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Monsieur Verdoux – The Criterion Collection #652 (a J!-ENT Blu-ray Disc Review)

March 24, 2013 by  



“Monsieur Verdoux” is another magnificent Charlie Chaplin Blu-ray release but is also a film that is deserving of its recognition as a true Charlie Chaplin cinematic masterpiece. Highly recommended!

Image are courtesy of © 2013 The Criterion Collection. All Rights Reserved.

TITLE: Monsieur Verdoux – The Criterion Collection #652

YEAR OF FILM: 1947

DURATION: 124 Minutes

BLU-RAY DISC INFORMATION: 1080p High Definition, 1:33:1 aspect ratio, Black and White, Monaural

COMPANY: Janus Films/THE CRITERION COLLECTION

RELEASE DATE: March 26, 2013

Directed by Charles Chaplin

Original Story by Charles Chaplin

Based on an Idea by Orson Welles

Produced by Charles Chaplin

Music by Charles Chaplin

Cinematography by Roland Totheroh

Edited by Willard Nico

Art Direction by John Beckman

Starring:

Charles Chaplin as Henri Verdoux, Varnay, Bonheur, Floray

Mady Correll as Mona, his wife

Allison Roddan as Peter, their son

Robert Lewis as Maurice Bottello

Audrey Betz as Martha Bottello

Martha Raye as Annabella Bonheur

Ada May as Annette, her maid

Isobel Elsom as Marie Grosnay

Marjorie Bennett as the Maid

Helene Heigh as Yvonne, Marie’s friend

Margaret Hoffman as Lydia Floray

Marilyn Nash as The Girl

Irving Bacon as Pierre Couvais

Edwin Mills as Jean Couvais

Virginia Brissac as Carlotta Couvais

Almira Sessions as Lena Couvais

Eula Morgan as Phoebe Couvais

Bernard Nedell as Prefect of Police

Charles Evans as Detective Morrow

William Frawley as Jean La Salle

Charlie Chaplin plays shockingly against type in his most controversial film, a brilliant and bleak black comedy about money, marriage, and murder. Chaplin is a twentieth-century Bluebeard, an enigmatic family man who goes to extreme lengths to support his wife and child, attempting to bump off a series of wealthy widows (including one played by the indefatigable Martha Raye, in a hilarious performance). This deeply philosophical and wildly entertaining film is a work of true sophistication, both for the moral questions it dares to ask and the way it deconstructs its megastar’s loveable on-screen persona.

He is an icon.

Charlie Chaplin, the British comedian known for winning legions of fans through his character, “The Tramp” and one of the most important figures in cinema history.

While Charlie Chaplin will forever be a legend known for wonderful film such as “City Lights”, “The Gold Rush”, “Modern Times” and “The Great Dictator” to name a few.  His life reads like a rags-to-riches story as a child born into poverty and hardship and would become a performer at a young age and eventually become scouted by the film industry and making his first appearance in film in 1914 for Keystone Studios.

The actor would eventually move on to do work for studios such as Essanay, Mutual and First National corporations and would become one of the most successful men in the world by 1918.  And in 1919, in order to gain complete control of his films, Chaplin along with Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and D.W. Griffith would create the American film studio known as United Artist.

And as Charlie Chaplin would survive the transition from silent to talkie in the 1930’s. It’s the 1940’s that would prove to be detrimental for Charlie Chaplin.  It began with an actress named Joan Barry accusing Chaplin that she was pregnant with his baby.  Because Chaplin has had several divorces, media portrayed him as a womanizer.

While working on his latest film “Monsieur Verdoux”, because he would not renounce his British citizenship and was speaking favorably to open a Second Front to help the Soviets and support Soviet-American friendship groups.  Because he socialized with Hanns Eisler and Bertolt Brecht and also attended functions of Soviet diplomats in the U.S., he was accused of being communist and branded a threat to national security. Federal authorities would use the Joan Barry case to bring up Chaplin on four indictments which include interfering with Barry’s arrest and violating the Mann Act for transportation of women across state lines for sexual purposes.

While Chaplin was acquitted, unfortunately, because of the negative publicity, the federal government successfully achieved what they wanted, to hurt Chaplin’s career.

More negative publicity would affect Charlie Chaplin when he married his 18-year-old protegee Oona O’Neill (Chaplin was 54 at the time), the daughter of Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Eugene O’Neill and writer Agnes Boulton.  And because he would not consent to her marriage to Chaplin, despite their close relationship, O’Neill ended his relationship with his daughter.

And while Chaplin was happy to be married to Oona and continued to work on his new film “Monsieur Verdoux” (which he started in 1942), a film which came from an idea from Orson Welles about a  bluebeard/French serial killer named Henri Landru.  While Chaplin tried to sway American sentiment that he was not a communist and even had a major publicist try to promote his new film and also to prepare audiences for a non-Tramp role, unfortunately, his reputation was already tarnished.

He was booed at the premiere, people wanted to boycott his film and Charlie Chaplin who was known to earn $5 million for his films, would only make $300,000+ in the box office and became a commercial flop.  But in other countries, the film was a success.

But the damage was done and Chaplin’s American career would never be the same ever again.  By his next film “Limelight”, when he went to screen the film in London, while returning back home with his family, the Attorney General revoked Chaplin’s re-entry permit. But because Chaplin and his films were warmly received, he would make Switzerland his new home.

While the film was not looked at positively back in the 1940’s, as decades have past, many would recognize “Monsieur Verdoux” as Charlie Chaplin’s first major talkie film that was a true masterpiece.  Even in Charlie Chaplin’s autobiography, he wrote “Monsieur Verdoux is the cleverest and most brilliant film I have yet made”.

And now, “Monsieur Verdoux” will be released on Blu-ray and DVD by The Criterion Collection in March 2013.

“Monsieur Verdoux” is a black comedy in which Charlie Chaplin plays the role of Monsieur Verdoux.  We watch as he invests money from a widow (that he just killed) into the stock market.  Meanwhile, we watch as a family tries desperately to get in touch with Thelma, a woman who had married Monsieur Verdoux and has taken all her money out and sold her business for him.

Worried about Thelma, they go to talk with authorities and as they look into this case, they realized that there are other middle-aged women who are missing or people have not heard from.   They suspect that this man who married Thelma is a mystery man who is a bluebeard, a man who marries women and kills them for their money.

We then see how Monsieur Verdoux, also going by the names Varnay, Bonheur and Floray, has married several widows and uses a job as a fake pretense to having to travel all the time.  He tells each person he has married that he is on a business trip, when the truth is that he is trying to win over each of these women and getting them to take their money out of the bank, in which he can murder them right after and take their money and reinvest it into the stock market, a plan which he uses to help his disabled wife Mona (portrayed by Mady Correll) and his son Peter (portrayed by Allison Roddan).

While visiting with Mona, she tells him that she would rather have the life of living in a one room than having him travel all the time for business. But Verdoux tells her that he will never ever have her live that kind of life again.

Meanwhile, while walking home, he runs into a girl (portrayed by Marilyn Nash), a woman that he feels he can sweet talk but finds out that she is broke and just got out of prison.  He treats her with normalcy and even feeds her and gives her advice which she eventually becomes grateful to him for his help.

But as he is able to keep his wives on a routine, so none of them will see him with another woman, what happens when two of his wives break their normal routine.  And also what happens when Monsieur Verdoux is affected during the Wall Street Crash of 1929?

Will Verdoux be caught by the authorities?  And what can drive a man to commit these crimes?

VIDEO:

“Monsieur Verdoux” is presented in 1080p High Definition (1:33:1 aspect ratio). The film features wonderful contrast and is well-detailed. Whites and grays are well-contrast, black levels are also much better.  I saw no damage or major flickering, banding, if anything, the film looks magnificent on Blu-ray!

According to the Criterion Collection, this high-definition digital transfer was created in 2K resolution on an ARRISCAN film scanner from the original 35 mm camera negative at L’Immagine Ritrovata in Bologna, Italy.  Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, warps and flicker were manually removed using MTI’s DRS and Pixel Farm’s PFClean, while Image System’s Phoenix was used for small dirt, grain, noise reduction and jitter.

AUDIO & SUBTITLES:

“Monsieur Verdoux” is presented in English LPCM 1.0. Dialogue is clear and subtitles are easy to read. I detected no pops, crackles or terrible hiss during my viewing of the film.

According to the Criterion Collection, the original monaural soundtrack was remaster at 24-bit from a sound negative.  Clicks, thumps, hiss and hum were manually removed using Pro Tools HD. Crackle was attenuated using AudioCube’s integrated workstation.

SPECIAL FEATURES:

“Monsieur Verdoux – The Criterion Collection #652” comes with the following special features:

  • Chaplin Today – Monsieur Verdoux – (27:01) Directed by Bernard Eisenschitz, featuring observations by filmmaker Claude Chabrol and actor Normany Lloyd about the troubling times of Charlie Chaplin and the brilliance of the film “Monsieur Verdoux”.
  • Charlie Chaplin and the American Press – (24:54) Kate Guyonvarch, Director of the Charlie Chaplin Company, Roy Export and Charles Maland, author of “Chaplin and American Culture” review the coverage of Chaplin the American press.
  • Marilyn Nash – (8:05) A 1997 audio interview with images by Charlie Chaplin biographer Jeffrey Vance with Marilyn Nash (who starred as “The Girl” in “Monsieur Verdoux”).
  • Radio Ads – (6:15) Featuring a total of eight radio ads:  “A Modern French Bluebeard”, “This Merchant of Death”, “A Warning”, “For Women Without A Sense of Humor”, “Lady, Can You Take a Dare?”, “The Top Picture of the Year”, “The Suave, Sinister Lady-Killer” and “Remember – It’s a Comedy”.
  • Trailers – (8:38) Three trailers for “Monsieur Verdoux” from France, Germany and the United States.

EXTRAS:

“Monsieur Verdoux – The Criterion Collection #652” comes with an 38-page booklet with the following essays: “Sympathy for the Devil” by Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, the article that Charlie Chaplin wrote for the “Continental Daily Mail” titled “My New Film” and Andre Bazin’s “The Myth of Monsieur Verdoux” from Bazin’s film “What is Cinema? Vol II”.

It’s hard to use the word sympathetic when it comes to a character that is a mass murderer.  Nor should one sympathize for one that is amoral for the crimes they have committed.

But what Charlie Chaplin was able to create was a character that is intelligent, witty but its the idea in his head that what he has done is miniscule to what countries have done in war.  Where one man kills, he is a murder.  When a nation kills, they are seen as not.

This is an interesting juxtaposition from Chaplin’s last film “The Great Dictator” in which the threat of Hitler was scaring the masses, Chaplin used his famous personality to preach for a kinder world where people rise above their hate, greed and brutality.

But by 1947, he had been branded guilty by the mass media and U.S. government for his political beliefs and because of his personal life.  Two years before “Monsieur Verdoux” was released in theaters, the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II and while images of the devastation was suppressed by American media at the time, because Chaplin was a person who traveled the world and had conversations with many of the affluent people in business and also military, he had a chance to know about war, the effects of war and was tired of war.

But as he seeked to form a working bond between American and Soviets, it would backfire on him as he would be branded a communist.  Anyone who dare side with him, would also be branded a communist and unfortunately, many people in the entertainment industry were automatically judged to be communist but Chaplin would be remembered not just as a silent film star icon but also an actor persecuted by the U.S. Govt. and never allowed to come home until 1972, when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences offered Chaplin an Honorary Award and would be Chaplin’s first time in the U.S. after 20-years since his re-entry to the U.S. was revoked.  And a standing ovation that would last 12-minutes, the longest in Academy’s history.  Chaplin would also be awarded a knighthood by Queen Elizabeth II in 1975.

So, as we look back at “Monsieur Verdoux” and many see this film as a masterpiece, you can’t help but feel a bittersweet attitude towards the film.  Primarily because how poorly the film was received because of his treatment by the U.S. government but also the large amount of negative press that he received.

Chaplin tried his best to defend the film.   A film that cost him two million dollars and took seven years to make.  But it was his drive to tell a story about how a poor French clerk who lost his job due to the Depression looked at wooing wealthy women, marrying them and murdering them as a way to support the wife and child that he does love.  In his mind, that contemporary civilization is making mass murderers of us all.

While the film is a comedy, Chaplin knew the state of how things were in America and the world at the time.  After a major World War, these were serious times in which he felt he could use his personality for good and at 58, there was no need for the tramp as he could not play the popular character all his life.  But it was his opportunity to create pity for all humanity as he would say, “in the drastic circumstances of present-day living”.

Charlie Chaplin in “Monsieur Verdoux” is wonderful.  His ability to play a character that is calm, collected but able to pursue multiple women by using his charm and trying to find anyway he can to get their money.

Meanwhile, as much as he has been able to travel and marry or have relationships with many married women in his life, some he manages to kill, some he doesn’t (because he doesn’t know how to get them to give him access to the money), we are introduced to another character, a girl (portrayed by Marilyn Nash) who has been released from prison and receives inspiration from the one man who tries to help her and most of all, listen to her…Monsieur Verdoux.  Her character has become an important and pivotal character towards the end of the film but it’s the planning of the characters in the film that make “Monsieur Verdoux” a fascinating film and at times a comedy.

Most of the comedy is derived from the scenes featuring comedian Martha Raye as Annabella Bonheur, a wisecracking, blunt and yet wealthy woman with a laugh of a hyena.  But in addition to Bonheur, we have appearances by William Frawley (best known as Fred Mertz in the sitcom “I Love Lucy”) and Fritz Leiber, Sr.

But the work and performance of Charlie Chaplin is incredible.  If anyone was able to get away from his well-known “Tramp” role, we as audiences of today, recognize that Chaplin was successful.  Unfortunately, because of the release of the film during his worse time of his personal life, the film would not receive the recognition then, as it does now.

So, we go back to the question of whether a film about an amoral mass murderer should be regarded as wonderful cinema, especially among the many masterpieces in his oeuvre.  I have to say yes.  We  sympathize with Verdoux, but we know that as much as his amoral perspective is only justifiable to him but not to the masses, it’s because Verdoux was a man who knew he did wrong but he was the product of society and that he will not be the only one with that mindset.

But as a society who believes one man who kills any is a murder, what of a country that kills many more for the sake of war or business.  Is he any different?

As for the Criterion Collection Blu-ray release, the film delivers the most beautiful version of this film to date.  The special features are also important in introducing people to what Charlie Chaplin was enduring in his personal life and his career at the time but also featuring interviews with people who knew him.

Overall, “Monsieur Verdoux” is another magnificent Charlie Chaplin Blu-ray release but is also a film that is deserving of its recognition as a true Charlie Chaplin cinematic masterpiece. Highly recommended!

 

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