[29 April 2013]
A strong comic persona is a hard thing to shake.
Remember when Paul Reubens, aka and always Pee Wee Herman, was caught allegedly pleasuring himself to a cinematic image, and everyone rallied ‘round him with cries of “Free Pee Wee”? All I could think at the time was, “Free Paul Reubens—from Pee Wee!”
Now multiply that by generations.
When Charles Chaplin created or discovered or conjured the Tramp, he may have had little notion of the potency of the image he was unleashing. Yet Chaplin was wise and instinctual enough of an artist to realize the power in simplicity of expression when he reduced the physical attributes of his comic persona to basically four: rags, a cane, a shuffle and a mustache. As Ignatiy Vishnevetsky points out in his excellent DVD booklet essay for the newly released, fully-stuffed Criterion edition of Monsieur Verdoux, “[Y]ou couldn’t reasonably do a Buster Keaton impression (people would just assume you were in a bad mood), but all you need for a good Tramp is to point your feet out and shuffle.”
This persona has generated such goodwill throughout the world that one can’t now imagine our culture, any culture, without it. The Tramp was a meme before memes, the Meme of memes, a symbol and a spirit. The Tramp/Charlie was and is, as the great film critic André Bazin claims in a brilliant analysis also excerpted in the DVD booklet, a myth.
Whatever elation and release granted a spectator through a performer’s mythic persona, this onus must ultimately feel just that, a kind of burden and prison to its originator. A myth has very specific ligature, without which it isn’t that specific myth; a myth without its conventions collapses. A cinematic myth especially has restrictions, bound as it is by an ineradicable image.
How, or how long, could a performer of Chaplin’s powers be confined to one character, however durable?
True, Chaplin had played other characters on film, most famously in The Great Dictator. But even there the characters of Hynkel and the barber were discernable variations on the Tramp, copping his movements and his mustache.
No. The only way to escape the Tramp was to kill him.
That’s really the most indelible and shocking death in Monsieur Verdoux (1947). Based on an idea by Orson Welles, inspired by the real-life marry’em-and-murder ‘em serial killer Henri Landru, the story centers on a man who weds rich spinsters and widows, only to kill them and take their money. The excuse given for these murders is questionable, to say the least—Verdoux was a bank clerk who lost everything in the Depression, and now must support his crippled wife and their young son somehow—but the situation is bare bones basic: Bluebeard for the Murderous Modern Age.
Monsieur Verdoux was made by Chaplin amidst a slew of personal and political problems. America, the country that had fostered and adored him, was turning against him. The Communist scare that would reach full-blown paranoia throughout the ‘50s was in its fierce infancy, and Chaplin, already suspect due to his clear humanist tendencies, was an easy target. Plus, he had recently been taken to court on an overblown paternity suit, which he had settled despite probable proof the child was not his. A Communist and a despoiler? Political paranoia coupled with pseudo-social prudery, and the deal was sealed.
Yet rather than roll over and solicit public or official favor, Chaplin reared up on his artistic haunches, drew from his deepest darkest reserves, and attacked. Not in a vulgar, ostentatious manner (never Chaplin!) or even as an overt strike on a person or a political system, as he had with the lethal The Great Dictator, but through a simple but pointed application of his most powerful asset, his artistic refinement and authority.
Like all great artists, Chaplin wasn’t afraid to throw down the gauntlet. Monsieur Verdoux was a challenge to his most devoted fans, not just the ones who adored the Tramp’s antics, but the hardcore Chaplin champions, the sentimental cineastes who had lauded his most angelic dances and sweetest polemics.
Who would stay with him now, through not only the abandonment but the execution of his Tramp persona?
This challenge was made explicit in the film’s ad campaign: “Chaplin changes! Can you?” That statement may be seen as both Hollywood’s attempt to undercut the change (“We know it’s different! Will you forgive us?”), and Chaplin’s dangerous dare. Will you allow him artistic growth, or keep him saddled to his myth?
What kid of fan are you?
Monsieur Verdoux’s dark challenge is especially insidious as it’s funneled through Chaplin’s airy facility and touch. Regardless of the ‘heavy’ story, the film often feels oddly light and stagebound. Scenes play out on single sets in medium long shot with characters swapping lines, sometimes in front of very obvious painted backdrops.
Such static choices add to the almost fairytale-like quality of the film. Indeed, rendered any more realistically the subject matter may have alienated any audience. The film upon its release was met with confusion if not outright betrayal. It wasn’t just the Tramp’s absence—heinous enough—but his replacement with this sometimes overbearing, always unapologetic lady-killer who yet seduces spectator sympathies.
As usual in a Chaplin film, perfect casting radiates from its central star outward. Chaplin plays Verdoux as a fastidious eccentric whose elegant appearance fidgets over a shaky foundation of bitter cynicism. There’s a weariness in Verdoux’s eyes, evidence of a soul withered by the revelation of its own violence. It’s clear that Verdoux didn’t begin as evil or murderous; his wife and child love him dearly, his old friends display an affectionate association, and when he does show compassion it is genuine.
But he is also diligently systematic in his criminal behavior. He dispatches a wised-up police detective with particular aplomb, and when he believes he is going to murder the young girl (Marilyn Nash) he finds on the street, he prepares the poison with culinary nonchalance.
Chaplin embodies all Verdoux’s incongruities effortlessly, his trim movements bearing the weight of his ponderous gaze. Verdoux is a man with a mission—he must amass enough money, before his inevitable capture and condemnation, to keep his wife and child afloat—but his eyes can’t conceal the cost. The more he kills the deader he looks; that which fuels him depletes him. It’s no coincidence that Verdoux courts widows, who seem perpetually wedded to death.
These victim-wives vary from the lemon-faced Lydia Floray (Margaret Hoffman), the harried grande dame Marie Grosnay (Isobel Elsom) and the epitome of American brash and volume Annabella Bonheur, played by legendary comedienne Martha Raye as a steam engine with Chaplin tied to her tracks.
The wives’ murders are all implied. The first is given as merely smoke rising from an incinerator. The second is an exercise in cinematic tact. In one long take, Chaplin has Verdoux and his wife, money box clutched to her bosom, retire upstairs, the camera rising with them before halting on the second floor; as the wife walks off-screen, nagging from the bedroom, Verdoux lingers to gaze out the window onto a painted backdrop, delivering some wistful lines of poetry. Then he, too, walks, or rather, plunges off-screen to his “work” in the bedroom, and we’re left with an empty hall and a shrieking musical score that settles as the false sun brightens.
In a vastly entertaining documentary included as a special feature, French director Claude Chabrol likens the above scene to Alfred Hitchcock, and it’s certainly just as sinister and suspenseful as anything by that director. Despite the theatricality of its simple set-up on a single set, it’s a bravura cinematic performance, a tasteful and precise combination of décor, lighting, minimalist pantomime, camera placement and music.
Throughout Monsieur Verdoux, the music, written by Chaplin himself, is used to hugely manipulative effect; for example, the uplifting crescendo when Verdoux arrives home, and his son calls out, “Daddy!”, or the swelling of what sounds like Chaplin’s “Smile” theme crashing through the end of the scene in which Verdoux decides against killing the young girl he picked up to test his new poison.
Philosophically, Monsieur Verdoux is Chaplin’s toughest film. First, a dead man narrates, a deceptively coy device with grave metaphysical implications given Verdoux’s career choice and manner of death. Is he speaking from above, below or, in light of his atheistic tendencies, from some indeterminate nowhere land? Second, the film is rife with lines like, “If the unborn knew of the approach of life, they’d be… terrified.”
That’s a pretty bleak outlook in any era, and perhaps understandable given the grim revelations of the then very recent war. But from Chaplin!
At another point, Verdoux and the girl (she is designated in the credits as “The Girl”) engage in a prominent exchange about the world’s cruelty:
The Girl: “I was beginning to lose faith in everything…”
Verdoux: “This is a ruthless world and one must be ruthless to cope with it.”
The Girl: “That isn’t true. It’s a blundering world and a very sad one, but a little kindness can make it beautiful.
Verdoux: “You’d better go before your philosophy corrupts me.”
One imagines Chaplin weeping at his desk as he was writing out his own warring philosophies and emotions. In the film, he looks right into the camera at the word “corrupts,” a gesture that doesn’t quite break the fourth wall but does considerable damage to one’s heart.
In fact, throughout Monsieur Verdoux Chaplin often seems to look into or just past the camera, and while one senses an inevitable self-acknowledgement in his stare, there’s also a kind of snide indictment. This impression reaches its apex when Verdoux declares at his sentencing, “I shall see you all very soon.” It’s a tough moment, delivered unapologetically and with sinister relish. Chaplin changes all right.
As dark as it all is, there are classic Charlie bits: Verdoux’s inhumanly brisk counting of money, his banging animatedly on a piano, or his little guilty twitches every time a bell rings or someone knocks, a contagious comic epilepsy infecting anyone in his vicinity. And Verdoux’s misdirected surrender/capture is a masterpiece of comic timing and staging, nearly Keystone in its chaos.
In many ways, all this represents the last of the Tramp’s business. Many commentators have noted that, clearly, it is the Tramp who shuffles off to the guillotine, even though it is Verdoux we see there, flanked by guards, led by the priest whose prayers he has just rejected. In the documentary extra, Claude Chabrol reveals Chaplin’s crucial choice of shooting this last scene first, as if he needed to get the Tramp out of the way, kill him off once and for all, rid himself of the persona in order to play a person.
It’s sad to see Chaplin’s hands restrained behind his back. One waits for some devious slip, from his wrists to those of his captors. But the master of movement and pantomime, whose hands were so devilishly, elegantly expressive is bound immobile. Monsieur Verdoux enacts not merely the death of a myth, but its willful execution.
Bazin declared, “…lo and behold, society killed Charlie!”
The Tramp Is Dead. Long Live Chaplin!
The DVD extras are pretty special: Two illuminating documentaries (Chaplin Today: “Monsieur Verdoux” and Charlie Chaplin and the American Press), an audio interview with actress Marilyn Nash, advertisements and trailers, and the booklet with its essential essays “The Myth of Monsieur Verdoux” by Andre Bazin and “Sympathy For The Devil” by Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, as well as “My New Film” by Chaplin himself.