Archive for Curt Courant

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.



The Sunday Intertitle: What follows is history

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 8, 2023 by dcairns

To my delight, MONSIEUR VERDOUX has an intertitle. It’s very near the start, but it’s not at the VERY start, so it is decently INTER one sequence and another.

Here’s what happens:

TITLES. The movie’s true title would seem to be MONSIEUR VERDOUX A COMEDY OF MURDERS, but according to the convention that SUNRISE is not SUNRISE A SONG OF TWO HUMANS and NOSFERATU is not NOSFERATU A SYMPHONY OF HORROR, except to distinguish it from Herzog’s NOSFERATU THE VAMPYRE, which is not NOSFERATU THE VAMPYRE except to distinguish it from NOSFERATU A SYMPHONY OF HORROR, the subtitle is generally omitted.

The heavily-lawyered writer’s credit tells us, pedantically, that it’s “an original story written by” Charles Chaplin, but “based on an idea by” Orson Welles. So how original is it, if it’s based off of something else? I seem to recall CC needed some arm-bending to give OW a name-check at all, and he wants to be very clear that all Welles provided was one idea, and he had to come up with the story.

But even if Welles contributed only the one-liner “Chaplin as Bluebeard,” those three words contain most of the story, since the life story of for-profit serial killer Henri Désiré Landru (that “Désiré” is a hilarious bit of black comedy in itself), known popularly as “Bluebeard,” provides most of the story beats here.

On the other hand, Chaplin didn’t NEED to give Martha Raye a credit in advance of the main cast list, but he did it because he really liked her (she seems to have brought out his human side) and was impressed with what she brought to the movie. She’s this film’s Jack Oakie.

The titles proceed in a series of surprising cuts, only settling down to dissolves when we bring in the cast. They’re also unusually BLACK. And simple. Little drawings of floral tributes frame the text. Reminiscent of silent movies, in all three of these features.

We learn that good old Rollie (here the more formal “Roland” Totheroh) is back on solo camera duty, and yet again there’s an added name, Curt (here “Curtis”) Courant, credited with “Artistic Supervision”. So poor RT has another German looking over his shoulder, after Karl Struss on THE GREAT DICTATOR.

One Wallace Chewning is credited as “operative cameraman,” a hilariously fancy way of saying “camera operator.” You can really sense Chaplin’s less attractive qualities in that choice.

Chaplin’s music, this time arranged by Rudolph Schrager, is straight gaslight noir stuff, a surprising flavour from CC. Schrager, another emigre, alternated between film scoring and musical direction, stock music, all that stuff, and seems to have been equally at home in thrillers and musical comedies. And nothing in between, except this one.

Associated Director Wheeler Dryden — Chaplin’s OTHER half-brother; Assistant Director Robert Florey — already an established feature director, Florey was smart enough to take a demotion to learn at Chaplin’s side. It’s possible he was also on hand as an advisor on French customs. Then Chaplin’s Directed By credit. His name appears a mere four times in the titles, although he does credit himself with playing four roles, even though three of them are just aliases and he plays them all the same way.

Then we fade up on Verdoux’s grave and Chaplin’s in-character VO begins, reminding me that, three years before SUNSET BLVD, this movie is narrated by a dead man. Ironic, given Billy Wilder’s dismissive attitude to Chaplin’s talkies — and, given that SB is about silent pictures, the connection is unlikely to be accidental.

The music has warned us that there will be serious stuff, the subtitle has subverted it, and now Chaplin’s VOICE, of all things, defines the tone. “Good evening!” Verdoux will invite our sympathy, admit but sugar-coat his criminality, will be elegant and tasteful when discussing distasteful matters. KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS will adopt a similar approach and make much more of the contrast between spoken VO and depicted action, with an overt tonal clash averted by the avoidance of looking too closely at the grim details.

The tracking shot across the graveyard is very beautiful, in part because of the dark waving shadows produced by the trees. I’m inclined to credit Herr Courant. It’s actually a rather NEW idea — graveyards in horror movies are typically nocturnal studio sets. In other dramas, they might be locations in broad California sunlight. Sun but with strong shadows that don’t keep still is a lovely way of doing it, and might sum up the tone of the coming movie quite nicely.

“Only a person with undaunted optimism would embark on such a venture.”

What Chaplin does with his narration is a direct analog of what he did as a silent tramp: he transforms the conventionally sordid into something that makes an attempt at gentlemanly elegance. The attempt cannot succeed: you can still see the reality through the mask of delicacy, but the attempt matters, is everything. It embodies the spirit of UNDAUNTED OPTIMISM. Only a person animated by such optimism would attempt to convince a 1940s audience that his career of serial uxoricide should be considered purely as a commercial venture.

Intertitle! Behaving exactly like a silent movie one, but also like the program or playscript of a stage play: