Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Masterpiece Test: Monsieur Verdoux

Year of Release  1947
Country  USA
Length  119 min.
Director  Charlie Chaplin
Screenwriter  Charlie Chaplin (based on an idea by Orson Welles)
Original Score  Charlie Chaplin
Cast  Charlie Chaplin, Martha Raye, Marilyn Nash

Beauty  Charlie Chaplin’s basic “point the camera at the actors” aesthetic prevents Monsieur Verdoux from having too many particularly striking shots.  But the cinematography is irrelevant as long as the events onscreen are sufficiently interesting.  As always, Chaplin’s elegant lead performance turns his titular character into the living embodiment of his film’s themes.  

Strangeness  Those themes are what make Monsieur Verdoux such a special, unique film.  A serial bluebeard’s attempt to murder widows and make off with their wealth is a strange enough plot for a comedy.  But while there have been plenty of pitch black comedies in the years before and since Monsieur Verdoux, only one film has the nerve to cast the biggest movie star of all time as a murderer who is bluntly presented as the personification of his era’s contradictory social mores.

Unity of Form and Subject Matter  The success of Monsieur Verdoux rests almost entirely on Chaplin’s performance, as the rest of the film’s stylistic traits are largely more functional than artful.  Fortunately, the legendary actor is up to the task, and he really does make his character a simultaneous embodiment of the post-war years’ gentlemanly exterior and its morally corroded underbelly.

Tradition  Monsieur Verdoux represents a break with Chaplin’s past work in that it is his first feature film in which he isn’t playing a version of the Tramp (The Great Dictator doesn’t technically feature Chaplin’s most famous character, but its barber character is a thinly disguised variation on the Tramp).  Yet hints of the Tramp’s personality leak into Chaplin’s performance as Verdoux waddles contentedly toward his own beheading, adding an extra layer of power to a weirdly serene finale.  Future films that feature Verdoux’s blend of dark satire and social insight include Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964) and Neil LaBute’s In the Company of Men (1997).  The latter is particularly similar to Verdoux in its look at the corrosive effect that business can have on a person’s heart.

Repeatability  If anything, Monsieur Verdoux may seem more timely in a post-Halliburton, post-Enron world than it did in 1947.  Chaplin’s indictment of society was scandalous in 1947, but it has been proven prescient by today’s regular reports of war profiteering.

Viewer Engagement  Chaplin’s talkies of the ‘40s and ‘50s are underappreciated in many ways, and are some of his most sophisticated, interesting films.  Still, it’s true that Chaplin’s later films lack the elemental grace of his silent work.  There is something about effective miming that seems definitive, perhaps because whatever is being mimicked has to be stripped down to its very essence to register with the audience.  The Modern Times (1936) scene in which the Tramp is used as a guinea pig for a feeding contraption is the definitive statement about lunch breaks; it couldn’t be any simpler or more brilliantly performed.  Chaplin never quite figured out how to transfer this elegant simplicity to talkies, and his later films, including Monsieur Verdoux, tend to be a bit overlong and heavy handed where his silent films were tight and efficient.  In fairness, some of the more complicated arguments of Verdoux couldn’t realistically be conveyed silently, but the film is nonetheless weighed down with a couple of scenes that go on longer than necessary and a somewhat dull supporting cast (with the exception of Martha Raye, who gets some of the film’s biggest laughs as Verdoux’s most obnoxiously resilient would-be victim).  Verdoux’s social analysis is rarely less than brilliant, and it certainly gives the viewer a lot to think about, but it isn’t presented in a consistently entertaining way.

Morality  The theme of Monsieur Verdoux - If war is the logical extension of diplomacy, then murder is the logical extension of business – was perhaps an even less popular idea in the immediate post-WWII years than it is today.  Some of the other ideas presented in the film, such as the notion that serial killing is no worse than the mass murder of war, remain provocative, thought provoking and socially relevant to this day.  Monsieur Verdoux falters too often as entertainment to be an unqualified success, but it is a potent x-ray of the violent contradictions of the modern man, and a fascinating document of the turmoil of its time.

Monsieur Verdoux fails the Masterpiece Test.

UP NEXT  Another state of the world address, Edward Yang’s Yi Yi.

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