Now That’s What I Call Quite Good: Monsieur Verdoux

Monsieur Verdoux indexWhenever I don’t click with a much loved classic I wander if it is due to my faulty critical faculties or whether it’s a film which either hasn’t aged well or has elements which might work for some but which are an aspect of film making that I gel with. It’s of course completely subjective too, and why comedy works for one person and not another can come down to a million different things, but in this case I do feel that Monsieur Verdoux’s a film which I didn’t love because of its undeniably bloated nature.

Running at over two hours this Chaplin comedy is frustratingly repetitive, and not as black a comedy as it thinks it is, and I’m not comparing it to modern fare either as that wouldn’t be fair, but even the following year’s Unfaithfully Yours portrayed the murder of a supposed love one in a far more twisted manner, and the Ealing comedies Kind Hearts And Coronets and The Ladykillers dabbled in black humour to far stronger effect just a few years later. It seems to have garnered a lot of acclaim for its cynicism and the enormous departure for Chaplin from his good natured Little Tramp character, but that’s not enough to excuse that first hour in my mind. During this period of the film Monsieur Verdoux is hard to like, but also hard to hate, he’s just there being occasionally threatening and attempting to murder women so that he can benefit financially, but mostly he’s strangely bland and dull, and a couple of moments which border on fourth wall breaking just don’t work.

The film also feels a little manipulative in the way it gives Verdoux a long standing wheelchair bound wife and son who he supposedly loves, unlike all of the others who he only marries for their money. The manner in which all of the women he either kills or considers murdering are unlikeable individuals and so supposedly deserving of their fate is something I don’t think works either, and because of the way I struggled to like Verdoux (when Chaplin clearly meant us to) I found myself wishing the women in the film had turned murderous towards him, which would have made it a much more intriguing a movie.

It’s not a complete disaster by any means, and certain aspects of the first half are quite amusing, the opening narration set at a graveyard is a strong start, as are Verdoux’s attempts to charm a potential house buyer, and while it then becomes rather bland it picks up again whenever Martha Raye is on screen, she’s particularly great as one of Verdoux’s wives who doesn’t completely trust him, at least when it comes to her financial affairs which is why she’s still alive. Raye plays the role in an enjoyably crass and over the top manner, and so I warmed to her character even if she is loud and sometimes obnoxious, but when she’s not on screen too much of the first hour is weak, the killing of one character especially, and half an hour could have been pruned quite easily.

The second hour is thankfully much better than the first at least, there’s a well written and thoughtful scene featuring a young woman Verdoux decides to spare as she had an invalid husband, and it ups the comic idiocy when he turns murderous again and tries to knock off Martha Raye in scenes which are very strong, and that continues with a wedding to another woman where to Verdoux’s horror Raye is also attending. Chaplin had to be be careful of the film censors of the day and so justice was always going to be done, but the way his character refuses to apologise for his actions is of interest, and there’s some strong dialogue about the nature of good and evil throughout the second half, especially at the end. But even though Chaplin was making a much darker movie than he ever had before he doesn’t go far enough, other movies of the time proved that he could, so it is frustrating that he stepped away from making a truly black comedy.

What we’re left with certainly is at times impressively odd and often quite funny, but it’s no where near as great as his previous film, The Great Dictator, which also took on a fascinating idea and which could have been an absolute mess, but which managed to be an all time classic. If Chaplin had removed the elements that are a little saccharine and which attempted to make Verdoux a sympathetic individual and made the female characters / victims more layered it could have been something incredibly special, but as it is we’re left with a film which starts well, becomes bizarrely bland for far too long, before delivering a much better final act.

★★★1/2

Alex Finch.
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