Saturday, January 10, 2009
Charlie Chaplin's Monsieur Verdoux-a comedy of murders
I have stated before that I'm not a huge fan of Charlie Chaplin's. Outside of his great silent film The Gold Rush, I've not thought any of his movies were anything special. But in 1947 he made a movie called Monsieur Verdoux, a black-comedy set in France about a man who marries women so that he can kill them and take their money. The project came about from an idea that Orson Welles had for a movie, and he wanted Chaplin to star in it. Chaplin had never been directed by anyone but himself, and didn't intend to start at the age of 58, so he bought the script from Welles, re-wrote parts of it, and made the movie himself. It was a resounding flop when it was released, mostly due to Chaplin's personal and political scandals at the time. It has since come to be one of Chaplin's most fondly remembered movies, and one that Chaplin reportedly said was "the cleverest and most brilliant film of my career".
I was actually most impressed not by Chaplin's writing or directing abilities (he also wrote the score, as he often did for his movies), but by his performance as the title character. This was the first time that he'd fully stepped away from his signature character of The Tramp, and he does it in brilliant fashion. He's a quick talking, intelligent, diabolical ladies man who swiftly sweeps middle aged women off their feet and gets them to marry him, so he can get to their money quicker, so that he can move on to the next one. He doesn't go for the richest women, just ones who're living comfortably or at least have a bit of land or a house to sell. He sees himself as a business man, not a murderer, only killing these women because that's how he happens to make money.
It's quite a dark subject matter, but Chaplin is so likeable and energetic in the lead role that it never gets bogged down in its subject. At the end, while he's awaiting the guillotine (it was 1947, you didn't expect him to get away with it, did you?), he's interviewed by a couple of newspapers. While laying in his bed thinking about the vile way he's being treated by the press, he talks about how people who profit on war are not executed, but he will be, and dryly says to an interviewer "One murder makes a villain, millions a hero", which is the most famous line from the movie. Chaplin had some problems getting by the production code of the day, but was mostly able to get around it and never had to cut out anything of significance.
It's long by about 20 minutes or so, but I was never bored, mainly because Chaplin was so brilliant in the lead, and he's in basically every scene. I still don't think Chaplin is on the level of genius that Buster Keaton is on, but maybe there are more of his movies I need to check out before I say that he's not a genius at all.