Criterion // 1947 // 124 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // April 2nd, 2013
Chaplin's Bluebeard Comedy is a Killer!
Modern Times is generally considered to be Charlie Chaplin's masterpiece; it's got all the hallmarks of his silent greatness, from brilliantly composed slapstick to social commentary and a bit of melodrama with its gamine. Those more predisposed to melodrama might cite The Kid as his greatest, while others look to The Gold Rush as the tipping point for his achievement. Contrary viewers will cite The Great Dictator or City Lights. Few, however, will mention Monsieur Verdoux, Chaplin's 1947 comedy, and his first true talkie, even though it was one of Chaplin's own favorite films. The rest of the world did not seem to agree with Chaplin's assessment; the film was a flop in 1947 and has only gradually gained acceptance as a great work of a true master of cinema. In recognition of this, Monsieur Verdoux is his fourth film to be released by Criterion on Blu-ray, and while it's not quite as impressive as their other Chaplin releases, Monsieur Verdoux (Blu-ray) is a treat for fans.
Set in the wake of the Great Depression, M. Verdoux (Charlie Chaplin) is a man trying to support a wife and child after losing the banking job he's held for thirty years. To earn money, Verdoux travels the whole of France finding wealthy, single women he can entice to get hold of ready cash. When they do, he murders them. We watch as he lures three different women into his web, even as he's watched by the police.
Legend has it that Orson Welles wrote the screenplay for M. Verdoux with the intention of having Chaplin star as the modern-day Bluebeard. Chaplin changed his mind about starring in another man's movies after thirty years in the business and instead bought the rights back from Welles, eventually reshaping most of the screenplay into the film we have before us. Though Welles and Chaplin always maintained sympathetic political convictions, it's difficult to imagine two more different cinematic artists in the period. There's perhaps no trace of Welles left in the screenplay (except the aforementioned political convictions), but it's interesting to see how Chaplin has evolved.
Chaplin always seemed to know the value of sound. Modern Times and The Great Dictator are not traditional talkies, but it's not terribly surprising that some of the most memorable scenes from both those films include the brief moments of Chaplin either singing or talking. Monsieur Verdoux demonstrates that by 1947, Chaplin had completely figured out how to create a talking picture that doesn't feel like a Frankenstein of dialogue and Chaplin's trademark slapstick. Instead, Chaplin's slapstick has been updated for the sound era; his movements are less broad and the camera moves a bit more. The entire effect is surprising, like Chaplin has been making talking pictures for the past fifteen years, when in fact he's only made three, largely silent pictures since the introduction of sound.
Of course it's still a Chaplin picture, and many of his trademark plot points are in play. He's not The Tramp, but he's still a working man being put upon by a larger system in which he has no say. In this case it's the fact that he's been a loyal bank employee for thirty years, but is the first to go when the Depression hits. Chaplin has always been a bit of a lackluster Lothario, but Verdoux gives him a chance to woo three different women, and Chaplin does a fine job distinguishing between the different strategies for different women. There's even a helpless gamine, this time in the form of a woman Verdoux meets in the rain and invites in, hoping to test out a new poison on her. Once he hears that her story is so close to his, he relents, and they continue to cross paths throughout the film. The film even ends with a political appeal. It lacks the force of the one at the end of The Great Dictator, but it feels perhaps more relevant today in an era of corporate capitalism.
Criterion has so far lavished much care on the Chaplin films they've released, and Monsieur Verdoux is no exception. The 1947 film doesn't seem to have been preserved quite as well as some of Chaplin's other films -- unsurprising given its lack of historical importance or popular appeal -- so the print used here as a few issues. Lines are the most frequent defect, with the occasional scratch or bit of dirt showing up. With that said, the 1.33:1/1080p AVC-encoded presentation is otherwise excellent. The black-and-white image has perfect contrast, deep blacks, and well-rendered grey tones. Detail is strong enough to make out fine patterns and show some well-rendered grain. It's not a revelatory, knockout transfer, but the film looks great. The 1.0 LPCM track shows its age a bit, but dialogue is clean and clear, music well-balanced, and hiss/distortion absent.
Extras start with a 2003 documentary that looks at the making-of the film and its afterlife. It runs 27 minutes and hits the highlights concerning the film's controversial elements and initial commercial failure. Another 24-minute featurette created for Criterion looks at Chaplin's press archive (which was extensive, as he was a bit of a publicity pack rat) and talks about the controversy surrounding the film. We also get an audio interview with Marilyn Nash (who plays the "gamine" in the film) talking about how she got into acting (by meeting Chaplin and not knowing who he was). The disc rounds out with a set of radio ads and the film's theatrical trailer. The usual Criterion booklet is a thick one this time. We get a recent essay by Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, a piece by Chaplin, and an excerpt from noted critic Andre Bazin's essay on the film.
Chaplin is undoubtedly a brilliant writer, actor, and director. However, I'm not always sure that his brilliance as an editor is assured (not that he physically edited the film, but rather oversaw it). Monsieur Verdoux can feel a bit baggy at points, especially around the middle. I get the feeling that with a few judicious edits this film could have been closer to 100 minutes rather than 124. It's not a huge deal, but modern audiences not accustomed to slower paces might find this flick a bit frustrating.
My only complaint about this release of Monsieur Verdoux is that Criterion have done such a good job demonstrating how great the film is that I'm simply disappointed that they're not releasing all of his films. However, the four that we have (so far...) are great, and Monsieur Verdoux can sit proudly on any shelf next to The Gold Rush, Modern Times, and The Great Dictator. It's a fine presentation of an interesting film and the extras paint a pretty clear picture of its production and reception. Chaplin fans are urged to seek it out (and upgrade their DVD editions).
This killer comedy is not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame (1080p)
* PCM 1.0 Mono (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 124 Minutes
Release Year: 1947
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Radio Ads