Archive for Monsieur Verdoux

Hair Today and Gone Tomorrow

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on May 25, 2023 by dcairns

While M. Verdoux is gazing with satisfaction upon the headline announcing the “natural” demise of his foe, Inspector Morrow (should really be Moreau if you want him to sound French, Charlie), he meets an old friend, The Girl.

Things still aren’t going so well with her but she’s more cheerful. Verdoux practically has to force money upon her.

It’s kind of another filler scene — it suggests that The Girl suspects something is up with Verdoux, but her suspicions don’t really go anywhere, and the scene could be cut without affecting anything.

Chemistry — despite not going through with his human guinea pig scheme, Verdoux is still a keen professional poisoner, and he has Martha Raye to assassinate. A woman much in need of assassination, from one point of view, but on the other hand, a human being. Despite her loudness and annoyingness, by virtue of her being comical she mustn’t actually be murdered. But the alternative, Verdoux mixing a venomous porridge that causes the maid’s hair to fall out, isn’t particularly funny. It makes me think of Aussie Rasputin variant HARLEQUIN, which has an unpleasant jape with caustic floor cleaner swapped for shampoo. It isn’t too much funnier here, and suggests a misogynist streak in Chaplin more forcefully than the whole uxoricide theme.

(The reason the public didn’t like the film, I suspect, is not because it isn’t very funny in places, or because it’s a comedy about wife-killing, it’s because Chaplin had been married and divorced a few times — it feels like he might be dramatising a personal fantasy, although I don’t think that’s really what it’s about.)

Verdoux accidentally poisoning himself is pretty funny, though — not to him, of course. He doesn’t like the shoe being on the other foot, even though Chaplin has made an entire career wearing his shoes on the wrong foot. And if the maid losing her hairy isn’t a laugh riot, Martha Raye’s overstated reaction, followed by Chaplin’s, do take the curse off it a little.

After some more filler material with a doctor, Chaplin hits the lake — and that’s a scene I can be more enthusiastic about.


Floral Arrangements

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on April 22, 2023 by dcairns

Two dedicated professionals: M. Verdoux is still sending flowers to Mme. Grosnay; Det. Morrow (shouldn’t it be “Moreau”?) is trailing him, an indefatigable Javert of Justice. A single, slightly wobbly tracking shot takes us from Verdoux floral purchase to the watchful flic — this kind of storytelling camera move is extremely rare in Chaplin’s work.

[I’ve identified five principle motivations for the camera to move: exploring space; following a moving character; representing the POV of a moving character; evoking a psychological change in a character; and telling a story. The narrational tracking shot is common in horror movies and Hitchcock. By moving from one subject to another, the director self-consciously lets us in on what’s happening beneath the surface of a situation. Often, the movement takes us from a seemingly innocent wide shot to a detail that has sinister implications, as it does here. MONSIEUR VERDOUX, dealing with crime, murder, and detection, is next-door to a thriller. We can assume that had Orson Welles been able to develop his own idea (which Chaplin basically nicked), the thriller aspects may have been even more evident, since the Wellesian style leans towards noir.]

Of all the plot strands in the film, Morrow’s feels the most Wellesian, because it plays games with our sympathies and defies narrative expectations: Morrow is set up as Nemesis, but is neatly taken out of the game just when his purpose seems set to be fulfilled.

Morrow beards Verdoux in his den — the doorbell provokes a startled look, almost to camera (and thence to Charlie’s chums in the audience) in which his head is amusingly framed by a wall mirror, creating a halo effect. Verdoux is able to check Morrow out via the window, a POV shot that aligns us with the prey, not the predator. A series of elegant movements here as Chaplin moves around the room, expressing Verdoux’ discomfiture and his fast thinking. Another ring of the bell makes Verdoux look at us again.

Verdoux runs into the kitchen and we get an axial violation — the switch in camera position causes his movement to flip from left-to-right to right-to-left. This is supposedly the first thing Chaplin learned about movies, and the only thing he learned from Henry “Pathe” Lehrman. Possibly we should blame the production designer for forcing the issue, but Chaplin had the authority and money to order a set wall removed and another put in so he could maintain consistent screen direction…

It’s not that the effect is actually confusing — one man going through a doorway is unlikely to throw us off, comprehensionwise. But it’s inelegant.

Verdoux seems cool as a cucumber once he lets Morrow in (he has his poisoned wine in readiness). Then a nice bit of slapstick as he bumps into the dressmaker’s dummy from act one — not only does the clumsiness betray nerves, something Morrow notices, it’s clumsiness involving an object associated with his murderous career — the dummy represents the dead Thelma Couvais, rising, a stuffed torso on a pole, to accuse her assassin.

Chaplin can now play the scene for suspense — how prepared is Morrow to arrest Verdoux, and will he drink the poison laid out for him? I imagine it may have pleased Chaplin to reduce dialogue to mere delaying action: the cat-and-mouse game going on in the interrogation is secondary to the ticking bomb element.

Morrow has been conveniently silly, not telling police headquarters of his lead. This is a crime story trope, a fact pressed into my awareness by its appearance in Comencini’s THE SUNDAY WOMAN which I watched a week ago: whenever a supporting character says “I know who the killer is but I’m not quite ready to tell,” you can be sure they’re about to get it in the neck. Poor, overconfident Detective Morrow. When he stands up, the camera pushes in with vulturine eagerness as he turns to look right at us, perhaps already feeling the effects of the slow-acting mickey (he’s a touch shiny). Perhaps the Chaplinesque look to camera in this film is associated specifically with Death?

The familiar intersticial shot of racing train wheels leads us by quick dissolve to Morrow’s own dissolution. Like McTeague, antihero of GREED, Verdoux finds himself handcuffed to a corpse, but unlike him he has the key handy. (I worked out a solution to McTeague’s dilemma, although it would still leave him stranded in the desert. We planned to use it in LET US PREY, the horro movie Fiona & I wrote, but amid the innumerable rewrites it got pruned, saved for another day.)

Cut from Verdoux exit, leaving the snoring Inspector in his compartment, to the headline announcing the man’s death, to Verdoux’s smug reaction as he sits at a curbside cafe. As he stands, his eyes seem to catch our own, just as Morrow’s had done…


The Girl

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on April 15, 2023 by dcairns

Been a long time since we looked at MONSIEUR VERDOUX, eh? This must be that lull one gets into when nearing the end of a project — a reluctance to press on, a desire to linger awhile. Not that we’re even halfway through VERDOUX, but we are nearer the end than the beginning in terms of Special Mission Gentleman Chaplin.

Chaplin is unusual in that, like Woody Allen, he always feels the need to pair up with a beautiful girl in his pictures, but unlike Woody Allen he realised in middle age that he shouldn’t get too romantic with them. We first see this in MODERN TIMES, where the Chaplin-Goddard menage is noticably innocent. His impish sexuality only emerges when he goes mad. THE GREAT DICTATOR still contains a romance, but it’s very innocent. The naughtiness of the Tramp has vanished, and lust is transposed onto the figure of Hynkel, whose main attraction is towards an inflatable globe.

VERDOUX sees Chaplin settled with a wife and kid, and some other wives too, who are not figures of real romance for him, needless to say. And now he meets “the girl,” played with aloof alertness by Marilyn Nash, who was Mrs. Philip Yordan in real life, and met Chaplin through tennis. The critics weren’t particularly wowed by Nash, and her movie career did not last, but she had a nice quality, not necessarily identifiable as deliberate performance, though it could be. See also Ruthelma Stevens: it’s a thoughtful quality, and a watchful one.

But what is the role of “the girl” to be? Initially, she’s to be a guinea pig for Verdoux’s special woman-killing poison. Where his usual victims are chosen for their wealth, this one is chosen for her poverty and obscurity. Convention would dictate that Verdoux’s ruthlessness will soften into love, but he’s married to a nice lady whose role is to make his homicidal career seem a little more sympathetic, so he can’t very well cheat on her. (Mme Verdoux being disabled adds another element of sentiment, but also de-sexes Verdoux still more, though this is based on a false stereotype and for all we know M. and Mme Verdoux have a wildly thrilling conjugal life).

In fact, as we’ll see, the girl’s career parallels our anti-hero’s: she too will make a profit from murder, but in a more socially acceptable way, by shacking up with an arms dealer. Mass murder doesn’t trouble us: “numbers sanctify.”

Anyway, Verdoux decides not to kill the young pretty girl, which helps us retain some interest in him (can one speak of sympathy in this context?)

And now we really are nearer the end (for Verdoux and VERDOUX) than the beginning…