Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Movies: "As a mass killer, I'm an amateur by comparison."

Chaplin's most enduring contribution to the collective imagination was the character of the Little Tramp. The bowler-wearing, cane-twirling persona that Chaplin wore through a considerable portion his career, not only survived the transition from silents to sound films, but managed to become shorthand for Chaplin's entire filmic output. In fact, the character is so essential to the legacy of Chaplin that the two are often conflated. As the film poster for the 1992 biopic attests, you want to evoke Chaplin, you just evoke the Little Tramp. It is something of a shock then to see Chaplin play Henri Verdoux, the title character of his 1947 film Monsieur Verdoux.

Herni, like the Tramp, is an awkwardly charming character. He also shares the Tramp's goofy fussiness. The Tramp, for example, can be fastidious about the flower on his lapel even when he is homeless and wearing trousers with holes in them. Similarly, Henri Verdoux stands on manners and an over-sensitive sense of social grace, especially in situations where they are comedically out of place.

However, there are crucial differences. The Tramp, while sometimes mischievous, exists in a world where human goodness is the ultimate end of all actions and the right can be expected to prevail. By contrast, Henri Verdoux is a nihilistic serial killer who, in his words, "liquidates members of the opposite sex."

That's right, in Monsieur Verdoux we get the odd spectacle the man responsible for creating the mostly cloying cutesy film character outside of a Disney flick eagerly playing the role of serial killer. Freaky, non?

The film, from an original idea of Orson Welles' and inspired by a true story, opens with a shot of Henri's gravestone and he explains, in posthumous voice over, that, for many years he was a bank clerk. However, he lost his job in the global Depression of the 1930s. Unable to find conventional employment, he explains in a matter of fact voice, he turned to killing women for their estates.

Cut to a thoroughly unpleasant family arguing about the fate of a relative. Seems she met a man in Paris, was caught up in a whirlwind romance, withdrew all her money from the bank, married the man, and then promptly disappeared. They debate calling the police, but decide to give it a few more days. They look at a photo of her husband, Chaplin with a humorously ugly little moustache, and one of the family members suggests the woman may have been murdered. This theory is promptly dismissed as alarmism.

Meanwhile, at a small country home in the south of France, Monsieur Verdoux is tending his garden. Behind him, ominously, a constant stream of thick black smoke pours from his backyard incinerator. We learn from the neighbors that he's been burning the incinerator for three days straight.

Viewers quickly get acquainted with Verdoux and his MO. Using several aliases, Verdoux criss-crosses France, seducing women and then dispatching them. Between these murders, Verdoux spends his days on a quiet country estate, enjoying the company of his wheelchair-bound wife and his young son.

It is the odd attractiveness of this charming monster, who takes the role of the film's hero without ever becoming anything but a villain, that is the chief pull of the film. Verdoux can be humorously meek. He's a vegetarian who carefully removes caterpillars from walkways, lest they get stomped, and chides his son for playing too rough with the pet cat. "You've got a vicious streak in you and I don't know where it came from," he tells his boy. But, on the job, which he refers to euphemistically as the "fight in the jungle," we see Verdoux sociopathically attempt to seduce a new victim while the body of the last is burned away in the incinerator out back. Verdoux is one of the founder fathers in that long line of smiling monsters that descends from this flick down through Tom Ripley on to Hannibal Lecter and Dexter Morgan.

The film itself is almost proto-Hitchcock, though you'll have to imagine a Hitchcock film in which the sympathies are almost entirely on the side of the killer. The murderous acts occur off-screen and the entire film is bloodless. Chaplin instead focuses on the manner in which Verdoux's plans are carried out or foiled. The comedy is dark and dry in tone. The plot, while adequate, is mainly a character study. The story contains several show piece scenes, including one in which Verdoux must confront a determined detective who is on to his game and another in which Verdoux meets a victim that causes him to question his own murderous ways. Ultimately, though, the suspense plays second fiddle to the pleasure of watching Charlie Chaplin relish the chance to play somebody evil. He had, in The Great Dictator (his film previous to this one), done a broad and devestating satire of Hitler, but that film was lightened by Chaplin's Tramp-like barber, the safe and familiar character serving as the film's comforting moral core. In Verdoux, Chaplin does away with the counterpoint, letting Verdoux's greedy brand of malignancy take center stage.

Though this lacks the violent kicks that attract folks to modern serial killer flicks, I dug this flick and cannot recommend it highly enough. Using the celebrated Five General Classifications of Bones Movie Rating System, this flick gets a full and unqualified Sesamoid rating. You read that right: Sesamoid!


Anonymous said...

Sesamoid! Cripes, I haven't seen a Sesamoid Rating since... oh, dear, I think I'm getting misty-eyed...
excuse me...

I'm back.
Of course, I have not seen this film, but I know of it.
From a change-up and variety perspective, excellent selection, stud!
I think I saw a scene from this when it happened to be on TV, probably Turner Classic Movies. Specifically, I believe the scene was the one you referred to as the one that causes him to question his murderous ways.
It looked then like a cool film, especially being a Chaplin film.
Yeah, great choice.

Meanwhile-- Aw, man: the Tramp, "the most cloying cutesy film character outside of a Disney flick"?
Boo! Boo!
I vigorously voice my disagreement!
Unfortunately... I have nothing more substantial to say than, Boo! Boo!


CRwM said...

I may be guilty of overstating my case against the Little Tramp character, but I'm really not a fan of him. I think Chaplin had a real saccharine streak in him that, unfortunately, the Tramp proved a too easy fit for. If we had more Great Dictators and Verdouxs (the plural of Verdoux is pronounced Ver-ducks, as in "Dose ver not geez, dose ver ducks.") in the Chaplin filmography, then I don't think I be so bothered by the Tramp. But I think those two flicks show that he could have done so much more.

But maybe this is just the bitchin' and moanin' of a confirmed Keaton man.

Anonymous said...

Well, Keaton freaking rocks, too, so okay. Plus, I'm also a fan of Frank Capra, so I probably have a huge-ass dollop of sentimentality coursing through me.
I withdraw my two "Boo! Boo!"s (somewhere, players in a Hanna-Barbera themed poker game are feeling inexplicably weird).

"Dose ver not geez, dose ver ducks."
ha ha ha ha ha ha!!
You are the shit!