Monday, September 8, 2014

Blind Spot Series 2014: Monsieur Verdoux


Well, I'm really early with this one, but due to vacation cutting into the entire center of my month, if I don't post this now I will miss the deadline.  I actually watched this on the 1st and have been dragging out posting this as long as I can, but it's now or never (or late) and so I'm choosing now.  For those unfamiliar, this is part of the Blind Spot series that The Matinee is hosting this year, and so far this has been a really rewarding year for Blind Spot movies here at A Fistful of Films!  I decided to delve into the 40's for my personal selections, and I couldn't be more happy with that decision.  

You can click here to see all Blind Spot entries.

So, this month I saw a film from one of my favorite actor/directors, Charlie Chaplin.  I have mixed feelings on this, but we might as well just dig right on in.



Story goes that Orson Welles originally planned on directing Charlie Chaplin in this film, eyeing the famed silent film star as the perfect fit for the title character.  He was right.  In my eyes, this is not only one of Chaplin’s greatest screen performances but possibly one of the greatest male performances of all time.  Story ends with Chaplin requesting Welles give up the project and let him direct it himself, since he had never acted under anyone else’s direction before.  Wrong move.  For me, ‘Monsieur Verdoux’, which a good film, could have been great under the direction of a man (or woman) better suited to the material; and Welles was such a director.  I can only imagine the greatness that could have come from Welles’ direction, and it saddens me to know that we’ll never see that.

This isn’t to say that ‘Monsieur Verdoux’ is a bad film, because it isn’t, but it is missing something key.

Chaplin was a remarkable director.  The way that he was able to convey so much without the use of dialog is insanely creative, and the way that he played with soft textures, creating such languid emotions that created a soulfully intimate nature to his films was truly sincere and impactful.  This quality shines brightest during a moment in this film where Verdoux is contemplating killing off a young girl, right out of prison.  They are sitting at a small dining room table and Verdoux is waiting for her to drink some poison.  As they talk to each other and the tension rises (she lifts the glass, she puts it down, he eyes her glass, he starts to panic, he decides he doesn’t want her to drink it) the scene begins to form this beautifully intimate chemistry that brings us into Verdoux’s mindset.  We begin to really ‘see’ this man.


Sadly, Chaplin’s skills as a director don’t always shine in the film as a whole, because despite the film’s ‘black comedy’ overtones, Chaplin wasn’t very adept at creating the ‘black’ aspects.  The film, tonally, winds up feeling somewhat flat because Chaplin didn’t know how to really flesh out the intensity needed to make this story sing on the screen.  This is a conundrum for me, because as an actor he seemed to understand that mix of comedy/intensity rather well, exceptionally well actually.  His facial expressions and inward demeanor sell this man completely, but the film around him winds up feeling rather stale in comparison.  I found myself completely uninterested in the actual story, but continually glued to Chaplin’s performance.

I seriously weep inside for what could have been had Chaplin allowed Welles to direct him here.

The story is an interesting one in concept.  The film is a semi-fictionalized telling of a real life murderer of women.  With names changed (hilariously causing controversy when a real life bank employee who happened to have the same name as the fictional one used in the film), ‘Monsieur Verdoux’ tells the story of Henri Verdoux, a bank employee who comes up with an unorthodox way of providing for his family.  He seeks out rich women, marries them, and then murders them for their money.  Conceptually, this has so much promise, and some of it is tapped here, but mostly the story itself, which should be front and center, becomes somewhat lost in the process and we are left with a series of events that don’t always feel cohesively connected, and a lot of backstory that is just completely disregarded.  We get no real sense of Verdoux actual home life, his real family or his complete intentions.  Instead, we are left in the moment of certain aspects of the film, and while some of those work VERY well (like the aforementioned dinner scene), I can’t help but feel let down by the lack of real plot development here.  The story almost felt like an afterthought, or like a mere prop for Chaplin to use to bolster his performance.  While I often site performances as a reason to see a film, because acting has always been my primary cinematic love, I have to express disappointment that this particular performance isn’t matched by the actual film, since the film’s promise was so strong.

10 comments:

  1. I really liked this film as I think it's one of Chaplin's finest. It's not a perfect film but Chaplin's performance really just kept things going for me and I hope to get the Criterion DVD for that one as I just finished watching a mini-marathon of films by Chaplin.

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    1. Yeah, I caught your Chaplin marathon on your blog. I love, love, LOVE his older films, and maybe I was a tad harsh on this one, but it just felt lacking compared to what he had done before. I just don't think he was the right directorial fit for the material.

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  2. I agree Chaplin gives a brilliant performance here. Though I love the film, it does feel a bit lightweight compared to films like City Lights and Modern Times. It could have been a masterpiece, but I still hold the film in high regard. Of course, Welles directing would be very intriguing.

    By the way, I just watched Less Than Zero. Wow. Needless to say, RDJ finally gets a CinSpec win! :)

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    1. Yeah, when I read that Welles was initially planning on directing this...I was immediately sad. Like...can you imagine THAT movie!

      YAY! RDJ is just incredible in that film...SOOOOO incredible, and this is coming from someone who kind of hates the movie.

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    2. Oh, I'm not that fond of the film either, but RDJ is aces.

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  3. I finally just watched this last month for the first time. I'm not very familiar with Chaplin's work overall, having read about this one and since it co-starred Martha Raye whom I'm a fan of it seemed a good place to start. I liked it quite a bit though it had some gaps of credibility that I found problematic. It did lead me to check out more of his films and I watched Limelight this week which I loved so much more, next on my list is A King in New York.

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    1. You need to get into his early, 20's and 30's work. City Lights and The Kid are, by a large margin, my favorites of his.

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  4. Didn't know Welles was going to direct this instead of Chaplin. I couldn't help watching even though Verdoux is a monster. However I almost did turn off the film when he attempts to poison that poor girl, so evil! It's an effective and memorable scene though.
    A captivating story, though I do feel there are unrealistic aspects such as characters speaking English in France, and wives not checking up on what their husband does for a living, which was a bit implausible. I agree we get no real sense of Verdoux's actual home life.

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    1. Yeah, this is just missing some important detailings. Still Chaplin, as an actor, was really remarkable here.

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