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By Brad Cook | April 16, 2013

As tales of murderous philanderers go, Charlie Chaplin’s “Monsieur Verdoux” is fairly pedestrian, a character study with a bit of police procedural swirled in. Viewed in the context of its 1947 release year and Chaplin’s masterpiece “The Great Dictator,” however, one realizes that the two films bookend each other. Where “The Great Dictator” warned the world of the dangers posed by Hitler and Mussolini, “Verdoux” casts a bright cold light on those who were complicit in the horrors of World War II, often under the pretense that they were trying to actually perform a service. In the process, Chaplin succeeds in making us sympathize with his character, thus further muddying the waters. There are no true heroes nor villains in this one.

Chaplin portrays Henri Verdoux, a French banker left unemployed by the Great Depression’s effects on Europe. He unleashes his sociopathic side to make ends meet and support his wife and child, engaging in a crime spree in which he marries wealthy widows and bilks them out of their fortunes before murdering them. As a police investigation closes in on him, a chance encounter with a destitute woman forces a change of heart and he eventually allows himself to be captured. The film ends with his slow walk to the guillotine, after having informed a priest: “One murder makes a villain; millions, a hero. Numbers sanctify, my good fellow!” Like any good filmmaker, Chaplin lets us wrestle with that one.

For the most part, “Monsieur Verdoux” is a black comedy. Chaplin engages in a little of the physical humor for which he was well-known, but not much. A boat scene in which he attempts to murder one particularly irritating woman is the best example of old-school Chaplin in the movie. It’s also a great example of the moral conflicts he sets up in it: We have come to sympathize with him, but of course we don’t want him to succeed in committing murder; however, the woman he is trying to off is so grating that we begin to think maybe he should be allowed to pull it off.

While Chaplin plays the role of the pithy Verdoux with his usual aplomb, however, some of the other performances are quite weak in comparison. Particularly flat is Marilyn Nash, an unknown who played the key role of The Girl (as she’s listed in the credits) who convinces Verdoux to have a change of heart. She comes across as wooden, much like many of the sets and some of the scenery. (Particularly jarring is when Chaplin meets The Girl on the street and the footage abruptly switches from an on-location shot to an on-set one, with rear projection passersby.)

Film critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, in an essay published in the accompanying book, argues that the artificiality of the environments “heightens the performances.” I suppose. I was left wondering if Chaplin, who was battling many personal problems at the time he made “Monsieur Verdoux,” was forced to cut corners because he couldn’t get the kind of budget he was accustomed to.

Vishnevetsky also argues that Verdoux must have killed his wife and child, given the fact that they disappear from the narrative and Verdoux says at one point that they died. Given the fact that the film takes place in France over an extended period of time that includes the outbreak of World War II, it’s more likely that they were one of the many civilian casualties. It doesn’t make sense to me that Verdoux would off his family, considering the fact that he turned to a life of crime to support them. Seeing them as casualties of war also gives us more reason to feel sympathy for Verdoux.

Vishnevetsky’s essay is accompanied by “My New Film,” a piece Chaplin wrote for the “Continental Daily Mail” in May 1947, as well as an excerpt from critic Andre Bazin’s January 1948 defense of the film, “The Myth of ‘Monsieur Verdoux.'” Both provide fine supplemental reading for a 27-minute 2003 documentary about the controversy surrounding the film and a 25-minute featurette that hones in on the American press’ attitude, as well as the impact of the movie on Chaplin’s image.

An illustrated audio interview with Nash and radio ads round out the bonus materials on this disc. There’s no commentary, which is a bummer since there are a plenty of people who could do one, such as Chaplin biographer Jeffrey Vance, who recorded one for “The Gold Rush.”

This Blu-ray release is advertised as a new 2K digital restoration during which tons of dirt and other crud was scrubbed from the print, but at one point early in the film, a couple lines appear on the left side of the screen and stay there for several minutes. That’s unfortunate, although it’s the only flaw in what is otherwise an excellent video presentation.

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