Monsieur Verdoux Review
Henri Verdoux (Charles Chaplin) has a career of marrying wealthy widows, whom he then murders for their money. But in Annabella (Martha Raye) he meets his match...
Beginning in the silent era as he did, the basis of Charles Chaplin's comedy was always mime, and after talkies had arrived he continued to make silents, with City Lights and Modern Times. When he made The Great Dictator he tried to balance the old non-verbal side of his work with a more verbal one, located in his two roles in the film. Monsieur Verdoux, on the other hand, was conceived as a talking picture throughout, from the outset. There are certainly elements on physical comedy here, such as perfectly- executed backward fall through an open window, showing that Chaplin – now in his late fifties – had lost none of his agility. But this is a film driven much more by verbal wit. That#s not to say it's uncinematic: Chaplin's visual style matches the dialogue for elegance. Even if that elegance is to get round the censorship of the day, of which more in a moment.
Chaplin's one foray into serious drama, A Woman of Paris, had been a failure with the public, if not with the critics, so he followed a different path by integrating serious subject matter into comedy. Some of that subject matter was on the face of it was not funny at all, such as the World War I trenches in Shoulder Arms or homelessness and child abandonment in The Kid or a real-life tragedy in The Gold Rush. Monsieur Verdoux is the blackest of comedies, and again is based on real-life material which is not on the face of it funny. In this case, this is the French serial bigamist and wife-mirderer Henri Landru, who claimed eleven victims before his arrest, conviction and execution by guillotine in 1922. Accounts differ, but a film inspired by Landru was in development by Orson Welles, who thought of casting Chaplin in the lead role. Chaplin backed out of acting for another director, something he had not done since he started directing his own short films in the teens, but he bought the idea from Welles, who has screen credit for the idea, though the script, as usual, was entirely Chaplin's work, although Welles later claimed he had written at least one draft of it.
Verdoux is a monster, but as played by Chaplin – with grey hair and a real pencil moustache, not the fake toothbrush one he had worn as the Tramp – he has considerable charm, to the point where you're hoping he gets away with his multiple marriages and multiple murders. This is even more so in that the women Verdoux marries and dispatches are written and played as harridans. Chief of those is Annabella, played to the hilt by Martha Raye, who virtually pilfers every scene she's in. As with Paulette Goddard, whom he married, Raye (with whom he was not romantically involved) had a reputation outside her work with Chaplin, so she isn't as overshadowed by him as some of the more ingenue leading ladies he cast before and since.
Chaplin had had run-ins with local censorship boards before, and since 1934 with the Production Code Administration, but this film had the most difficulties of all his work. Originally the PCA, then headed by Joe Breen, rejected the story outline entirely, and only let it go through with alterations. (Amongst other things, the Breen Office would not allow any suggestion that married couples might share a bed. They also found Verdoux's attitude towards God verging on blasphemy.) Even so, this was strong stuff for its day: in the UK, the BBFC cut the film for an A certificate. Verdoux's final speech to a priest – that one murder makes him a villain, but mass killing in war makes one a hero – is not something you would see every day in a Hollywood film of that time. The film did not find favour in America – it did better overseas – and Chaplin, having weathered scandals including a paternity suit, found himself under fire for his perceived left-wing sympathies and implied criticism of the society of his adopted country, one of which he never became a citizen. This began a backlash against Chaplin which led him to leave the United States early in the next decade.
Monsieur Verdoux is released on Blu-ray and DVD by Curzon Artificial Eye. The former is the edition supplied for review.
As with the other Chaplins reissued by Curzon Artificial Eye, Monsieur Verdoux was originally released on DVD in the UK in 2003 by Warner Home Video, as a single-disc release in one of two box sets. As before, the transfer and extras are licensed from MK2. The extras which have not been carried forward to this release are the original trailer and a German one from the time, radio commercials, a stills and poster gallery and set designs.
Shot in black and white and Academy Ratio (1.37:1), Monsieur Verdoux is presented in a ratio of 1.33:1 on this Blu-ray. The transfer is certainly sharp if maybe a little overbright, though greyscale and grain both look accurate. As before, screengrabs follow, first from the 2003 DVD, then from this Blu-ray.
The soundtrack is the original mono, rendered as LPCM 2.0. It's a product of Hollywood expertise of the time: clear and well-balanced. Possibly mercifully, the optional 5.1 remix on the DVD has not been carried forward. Unfortunately though, neither have any hard-of-hearing subtitles.
This time, there are really only two extras, the introduction by David Robinson (5:16) and the Chaplin Today featurette (27:11). Both are typically solid runthroughs of the film's inception, difficulties with the Breen Office, production and reception. The guest filmmaker in the latter is Claude Chabrol, who had himself made a film inspired by the Landru case, Landru (aka Bluebeard) from 1963. He speaks in French with an English voiceover: oddly, he's subtitled into English in the version of this featurette on the 2003 DVD. Also on the disc is the same compilation, running 10:44, of clips from the releases in Curzon Artificial Eye's Chaplin Collection.