Sunday, May 23, 2004

Monsieur Verdoux

Charlie Chaplin movies are interesting. I know I already wrote about The Gold Rush, which, though Wes Gehring wrote about it in the context of dark comedy film, I thought had a more slapstick brand of humor. This one, Monsieur Verdoux, is definitely a dark comedy. Like any Chaplin film, though, my overwhelming sense of it is that it is sad. I always thought Charlie Chaplin was a sad figure; certainly his life story is a sad one. He was an orphan on the streets of London, starving. I forget how he managed to find his way into film. I know, though, that that sadness always creeps into his face and into his stories. It always interferes with my having any real belly laughs from his films.

Monsieur Verdoux, though, is complex and provocative, in addition to being quite amusing. It is based on the true story of a French serial killer, Monsieur Henri Desire Landru, who married rich widows and "liquidated" them (as well as a couple of dogs and a boy). It was originally Orson Wells's idea to make a documentary about Landru, and Wells received credit for the original idea and even at one point claimed to have written a draft of the screen play, though his contract with Chaplin Films doesn't support that claim. The ending is the most provocative part, when we realize that Monsieur Verdoux has become a completely sympathetic character--sympathetic to the point of being sentimental--and then suddenly the focus of the narrative turns global and makes some startling (and apt) comparisons. Let me summarize briefly, though.

Verdoux has a girl in every port, literally. To each he tells a different story, but his goal is always the same, and that is to bring her money into the house along with a foolproof murder method. We never see him murder the women, but the murders are strongly implied enough so that, well, even if we did miss them, we'd see him furiously counting the money the next morning and know that the woman would have to be gone. Some of his wives prove more difficult to kill than others. The best one is the character played by the young Martha Raye, who plays the nouveau riche loud-mouthed lottery winner whose fortune has been told as always lucky. Indeed she is because every supposedly foolproof method he uses to kill her fails. It is quite funny, particularly since Martha Raye so brilliantly plays an obnoxious woman that I find myself hoping that he'll kill her. But then we see him visit a house where a little boy hugs him and calls him dad. At that house, the wife, wearing leg braces, is confined to a wheelchair. While the sentimental background music plays, we surmise that this is his true wife, for whom he's stealing all the money.

Another equally sentimental part comes when he learns the recipe for a foolproof undetectable poison from his chemist friend. Mixing up a batch, he plans to try it on a bum, someone no one will miss, who when found dead will be autopsied and the results printed in the newspaper. It will be a perfect way to test the poison. So we see him walking down a rainy street, where he stops and talks to a beautiful woman standing alone in an alley. He takes her to his apartment and pours her some poisoned wine. He asks her about her story and learns that she is the perfect candidate--just out of jail with no family. He is kind to her and cooks her a meal, but remarkably, she never takes a sip of her wine. They begin to have a philosophical discussion, in which she reveals that she is truly optimistic about humanity and about love, that no matter how tough life has been for her, she will not give up her hope. When he hears this, Verdoux obviously decides he can't kill her. Claiming that he sees cork in her wine, he takes away the poisoned glass and brings her a safe one to drink, later sending her on her way with some money. Still later he sees her and she thanks him for his altruism.

I think the sentimentality of this film is worth commenting about because sentimentality is the kind of mood that detracts from dark comedy, for my money. I think we have to look at this film in its historical context, though, and be somewhat forgiving. The late 1940s audience, I believe, would expect a certain amount of sentimentality, niceness, or kindness from a film, particularly one that jokes about murdering widows, or else it would have been poorly received. Think of it as the gentle touch of kid gloves that the audience of the time required. Now in this jaded age, those sentimental scenes take away from the dark comedy because they soften Verdoux as a character too much. He becomes so sympathetic that I am saddened when I see him get caught.

Even so, the film remains extremely provocative for one that is more than 60 years old. Interestingly, this is Chaplin's last American film; it came out during the first wave of McCarthyism, when there were some suspicions already about Chaplin. The message of the film didn't help. I mentioned before that the focus of the narrative changes at the end. Suddenly we see a montage of film clips of some of the political events that led to World War II: First, there are the newspaper headlines announcing bombings, then the film clips of Hitler and his troops marching and so on. In the end of the film, we come upon Monsieur Verdoux as an old man who has come to regret his actions. He encounters his old friend, the young woman who thinks he altruistically helped her, and she thanks him again by taking him to a fine restaurant. There he is recognized by the family of one of the wives he killed and is arrested and put on trial. At his trial, Verdoux speaks out, knowing he will be hanged nonetheless. He wonders at the hypocrisy of a society that rewards and honors the men that make and use weapons of mass destruction that kill thousands upon thousands of innocent people in World Wars, yet punishes or executes the man who kills only a few.

When one watches the news at present, seeing reports of American soldiers torturing Iraqi prisoners, this seems like a very timely argument. When death is practically mass produced by these enormous bombs that are dropped without regard for the innocent lives they end, how can we blame the soldiers for not valuing the lives and dignity of individual prisoners? There couldn't be a timelier argument. It would probably be about as popular in today's totalitarian regime as it was during the McCarthy era. The message made Chaplin immediately suspect as a communist sympathizer, which made it nearly impossible for him to do much promotion. When he was interviewed around the time of the film's release, reporters asked him questions about why he had turned down American citizenship and about his finances and taxes, which were more the concerns of the McCarthy hearings. Not much attention was paid to the film, sadly. It's a bizarre form of censorship we Americans have.

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