Home Video Hovel- Monsieur Verdoux, by Scott Nye
For as often as the term “subversive” gets thrown around, it’s always invigorating to see something that truly fits the description. And while entertainer of millions Charlie Chaplin might not seem like the guy to pull it off, well, things were a lot different for the man behind The Tramp in the postwar years than they were in the 1920s and 30s. With scandals raging, both personal (his love affairs with increasingly younger women) and political (accusations of Communist allegiances), what does he choose to do? He makes a film about a man who marries and murders a series of women for their money, who then makes a speech about how warring nations are just larger, more successful murderers and there is no God. That’s subversion. And, as it turns out, entertainment.
Henri Verdoux (Chaplin) is known by several names to many different women across France, and to each provides a welcome dose of romance in their advancing age. Of course, each has been married before, to now-departed husbands, and are left with sums of cash that only a hand as delicate (and deadly) as Verdoux’s could wrangle free. But better not to leave any witnesses. So when we meet him, dancing about in the garden of a home he is about to sell as the incinerator burns behind him for, the servants note, the third straight day, even the introductory narration would’ve been unnecessary to get a sense of this man’s methods of operation. His backstory, however, is not disregardable. Once a bank clerk, forced out of a job after the stock market crash of 1929, he has spent the ensuing years (the film picks up around 1932, but newspaper headlines will take his tale right up through the beginnings of World War II) doing just what was described.
Chaplin was famous for playing the underdog, scrambling to survive due to forces beyond his control – the Depression was, in many ways, the best thing that could’ve happened to a guy who’d been playing The Tramp – and at first Verdoux seems like a darker, more elaborate exploration of that same principle. But something’s very different this time out, starting with the extravagance Verdoux is accorded thanks to his career. I won’t give it away, but it’s made very clear that he could make do with a lot less, and that, combined with the ease with which he seems to have taken to the serial killer lifestyle, calls into question just how necessary it all is, or if he’s just found a justification for his darker pleasures.
That Chaplin avoids all that is perhaps a neat way of making Verdoux more likeable, and indeed he is, particularly when contrasted with his deeply unpleasant wives. Chaplin may have firmly moved out of the silent era (his prior two films, Modern Times and The Great Dictator, used sound purposefully, but could have easily existed in traditional silence), but his skill with pantomime remains. Verdoux is defined by his short, neat bow, a way of carrying wine that seems as though he’s dancing with it, and, most hilarious, counting money at an impossible speed. On top of his verbose, flowery speaking manner, Chaplin creates a whole character quite far apart from the one for which he is best known, but no less distinct or developed.
That he couched such a likeable cad into this really evil story is but a further subversion, and the dark comedy he indulges is a delight throughout. While I’ve found Chaplin’s other talkie work to be somewhat wanting, I have no problem placing this alongside many of his silent classics.
The Criterion Collection brings this nasty bit of business to Blu-ray with a very handsome transfer. This is hardly Chaplin at the height of his aesthetic qualities, but the film looks very good indeed, with a crisp image, plenty of detail, and a nice, but not overwhelming, layer of grain. The image is still surprisingly damaged, with a series of black marks popping up on the righthand side of the frame throughout the picture. It’s not too distracting, but a little unusual given the thoroughness with which Criterion usually scrubs their images. Sounds fares much better, with nary a flaw to be found, even if a 1947 film will be somewhat less sonically dynamic than one of today.
The special features are few, but, I found, more than worthwhile. On the disc are a pair of documentaries running around twenty-five minutes apiece, the first focusing on the production and surrounding the film (which was originated by Orson Welles), along with some analysis, the second on Chaplin’s evolving relationship with the press. The first was on a DVD Warner Brothers put out some years back, but, especially given the input of now-deceased filmmaker Claude Chabrol, is an enlightening and spirited experience. The second featurette was produced for the Criterion Collection, and while it repeats some information from the other doc, the thoroughness it takes with its subject and the interviews provided make it worth its short running time.
Criterion has also provided excerpts from a 1997 interview with Marilyn Nash, who played a young woman whom Verdoux looks after on a rainy night, and, despite the brevity of the snippets, this might be the best feature on the disc. Nash claims to have been on the set throughout the entire shoot, and provides great insights into Chaplin as a man, actor, and filmmaker. The audio plays out over stills and clips.
There are also some fun radio ads and the trailer for the film. In the accompanying booklet, far denser than its 36 pages would suggest, we get a new essay by critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, who goes further in-depth as to Welles’ possible contributions and some great analysis of the resultant film, a reprint of an article Chaplin wrote about the film on release, and a long essay by Andre Bazin, one of the few critics to immediately recognize the genius of the film. Bazin, as would be the case for many who wrote with him at Cahiers du cinema (which he co-founded), was not a critic given to brief, nor understated, appreciations of film, and while, for many, this sort of writing is a little trying, I find it absolutely intoxicating. This is only an excerpt of a much longer piece, but Bazin was a genius, worth indulging not only for his reputation, but the writing itself, which is so lucid and adoring in a way few could ever really execute.
Even without being Criterion’s best release of the year, month, or available Chaplin titles, this is still well worth checking out. Chaplin proves that even sound couldn’t stop his comedy – his dialogue is as sharp as his slapstick, and he does a few things that he never could have done twenty years previous. The total package here, looking at a still-daring filmmaker on the edge of exile, both from the country in which he found his fame and its industry, is substantial, with the booklet possibly even being the highlight. Highly recommended.