Physical comedy takes a backseat to contemporary commentary
Published: December 5, 2012
Directed by Charlie Chaplin
at the Charles Theatre Dec. 8, 10, and 13.
The tumbles, trips, and spills we expect from Charlie Chaplin are largely absent from Monsieur Verdoux, the actor/director’s 1947 black comedy. Instead, the Tramp trades his tattered suit for genteel getups; physical comedy takes a backseat to contemporary commentary; a tender conclusion (think The Kid, City Lights) is foregone for a serious one with a politically loaded speech. It was so unpopular at the time of its debut, United Artists pulled the movie from theaters shortly after its release. Now, it has a cult following.
Henri Verdoux served as a bank clerk for decades before being laid off during the depression in 1930s France. As a result, Verdoux chooses the “career of a Bluebeard,” liquidating the fortunes of widows all over the country by marrying and killing them. He has a “wife in every port,” popping in at different homes for a single day, checking up on the available funds before excusing himself for another extended leave. He woos women with lofty speeches and practically transparent displays of affection. Ostensibly, he’s prompted to commit bigamy and homicide in order to support his first and true loves, a wheelchair-bound wife and their young son (the score swells heroically when Verdoux arrives at their small house, signaling his regard for them). Even this family, though, sees him for only one night at time, as he spends most of his time alone, cooking up ways to do away with his wives.
As a character, Verdoux presents a paradox: He ruthlessly snuffs out the lives of widows—in one scene, we spot black smoke rising from an incinerator while he gardens—but he’s also a vegetarian who feeds stray cats and moves caterpillars out of harm’s way. Having concocted an untraceable poison, Verdoux seeks out a stranger to test it on. He picks up a doe-eyed ex-convict (Marilyn Nash) and is a sip away from murdering her when she tells him about her invalid husband, who died while she was in prison. Touched, Verdoux lets her live, gives her money, and sends her on her way.
Like its protagonist, much of Verdoux challenges the audience, especially those viewers expecting to see Chaplin as the accident-prone Tramp of Modern Times. Sentimental frills here and there barely temper its darkness. For Chaplin fans, the movie is an essential piece in the evolution of the filmmaker who went from darling to exile in the course of his career.
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