Archive for March 18, 2023

In Darkness Chiselable

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on March 18, 2023 by dcairns

New (sort of) thing at The Chiseler — Daniel Riccuito and I collaborated on a piece honouring Italian cameraman Riccardo Pallottini on his hundred and fifteenth birthday. Parts of this have appeared previously but DR’s ace editing has now fashioned it into a new and compelling form.


Padding & Poisons

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on March 18, 2023 by dcairns

The Verdoux family receives the neighbours for dinner — a scene of pure padding. Chaplin may think he’s cunningly establishing that M. Verdoux has a friend who’s a chemist, but the scene doesn’t do that, and it doesn’t make the information revealed later any less convenient. The fact that Verdoux is immediately leaving on business is repeated. How much shorter could the film be if we pared away the guff? And would that make it better, or upset the tempo?

Enter Martha Raye, the film’s secret weapon. Chaplin goes to a lot of trouble to establish her, instead of simply introducing her in the course of Verdoux’ operations. We met her annoying friends, and her maid. She’s unkind to the maid, but will later soften. What’s the point of this? I suppose to make us initially quite keen to have this loud, vulgar, mean woman murdered, and then to have us slightly horrified by the thought. As Raye becomes a comical thorn in Verdoux’ side, she becomes someone we can’t accept being murdered. Comedians don’t get murdered in American black comedies of this period (of which there are few).

(In 1951, Guitry’s LA POISON would take wife-killing much further, inviting us to possibly approve of it. Earlier, Renoir’s LA CHIENNE comes close to this, but the parts concerning murder are played more straight: the black comedy dominates later..)

Martha Raye was a good sport: a lot of the comedy she was given revolves around her supposed ugliness, and her characters’ semi-unawareness of this flaw. “What is this strange power I’d like to have over you?” she asks Bob Hope in I think THE BIG BROADCAST OF 1938, a line I love.

Chaplin and Raye apparently got on famously — the fact that she wasn’t remotely intimidated by him seems to have helped.

Good business with Raye’s feathers: Verdoux kisses her and gets her plumage stuck to his lips.

Gratuitous music hall scene — possibly useful to have some cancan dancers in the movie’s trailer. Verdoux pops next door to the pharmacy to buy chloroform, and Chaplin is forced to do a kind of jump-dissolve to omit the tedious business of the drug being located and doled out. He could, of course, have dissolved from the request to the pharmacist to Verdoux returning to the cabaret, and I can’t see why he didn’t.

Martha as Annabella Bonheur is considering investing in “the Salt Water Fuel Company,” which brings the film perilously close to science fiction, except that presumably the whole thing is a scam. Verdoux is compelled to protect Annabella’s financial interests since he intends to murder and rob her: she views his objections as unwelcome interference, so there’s a pleasing irony that Verdoux is trying to do good for a very bad reason, and he’s not being appreciated for it.

The bedroom scene bypasses the censor by keeping Verdoux out of bed. It’s a bigamous marriage on his part so the situation is even trickier than usual. (When the Breen Office was asked what was wrong with showing married characters sharing a bed in a non-sexual way, they retorted that the audience was well aware that the ACTORS were NOT married. Which leaves me with two questions: is it so very terrible to show non-married actors in bed, reading, playing a married couple — why is that worse than showing them hugging and kissing while standing up? And did anyone ever try casting married actors, and putting the question to the Breen Office, “Happy now?”)

Verdoux’s murderous plan is thwarted by the return of the made. Properly noir-like framing and lighting, thanks to Curt Courant I guess.

Verdoux puts his homicide on pause in order to resume his wooing of Madame Grosnay, the sensible widow who rebuffed him in act one. He reintroduces himself and starts bombarding her with floral tributes — the exorbitant price of this scheme is rather startling — it seems to be costing nearly what he got from his last victim. If his profit margins are this low, he’ll have to marry and murder at an extraordinary rate — which he seems determined to do.

So now Verdoux had TWO prospective victims lined up, neither of whom the audience wants to see dead. In fact, we’re in LADYKILLERS territory — the killer/s MUST NOT be allowed to do away with the victim/s. We’re in a state of tension, which is quite useful for comedy. The audience needs to trust that the filmmaker isn’t going to do anything unforgivable, or they won’t be able to enjoy themselves. But they need to feel a touch of anxiety, and a lot of uncertainty about how the unforgivable act can be averted.

More science fiction, more padding — Verdoux learns of a marvelous new poison from his neighbour. It’s maybe necessary to insert the idea of a specific poison into the narrative, so that when we cut to Verdoux preparing it in his Paris lock-up, we know what he’s doing. But it’s another rather clunking and inelegant bit of writing which seems to take a long time to put across a simple idea, and it’s not hugely entertaining while the exposition is occurring. It only gets away with it because there’s naturally a frisson about a scene in which a known serial killer learns about an undetectable poison.

And so alone in the hissing laboratory of his wishes, M. Verdoux minces among bad vats and jeroboams, tiptoes through spinneys of murdering herbs, agony dancing in his crucibles, and mixes especially for Mme. Bonheur a venomous porridge unknown to toxicologists… well, in this case, the lethal draught will be delivered in a bottle of wine. But, reluctant to leave anything to chance, Verdoux decides to test his fatal plonk upon a female guinea pig.