The Verdoux Defence

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“I’m as pragmatic as a soldier or a politician [...] You don’t see any regret from Tony Blair, in fact he’s making a fortune from his war crimes.”

So, 60s serial killer Ian Brady is in court (or anyhow a mental health tribunal), trying to get moved from a secure psychiatric hospital to an ordinary prison. And he describes his actions (torturing and murdering several children) as “petty crime,” and points to Tony Blair as the true criminal, since the politician’s actions have caused, at a minimum, tens of thousands of deaths.

“I’m a comparative petty criminal to global serial killers like Blair and Bush.”

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This, of course, is the same argument used by Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux in the film of that title to justify his career murdering widows for their money. “One murder makes a villain; millions, a hero. Numbers sanctify…”

(The real Bluebeard, Henri-Desire Landru, used his trial as a public forum to prove himself smarter than his prosecutors, rather as Brady is doing. I.B. has referred to his apparent insanity as “a Stanislavskian performance,” explaining the term in detail in case they’re not familiar with it.)

“It’s all about identifying with the heart and soul of the character or symptoms you are trying to portray.”

Brady may be a psychopath rather than insane, just like Landru and maybe Verdoux. But Chaplin keeps the murders offscreen, never allows Verdoux to kill anyone likable (even monstrous lottery-winner Martha Raye is spared, and rightly so), and shows Verdoux being merciful, as well as being kind to animals, children, and his disabled wife. Chaplin’s homicidal tendencies are a plot device and a philosophical conceit rather than a true condition, which is fine for a work of fiction. (But how do Verdoux’s wife and son end up dead? The only solution barring a messy and random act of God would be for Verdoux to euthanize them when he can no longer afford their upkeep, but I’m far from convinced this is the intended inference. I guess Chaplin simply eliminated from the plot rather than have them around to confuse things at the end.)

“‘I’m not interested in being analysed. Some of the psychiatrists I have encountered, I would throw a net on them. I wouldn’t allow them on to the street. They are worse than patients.”

What do we think of the Verdoux/Brady defence? Tony Blair is undoubtedly a safer person to leave your kids with (though maybe not your much younger wife) than any serial killer, but is responsible for far more suffering. And he’s unquestionably a criminal — leading a country to war under false pretenses is seriously treasonous. Any intelligent defence would have to argue that Blair didn’t know he was lying, such was his almost religious faith in his own infallibility. It could further argue that Blair honestly believed his actions were for the best, but that would still make him guilty if he consciously lied about the evidence for war. I think Blair’s own, divinely-inspired personality disorder might just be extreme enough for him to swear that there was incontrovertible evidence of WMD in Iraq, confident that the facts would turn out to support his lies. How could God allow it to happen any other way?

“Most people don’t recognise the fact that Britain is a psychopathic country. It’s been invading countries for the last 300 years.”

When I interviewed Mike Hodges, he made the same point about Blair’s lack of remorse — Blair said he felt nothing about the deaths in Iraq. Blair later said he was forced to take that stance because the papers would have leapt on it if he had expressed remorse or doubt. Which suggests he’s saying he actually lied to the Chilcot Inquiry.

“Most prisoners are perfectly mentally healthy compared with the paranoia of prison officials.”

Anyway, we watched MONSIEUR VERDOUX again. Uneven in places, but worth it for the moments when Chaplin drops the charm and stands unmasked and Satanic.

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The hasty dissolve from Chaplin’s sinister grin here puts me in mind of the cross-fade from Norman Bates to his mother’s smile…

Does anybody know the precise nature of Robert Florey’s contribution to this one? He’s billed as “Associate Director” along with Wheeler Dryden (a bit-part actor who was also AD on THE GREAT DICTATOR). This job title has no standard meaning, so I’m curious, as Chaplin wasn’t anxious to share credit and seems not to have used a co-director behind the camera like Keaton, probably relying on cameraman Rollie Totheroh and the luxury of viewing his rushes and reshooting anything which didn’t please him.

“Why are we still talking about Jack the Ripper over a century on? Because of the dramatic background: the fog, the cobbled streets … it fascinates them. With the Moors it’s the same: Wuthering Heights, Hound of the Baskervilles, that sort of thing.”

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8 Responses to “The Verdoux Defence”

  1. The best film about Tony Blair is by Roman Polanski

  2. No films about Ian and Myra so far but Emlyn Williams wrote the definitive study of the case: Beyond Belief

  3. Williams got to know quite a lot about serial killers when, in his youth, he discovered he was having an affair with one. Being the great writer that he was he wasted no time in turning it into a play — that was later twice filmed.

  4. There’s a good TV film about Myra starring Samantha Morton, which has Andy Serkis’s best work as Brady.

    I’m crazy about both film versions of Night Must Fall. Beyond Belief is beyond amazing, and I keep meaning to read EW’s memoirs. He’d make a fascinating subject for a documentary…

  5. judydean Says:

    I feel more ambivalent about Chaplin than almost any other filmmaker. I’ve always been disturbed by Verdoux’s statement that he has “lost” his wife and child. Have they died? Simultaneously? It seems to me a clumsy and off hand way of avoiding their being confronted by his conviction. Male directors are too often guilty of killing off female characters simply as a convenient plot device.

  6. On the other hand, the idea that he might have murdered them because he could no longer support them is intriguing. He supposedly committed all his murders for their sake, but his wife is disabled, could all that bigamy have fulfilled another purpose? I think it’s unlikely Chaplin thought of this, as he’s a brilliant but naive storyteller, prone to dream sequences and wild coincidences. However, he disposes of the family when they inconvenience him, and that’s sort of what I’m suggesting Verdoux may have done, so the idea has a kind of crack-brained meta-validity.

  7. I don’t think so because they were his primary reason for living. Had he killed them he would have taken his own life. That Chaplin doesn’t describe their passing may be a tad awkward, but the heart of all this are his scenes with Marilyn Nash. That’s where we find out what he thinks and feels.

  8. It’s true he seems happy enough to be arrested after they’ve gone, and his killing career stops somewhere around there… but he doesn’t actually surrender himself.

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