsenic and Old Lace set precedent three years earlier): Landru surrogate Henri Verdoux (Chaplin) marries old maids and dowagers, secures their financial holdings, then knocks them off and disposes of the bodies, staying one step ahead of their families and the authorities. Once an "honest bank clerk," Verdoux pursues his new line of work ostensibly to support his wife and child, but that's a rationale that, like just about everything in the film, raises more questions than answers.
Beyond the obvious fact that murder is the most extreme method of income imaginable—far afield from that old ethical quandary about stealing a loaf of bread to feed one's family—Verdoux's home life evinces no whiff of desperation. Instead, we see an otherwise comfortable, undemanding wife and child pining for a regularly absent husband and father, a point underscored by Verdoux's family appearing in but one scene. The film's most consistent audio-visual motif is a transitional shot of a racing train, always accompanied by the same anxious strain of music: Verdoux's life is defined by entirely self-serving escapism (until it isn't—eventually the wheels cease to indicate literal movement, and slyly begin to symbolize the God-like wheels of justice grinding away).
When finally facing the music, Verdoux indicts society: "As a mass killer," he notes, "I am an amateur by comparison" to nations and, by implication, corporate interests. Later, he adds, "Wars, conflict—it's all business. One murder makes a villain, millions a hero." (By setting the story circa the Great Depression, Chaplin both contextualizes Verdoux within the filmmaker's oeuvre of class-conscious survivalism, and makes his anti-hero prophetic about the mass murder that brought WWII to a close.) In his murdering prime, Verdoux asserts, "This is a ruthless world, and one must be ruthless to cope with it," but for all his artful dodging, in the end Verdoux implicitly accepts personal responsibility for his crime, seemingly out of a nihilistic fatalism. By the end of a film that, in its quietest moments, contemplates the very reason for living, its hero can hardly think of one.
Yes, Verdoux is a film that name-drops Schopenhauer, but it's also damn funny, with a brilliant physical and, yes, verbal performance by Chaplin, comic bits that would fit right into one of his silent classics (Verdoux's lightning-quick efficiency at money-counting, a subtle take directly into the camera that amusingly concretizes Verdoux's conspiracy with the audience), and several ingeniously designed farcical sequences. Particularly memorable for their comedic impact are the scenes pitting Verdoux against intended victim Annabella Bonheur, a blithely braying wife played with relish (and ace timing) by Martha Raye.
And yet the film's defining scenes aren't comic at all but melancholic: two extended dialogues between Verdoux and Marilyn Nash's "The Girl." Between the two scenes, the magnetic Nash elegantly executes her character's penchant for personal gestures but also her quiet moral devolution. In the first scene, silver-tongued devil Verdoux, holding the upper hand, is surprised to find goodness in a fellow traveler; in the second, their power positions and, perhaps, their moral authority have reversed. For all of Monsieur Verdoux's moral shadow-play, Chaplin's knack for wistful sentiment gives the film a strong undercurrent, pithily expressed by The Girl: "Yet life is wonderful." To the last taste, the last rays of moonlight or sunshine, the last breath.
Criterion gives Monsieur Verdoux its best-yet home-video presentation with a lovely hi-def transfer and excellent bonus features. Other than some early-glimpsed vertical lines at left of frame (which, surprisingly, proved resistant to Criterion's digital cleanup), the picture quality proves outstanding. Grain is natural but unobtrusive, and contrast resolves the picture nicely, with pleasing black level. Most impressive for fans of the film will be the improved detail and texture within the image, taking home viewing of the film as close as it's yet been to theatrical exhibition. The English LPCM 1.0 track proves faithful and entirely satisfactory, losing no nuance of Chaplin's crisp diction and insinuating score.
The bonus features retain the most significant extra from the MK2 DVD edition circa 2004: Bernard Eisenschitz's documentary "Chaplin Today—Monsieur Verdoux" (27:01, HD). Director Claude Chabrol and actor Norman Lloyd appear in this excellent overview of the film's origins, historical context, and Chaplin's technique.
The newly produced "Charlie Chaplin and the American Press" (24:54, HD) proves equally fascinating: an overview of Chaplin's career in film, as traced through newspaper clippings. Kate Guyonvarch—Director of the Charlie Chaplin company Roy Export—and Charles Maland, author of Chaplin and American Culture, contribute separate interviews illustrated liberally with shots of archival newspapers and scrapbooks .
A 1997 audio interview with actress "Marilyn Nash" (8:05, HD), by Chaplin biographer Jeffrey Vance, comes accompanied by film stills.
Eight "Radio Ads" (6:15, HD) include"A Modern French Bluebeard," "This Merchant of Death," "A Warning," "For Women Without A Sense of Humor," "Lady, Can You Take a Dare?", "The Top Picture of the Year," "The Suave, Sinister Lady-Killer" and "Remember - It's a Comedy." Three "Trailers" (8:38, HD) for Monsieur Verdoux hail from France, Germany and the United States.
And, as ever, Criterion supplies fascinating liner notes, in a booklet including credits, tech specs, film stills and illustrations, and three essays: vintage pieces by critic André Bazin and Chaplin himself, as well as an essay by critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky.
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