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Charlie Chaplin's serial killer gets his money the old-fashioned way

The truth about Charlie

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Charlie Chaplin as the lady-killing Henri Verdoux - PHOTO COURTESY OF FILM DESK
  • Photo courtesy of Film Desk
  • Charlie Chaplin as the lady-killing Henri Verdoux

Monsieur Verdoux opens Friday at the Galaxy Cinema

When Charlie Chaplin's Monsieur Verdoux was first released in 1947, critic James Agee—writing for The Nation—called it "one of the best movies ever made" and devoted three consecutive weekly columns to it.

I won't trouble the editors of the Independent to give me such space to discuss its rerelease, opening Friday locally, but I'd venture Verdoux is as exciting to me as it was to Agee more than 60 years ago, and it's arguably more relevant today. It is still a bold, troubling, funny film that serves as an uplifting testament to Chaplin's lasting genius, and for modern viewers it serves as a bitter lament that so little has changed since the film was made.

Perhaps it's because Chaplin tackles timeless issues that his film remains fresh. But seen today, Verdoux views like a checklist of presidential campaign issues: Its big subjects are war and the economy, and one character is hung up on alternative energy schemes.

The big issues are couched in a story about Henri Verdoux, a former bank teller who lost his livelihood in the Great Depression. He has since become a bluebeard, a man who marries and murders a series of wives for their money. Simultaneously ruthless and dainty, cold-blooded and skittish, Verdoux is a character composed of contrasts. He practices vegetarianism, tends to stray kittens, teaches his son that violence begets violence, and is also serial murderer. In fact, he's a career murderer in the true sense: Verdoux murders in order to make a living, and Chaplin goes to some lengths to drive this home—when he gets a call from his accountant that he needs to deposit some funds, Verdoux checks his black book of potential victims the way others would check their bank balance.

For Chaplin, Verdoux is the product of an economy that does not support its needful citizens and a society that pretends war is something more than mass murder. Using the Great Depression and World War II as a pretext, Chaplin states directly by the end of the film that any system that would isolate his protagonist as an anomalous animal is hypocritical.

Even with these heavy themes, Verdoux is the unmistakable work of a comedic master, an endlessly playful movie. Almost every scene is infused with subtle comedic bits played and directed by Chaplin in a way that supports the film's somber (sometimes portentous) themes even while occasionally veering into slapstick. People fall out of windows, maids lose their hair, and Verdoux swoons hilariously when he mistakenly thinks he's poisoned himself.

Most of the movie is executed with such simple cinematic grammar that Chaplin achieves great effect with seemingly small decisions. We don't see the first murder, only Verdoux following his unsuspecting victim into her bedroom. The camera stays in the hall, the music swells a bit (like the rest of the movie, the score is restrained and effective), night turns to day, and Verdoux emerges from the bedroom to call his banker. By eliding the actual murder, Chaplin cheats his way around showing us Verdoux the killer, which might turn us entirely against him.

But more importantly, Chaplin collapses the distance between Verdoux's actions and their motivation. How Verdoux murders is not important—what matters is that murder is inextricably linked with the economy, that peaceful citizens are not imaginable in a warmongering society. Verdoux does not simply wire the money home but invests it, greasing the wheels of the economic machine with his victims' blood.

In the end, what's so impressive about Verdoux—and what makes it hold up—is the clarity of ideas and image. In the final minutes of the film, Chaplin more clearly takes over for Verdoux, openly using him as a mouthpiece for his own ideas. Instead of seeming obtrusive and sloppy, the precision of the film and the filmmaking have earned the podium, and Chaplin doesn't back down from it. Monsieur Verdoux is a tragedy born in the Great Depression and raised in the bloodshed of world war. Sixty years later, as we are on the verge of economic collapse and stuck in a global so-called war on terror, Verdoux deserves another stand at the podium.

Nathan Gelgud returns to the Indy's pages after a six-year absence. He studied film at N.C. State and graduated in 2000. He moved to Brooklyn, N.Y., in 2002, where he occasionally blogs at newyorkfilmreview.typepad.com.

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