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Criterion triples up on Charles Chaplin in high-def with one of the filmmaker's most mercurial creations....
Criterion / 124 Minutes / 1947 / Unrated / Street Date: March 26, 2013
A woman's relatives are worried because she has failed to contact them. All they know is that she went off with a man, whose picture they fortunately have for evidence. This is very important because the police will easily be able find the man by using such a photograph. The setting then changes to an extravagant house, in back of which a small man is pruning a rose bush. The man looks harmless, but his past actions include many murders committed in an effort to steal the life savings of vulnerable and thickheaded women. The man was driven to such extreme actions by The Great Depression, which caused his employer to fire him after 30 years of loyal service. But ever the true capitalist, the man chooses to invest his ill-gotten gains in the stock market, the originator of his original misfortune. After all, does it not make sense to buy when the prices are low?
Dark comedies are generally more dark than they are comedic. Monsieur Verdoux is just the opposite. That is the one aspect of the film that could have been better. Keep the funny parts, but make the film even darker by stressing the murders. Verdoux is never shown explicitly murdering anyone (poison does not count) or explicitly removing the bodies. The neat and tidy persona of Verdoux seems to sweep away all his past transgressions against the innocent. Perhaps Chaplin realized that he could never get violent or depraved content past the stranglehold of the censorship boards, so he decided to do something more devious and covert by making Verdoux a sympathetic murderer. Halfway through the film I was rooting against Verdoux, who really seemed like evil incarnate. But by the end Verdoux started saying some things that made a lot of sense, and while his acts were deplorable, they were somewhat alleviated by the circumstances of his life and the world in which he lived. How shocking it is that someone who has committed so many murders can be a likable person.
It is also shocking that this film was shot in only 80 days. Chaplin was known for his incredibly long shoots (which is one reason why he made so few films), owing to dozens of retakes and last second changes. Perhaps Chaplin sensed that the commercial viability of this film would be far less than "The Tramp" films, necessitating a thrifty production. I wonder if the quality of the acting did not suffer as a result. The performances by everyone other than Chaplin and Raye are rather weak. Either Chaplin did not have the time he needed to capture satisfactory performances from the cast, or he was not very good at directing actors. Chaplin's own performance is more deliberate than realistic, although it still works. Chaplin retained some of the Tramp's physical quirks and facial twitches for the Verdoux character. A backward plunge over a windowsill makes it clear early on that Chaplin was unready to give up the clownish antics that were the hallmark of his success for many years. Raye was cast perfectly as the big mouthed character, and I found myself wishing she (or her voice) would stay onscreen as long as possible since her scenes are the funniest in the film.
Monsieur Verdoux would never have come about had Orson Welles not suggested the idea to Chaplin. Welles wanted to write and direct the film, which he called The Lady Killer, with Chaplin as the title character. The rest of the story is the subject of a small controversy thanks to the tendency of Welles and Chaplin to not fully remember the truth. In the book This Is Orson Welles, Welles claims that he wrote a screenplay which Chaplin read before Chaplin decided to direct the film himself. Chaplin claimed that no screenplay existed. Welles also claims that Chaplin used some scenes from his alleged screenplay, including the yodelers and the rum drinking at the end of the film, although he does credit Chaplin with originating most of the film, as the scenes he did use from the Welles screenplay were altered quite a bit. In a statement that sounds like more like a funny anecdote than the truth, Welles reported that Chaplin did not provide the screen credit to Welles until after the poor reception in New York at the film's premier. One thing is for certain. Chaplin and Welles did sign a contract in which Welles gave Chaplin the rights to the story (or idea) in exchange for the paltry sum of $5,000 and a screen credit. This contract was signed in 1941, a few weeks after the release of Citizen Kane. Whether Chaplin would have displayed Welles' name so prominently in the credits if the film was received favorably is something we will never know.