Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Portrait of A Serial Killer: Monsieur Verdoux

Sixty-one years after it was wrongly panned and banned (in Tennessee with a “we don’t have to give our reasons” excuse), Charles Chaplin’s exquisite “Monsieur Verdoux,” in which the former Tramp trades in his shabby overcoat to embody the nattily-attired, thieving, serial killer of rich widows Henri Verdoux, still has the power to deliver a punch to the gut and leave you doubled over in screaming laughter.

With “knockdown, drag out performances” by Martha Raye (literally in her case) and Marilyn Nash – both of whose voices were made for talkies – surrounded by a stellar ensemble cast with clockwork timing, written/produced/directed/scored by and starring Chaplin from an idea suggested to him by Orson Welles (who received credit, though not for the screenplay which he’d been making noise about having penned, and which Chaplin steadfastly denied), with lush B&W cinematography and impeccable editing that moves with the speed of Verdoux’s own female juggling, the pace of the repeating image of fast-turning wheels on a train, it’s a wonder “Monsieur Verdoux” wasn’t at the center of an Academy Award campaign rather than a boycott. (Only the always-eloquent James Agee – who would have made a phenomenal blogger – counterattacked his disapproving colleagues in a thoughtful, three-part rebuttal in “The Nation.”)

For “Monsieur Verdoux” represented one of the rare times in Chaplin’s career when his timing was way, way off. To play a sympathetic serial killer in a “Comedy of Murders” (its original title) in the wake of WWII when the Red Scare was well underway (“Monsieur Verdoux” being released the very same year congressional hearings into Hollywood began!) was courting not just controversy, but real danger. Indeed, the press conference for the film’s NYC premiere devolved into an interrogation that would have made McCarthy proud, with accusations of communism, questioning of patriotism flung at Chaplin, nary a comment about the merits of the film. That Chaplin responded with grace, intelligence and dignity only proves that the artist knew what he was in for – and that he was willing to withstand personal attacks to get his message across.

And what was that message? Filtered through the hilarity, the outrageous slapstick scenes of pure comic genius (like my favorite at a wedding in which Chaplin’s Verdoux is trying to dodge Raye’s blowsy buffoon – Pigeon!” she calls him), is a moral theme as universal and timeless as the character of Verdoux is ambiguous. For the serial killer Chaplin plays is no evil psychopath, but a man desperate to support a wheelchair bound wife and young son. Kind both to caterpillars and cats, a vegetarian to boot, Verdoux has resorted to wooing, robbing and murdering for the love of family as a result of being laid off after three decades of hard work at a bank. In other words he’s a good Everyman forced into soul-deadening ruthlessness at the hands of a dog eat dog world. His Blue-bearding is a business like any other, a metaphor for both the “morality” of war and necessity of corporate tyranny. (Which proved too much for most fans of the Tramp.)

Especially when they’re being reminded constantly of Chaplin’s previous incarnation through his eyebrow raising antics, ruffling through pilfered bills like shuffling cards, attacking the piano like his pants are on fire. (It’s surprising that Steve Martin – another comic to always downplay his WASP-y good looks – never remade this film.) Chaplin is as expressive as if the talkies had never been invented, does with his face and body what the great silent directors did with a camera. Dialogue is merely icing on the cake when Chaplin’s faux love struck Verdoux is chasing a freaked out widow around a room. Both the women’s doubting and Chaplin’s patient, passive wooing, thoroughly believable, make for heartfelt, three-dimensional characters (the widow Lydia trusts Verdoux when he implores her to get her savings out of the bank before it collapses – a notion not too farfetched during the Depression – then later claims she should have her head examined for listening to such craziness). Like Hitchcock, the director Chaplin uses music to signify murder, knows the anticipation is far worse than watching the actual act (the camera stays on a long shot of the narrow hallway leading to a window as Lydia is dispatched with in the bedroom).

And Verdoux does not fit the psychological profile of a lonely, isolated serial killer by any stretch of the imagination. “Business is business, my dear,” Verdoux says to his in-the-dark wife before she reads him the latest newspaper account about the Depression. (He tells her to stop, “too depressing.”) He admonishes his son for his cruel streak when he plays too rough with the cat. He guilt trips Martha Raye’s eccentric lottery winner (in overwhelming hat and feathered cape) – “You trust everyone but me!” – into letting him help her with her financial dealings, soon bonds with a Belgian, just-out-of-the-jailhouse girl (Marilyn Nash) he picked up to use as a guinea pig for poison. When Verdoux learns she’s a widow whose husband was an invalid (like his wife) he has a change of heart, emphasized with a soaring score. “Penny for your thoughts,” she says as he chuckles. “Oh, no,” he answers, thinking of the lethal wine he dispensed with in the knick of time. “This is a ruthless world and one has to be ruthless to survive in it,” he laments. “No, it’s not, it’s a blundering world,” she replies. He generously offers her money, sends her on her way.

But after poisoning a police captain who arrested him, Verdoux bumps into the girl once again on the street, reacts coldly, for she reminds him of his buried humanity. Of course before things get too serious Chaplin displays his virtuosity by seamlessly segueing to an episode of pure slapstick in which Verdoux mistakenly believes he’s drank poison while a maid uses the real poison to peroxide her hair. (A highly physical scene on a rowboat with Raye, her death prevented Monty Python-like by a strange song, follows. “What’s that?” she wonders. “A yodeler,” answers Verdoux, listening intently, “Now there’s a handful of them.”) When Verdoux gets wiped out in the stock market crash – all those lives lost for nought! – Chaplin cuts to footage of Hitler, headlines proclaiming “Crisis in Europe.” Only when Verdoux a third time runs into the girl he saved – now wealthy with the riches of a munitions manufacturer (“It’ll be paying big dividends soon,” she advises) – does the merry-go-round of good and evil begin to slow down. Her husband is kind and generous – but ruthless in business, she discloses on their way to a chichi restaurant where she’ll pick up the tab.

Once there, Verdoux admits that he lost his wife and child soon after the crash. “Despair is a narcotic. It lulls the mind into indifference,” he states. To which she counters, “Life is beyond reason. It’s why you must go on – if only to fulfill your destiny.” And voila! Recognized by the family of the first widow he swindled Verdoux is thrust into a brilliant mixture of lowbrow physical comedy (in the escape attempt) and high-minded morality (in the sharp confession), culminating in a walk to his imminent death by guillotine. “Wars, conflict, it’s all business,” explains a weary Verdoux. And in the end isn’t this really the same tactic that Chaplin employed in “The Great Dictator,” using comedy to enlighten, to spotlight huge humanistic themes? What grander idea than the convergence of big business, the military industrial complex, and common man – an amalgam of serial killers? Except that “The Great Dictator” lampooned the “other” – the obvious bad guys. “Monsieur Verdoux,” on the other hand, brutally indicts us all.

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