May 4, 2011

Chaplin is Chaplin for a Reason

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It has happened to me before that someone has told me, “you have to watch that movie, it’s an old time classic,” but after watching it, I don’t understand what’s supposed to be so good about it. Maybe it’s because I’m from a different generation, maybe my taste is too mainstream or maybe not mainstream enough to really appreciate it. Who knows. This can also happen when it comes to classic Hollywood actors (though it can also happen with actors that are today in the movie business), one may look at their work and wonder why people thought they were so great. This is the way I pictured Charlie Chaplin, as one of those “Hollywood geniuses” whom I could never really come to get, although I had never watched a movie of his. Having felt so detached watching Hollywood on the Turner Classic Movies channel in the past, I was glad to discover that Charles Chaplin not only has the title of movie legend, but he deserves it.

In Monsieur Verdoux (1947), Chaplin plays Henri Verdoux, an out-of-work banker living in pre-WWII France, in the middle of an economic depression. In order to support his family, Monsieur Verdoux starts “liquidating members of the opposite sex” — he would marry wealthy middle-aged women and then kill them to keep their fortunes. A self described bluebeard (a term taken from the Charles Perrault folktale), Verdoux pretends to be a furniture dealer that travels all over France selling rare pieces, while in reality, he travels all around the country killing wives of his.

Through the course of the film we meet his wife, Lydia Floray (Margaret Hoffman), a bitter woman to whom he tells he’s an engineer, Annabella Bonheur (Martha Raye), a lottery owner who thinks he’s a ship captain, and Marie Grosnay (Isobel Elsom), a woman he almost managed to marry. It’s only when we meet his real wife, a handicapped yet beautiful woman named Mona (Mady Correll), along with his son, that we begins to understand his reasons for pursuing the life of a criminal.

Verdoux, in fact, is much more than a criminal. Cool, calm and collected, he is the stereotypical ladies’ man. His sharp wit and great attention to detail, along with the general suaveness mentioned before, is what keeps him afloat throughout his endeavors. He appeals to the viewer so much that when policemen start to catch up with his illegal activities, you are upset that the forces of justice are catching up with a criminal. This character of Henri Verdoux is hard to find now-a-days in films. He is a complex character, much more than a funny or cool bad guy. Verdoux’s complexity surfaces when he interacts with what I found to be the second most important character in the movie. One stormy night, this mystifying character known as The Girl (Marilyn Nash), crosses paths with Verdoux. Intending to kill her by poisoning her, he brings her back to his place. Just as she is about to drink the poisoned wine, she starts to tell him about her late husband and how much she loved him. Realizing that she loved him the way he loves his wife (“I’d kill for him”), he lets her live. This is by far my favorite scene in the movie (the reason why I added Monsieur Verdoux to my list of favorite films), because it truly reveals who Verdoux is. The movie’s score, composed by Chaplin, gives this scene a perfect cheerful tone.

Although the film is a black comedy, or a comedy of murder as it is described in the opening credits, it still has its lighthearted moments and it’s fun to watch. I like the way the film leaves some things unanswered, giving the viewer something to wonder about. The film also manages to surprise the viewer, keeping away from clichés that make moviegoers roll their eyes.

Original Author: M. Celeste Gonzalez