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Warner Home Video presents
"One murder makes a villain; millions a hero. Numbers sanctify."
DVD ReviewCharlie Chaplin, with his Little Tramp character, is undoubtedly the best-known silent film comedian. With the advent of the talkies in the late 1920s, he adapted with some difficulty to new conditions of production and expectations of realism on the part of audiences, and his output slowed considerably. Nonetheless, City Lights, Modern Times and The Great Dictator were both financial and critical successes. But in the early 1940s, public opinion turned against Chaplin, who was accused in a paternity suit, and suspected of being a Communist sympathizer. It is against this background of increasing paranoia and the beginnings of the Cold War that Chaplin shot Monsieur Verdoux in 1946.
The film opens with a shot of a tombstone inscribed "Monsieur Verdoux 1880-1937," and in voice-over, Verdoux (Chaplin) describes how he lost his job as a bank clerk during the depression, and was forced to begin "liquidating" members of the opposite sex to support his family. We learn that Verdoux is an educated, almost effete man, who uses his considerable charms to seduce women and gain access to their bank accounts by nefarious methods. There's Thelma, who's already been dispatched by means unknown and whose house Verdoux is putting up for sale; the pompous Madame Grosnay (Isobel Elsom), who initially resists Verdoux's over-enthusiasm, then eventually succumbs to his insistence; the near-harpy Lydia (Margaret Hoffman); and vulgar Annabella (Martha Raye). Verdoux uses pseudonyms, (implied) sex, fake stories of stock market crashes, and other devious means to extract money from his female victims, either stringing them along, or dispatching them with an undetectable poison once the well has run dry.
In an interesting twist, the villainous Verdoux is the character who garners most of our sympathy. He's charming and witty, and his sole reason for becoming a bluebeard is out of necessity, to support his wheelchair-bound wife and young son. His female victims are all loathsome, especially the loud-mouthed, crass Annabella, who owes her considerable fortune to winning the lottery, has less than desirable friends, and wastes her money on one hair-brained investment after the other. The sole exception is "The Girl" (Marilyn Nash), who's never named in the film. She's just been released from prison when Verdoux takes her in and feeds her, and he's about to poison her (to end her suffering, not for financial gain) when he learns of her love for her now-deceased invalid husband. The parallels with his own life are too acute, and he spares her.
Monsieur Verdoux may be a comedy, but only nominally so. There are some amusing scenes, such as Verdoux trying to put a noose, attached to an anchor, around Annabella's neck while they are fishing in a boat, and the scene where Verdoux forgets whom he's supposed to be seducing and mistakenly approaches the wrong woman, twice. But the overarching mood is one of gloominess, almost despair, as even moments of kindness are rewarded not with happiness but sorrow. And it's almost as if Chaplin were aware of the negative reception that the film would have, because he carefully links the killings of one man with the mass murder that is war, a recent memory when the film was released in 1947.
The film flopped upon its U.S. release, a victim of negative publicity about Chaplin's life and anti-Communist hysteria. But despite its almost grim mood, there's a lot to like about the film. Chaplin never kowtowed to the restrictions of the "zero-degree" style prevalent in Hollywood film, and although he was unable to shoot scenes repeatedly until he had perfected them (due to budget restrictions), there's a lot of visual interest here, both in the mise-en-scène and the framing and camera movement. Several scenes, especially one filmed on a landing with the Paris skyline in the background, are quite striking. With its interesting visuals and mix of dark themes and comedy, Monsieur Verdoux is well worth a look.
Rating for Style: B
Rating for Substance: B-
Image Transfer Review: The transfer is excellent, with a wide range from dark blacks to brilliant whites. Flaws in the source print have been corrected, and the resulting image is exceedingly clean, with nary a speckle or scratch in sight. There's an incredible amount of detail in the still images, but slight softness when anything moves, probably as a result of PAL to NTSC conversion.
Image Transfer Grade: A-
Audio Transfer Review: As would be expected for a film of its age, the sound is limited in fidelity, and occasionally sounds a bit harsh. Of the two English-language options, the Dolby 5.1 remix is surprisingly the better—it's fairly subtle but adds some spaciousness and occasional directional effects to the mix.
Audio Transfer Grade: B+
Disc ExtrasStatic menu with music
Scene Access with 20 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Chinese, Korean, Thai, English for the hearing-impaired with remote access
2 Original Trailer(s)
Packaging: Keep Case
Chaplin Today is wonderful 26m:57s documentary by Bernard Eisenschitz, with interview segments with director Claude Chabrol, whose 1962 film Landru was inspired by the same historical personage as Chaplin's film. It covers some of the same ground as the introduction, but in much more depth and detail, especially in the sections covering the events and political atmosphere surrounding the film's production. Chabrol analyzes several scenes from the films and comments on its themes. This is a fascinating and informative documentary, richly illustrated with production photos, posters, newsreels, storyboards, and behind-the-scenes footage from the film. The 4:3 image looks great, and the interviews with Chabrol are impressively detailed and colorful.
Two original trailers are featured. The first is English-language, and is windowboxed, from excellent source materials. The other trailer is German and in slightly rougher shape, with some grain and hissy sound, and has no subtitles. It's interesting to note that the German media machine is at least as dishonest as its U.S. counterpart, since the trailer claims that U.S. critics have proclaimed Monsieur Verdoux as "the best and most artistic of Chaplin's sound films."
The Photo Gallery displays over 70 production and publicity photos. There's no need to hit any buttons on the remote, as they switch automatically, but some background music would have been nice. The 125 Plan drawings for the sets and preparatory sketches mix those two elements with still frames showing the corresponding sets from the film. There are 13 original and re-release Film Posters from the U.S., Europe and Japan, each of them accompanied by a radio commercial. The Chaplin collection features brief clips from other films in Warners' collection. The disc's menus are also available in English, Spanish, and Portuguese.
Extras Grade: A
Final CommentsChaplin's Monsieur Verdoux was his first fully-realized sound film, and is a curious, but entertaining mix of a rather grim mood and comedic sequences. Other than some softness in the moving image, the transfer is impeccable, and the extras are excellent.
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