Saturday, March 8, 2008

Monsieur Verdoux

"Monsieur Verdoux" (1947, Charles Chaplin) I'm not the biggest fan of Chaplin, finding him self-indulgent and egotistical, but you don't get to be that way without accomplishing things that garner success, and every so often Chaplin does something that's so astoundingly eye-popping or funny that one has to acknowledge the very real genius behind it. Here his credits are huge compared to everybody else's--one nifty little bit of spin is the credit "Original Story by Charles Chaplin...based on an idea by Orson Welles," okay, which is it?--but he does give a big heart-felt all-to-herself credit to Martha Raye. One sees why in the film. Raye is a force of Nature, loud and brash and fast, and Chaplin is her perfect foil, having to raise his energy-level to meet hers, they're perfect sparring partners. The two of them together make the funniest scenes in the film, and it's pretty obvious Chaplin gave her more to do to perk his film up. Now that's genius. In "Verdoux" Chaplin abandons "The Little Tramp" character, and his "Verdoux" is a cultured bon-vivant. The difficult economic times have cost him his good bank-job, so now he has a modest furniture business, with a lucrative hobby: marrying and murdering rich widows, and investing the resulting liquidation of their property. The story-telling deck is stacked to gain our sympathies--Verdoux is a charming sweetheart with a crippled wife (for real) and the doomed wives are all ogres, but for all its blackness the film does display a moral center that guarantees an unhappy ending. And some bitter pills that don't go down that easily. When a reporter interviews Verdoux about his crimes, he obfuscates: "Wars, conflict - it's all business. One murder makes a villain; millions, a hero. Numbers sanctify, my good fellow!" And then there's the requisite ingenue part, portrayed semi-successfully by Marilyn Nash. And that brings us back to the beginning--the self-indulgent/egotistical thing. For all the joys of a Chaplin film, one can never watch too long before noticing that.

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