Chaplin’s first big flop is now generally considered to be the crown jewel of his late-period work — an elegant black comedy about a murderer that predates thematically similar Ealing comedies like Kind Hearts and Coronets and The Ladykillers. In retiring the iconic tramp once and for all (previous film The Great Dictator featured his similar Jewish barber character), Chaplin made a bold move, swapping a universally beloved innocent for an amoral scumbag, his utter venality hidden by an urbane exterior.
Chaplin gives a remarkable performance as Henri Verdoux, a failed banker who’s taken to marrying wealthy widows then murdering them to support his disabled wife and son at home. Verdoux is nothing less than actively despicable, and yet, this isn’t a film with a so-called “unlikable” protagonist. In fact, Verdoux is very likable, owing to a combination of factors — most notably, none of the nasty business is portrayed onscreen and Chaplin’s innate charm tends to trump his character’s numerous explicit and implicit sins. This isn’t a failure of the film at all; rather, Verdoux’s position as a character who’s “not so bad” (a claim he makes in defense of himself in the film) allows Chaplin to deliver a troubling and incisive critique of middle class values and misplaced morality.
Episodic in nature, Monsieur Verdoux is gracefully directed by Chaplin, its classical editing and gliding camera only reinforcing the air of respectability so necessary to the film’s satiric edge. The camerawork often doubles Chaplin’s actions and, just like in his silent classics, Chaplin remains a master of the small movement. Two virtuosic, wordless examples: A scene where he attempts to lace a bottle of wine with poison and a sequence where he sets the table for breakfast, only to remember halfway through he won’t be needing that second place setting after all. Though Chaplin was reluctant to let go of silent film well into the ’30s when that ship had long ago sailed, his comic strengths translated well to verbal humor — just witness the uproarious interactions between him and Martha Raye, who plays the bombastically affectionate Annabella Bonheur.
Monsieur Verdoux was originally planned as a project by Orson Welles, who wanted Chaplin to star in his interpretation of the life of serial killer Henri Landru. While a Welles-Chaplin collaboration sounds like something straight from cinephile heaven, Chaplin made a masterpiece of black comedy on his own, a work that echoes the great physical humor of his past while striking out into bold thematic territory yet untapped.
The Blu-ray Disc
Monsieur Verdoux is presented in 1080p high definition in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. I’d put this transfer up there with any of the other Criterion Chaplins; it’s exceptionally film-like, fine detail is strong and contrast offers up clean blacks and whites, even if it looks a tad boosted in spots. Really, the only thing holding the transfer back is damage, which can get a little heavy at spots, with worn segments washing out detail and not infrequent instances of scratches and dirt in the edge of the frame. Overall, I was very pleased with the transfer though. Audio is presented in an uncompressed monaural track, which is clean and adequate.
Unlike Criterion’s previous Chaplin releases, this one doesn’t have much going for it in the way of extras. The highlight is a newly produced feature that looks at the press clippings from the time of the film’s release and covers Chaplin’s then-controversial status. A 2003 featurette from the old DVD covers some of the same ground in its overview of the production history. Also included is an archival audio interview with Marilyn Nash, who plays the one potential victim Verdoux decides to spare. Radio ads and the film’s theatrical trailer round out the disc. Also included in the package is a booklet with an essay by critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, a reprint of a Chaplin article and a defense from André Bazin, one of the film’s earliest staunch supporters.
The Bottom Line
It may not have the reputation of Chaplin’s silent classics, but it’s a masterpiece all the same, and Criterion’s presentation is very nice.