Nowadays, it's not uncommon to see actors and filmmakers stray from the elements that originally made them famous, the iconic things that they're known for. For the sake of her drastic change, I'll use Lindsay Lohan as an example. As a child, she kicked her career off with a string of family films. With the flick of a switch, she became, arguably, the nastiest actress in Hollywood – both off and on the screen. She can hardly land a role now due to her reputation and, when she does, she is typically taken advantage of for being at the bottom of the barrel. She's exploited. Examples like this aren't all that shocking anymore, but they once were. Charlie Chaplin was one of the first to experience this, to have his reputation and public opinion go down the drain – only his reputation-hurting offenses weren't salacious, but political. Why am I opening this review with a brief glimpse into Chaplin's history? Because it's 100 percent relevant to 'Monsieur Verdoux' and the reason why Criterion has deemed it worthy of joining their collection.
During the post-World War II "red scare," Chaplin was investigated by the FBI because of his social connections to known communist supporters. He denied accusations of being a communist and openly shared his sentiment towards the investigation, calling it unconstitutional and un-American. He quickly became a figure that was constantly portrayed negatively in the press. And when he and his family left for a London film premiere in 1952, they were told that they were no longer welcome to return to the United States. In essence, they were exiled.
In the middle of this, Chaplin was working on 'Monsieur Verdoux,' the controversial black comedy where he plays a role far different from his norm. The titular character, played by Chaplin, is a twisted older man who looks for wealthy unmarried women, sweeps them off their feet, marries them, and kills them for their money. If you can't tell, Monsieur Verdoux is the character that put an end to Chaplin's iconic "Tramp" character.
The film opens with a wealthy family discussing their upper-class woes. Throughout the entirety of the film, the well-off are portrayed as snobby idiots gleefully oblivious to the harsh reality that surrounds them. Now, the really interesting aspect of his character is that he is not motivated by greed. He murders these women in a last-ditch effort to support his very ill wife and their young son. When we, the audience, learn this, we don't quite see Verdoux in a creepy negative light anymore, because his intentions are good and his victims are awful people. Considering how conservative films had to be in the late 1940s due to the Production Code, you can see how this subject matter would be so highly controversial. Morally, nobody wants to root for the villain, but the deeper you get into 'Monsieur Verdoux,' the more you're going to cheer for his victories and continued safety.
Knowing the story of Chaplin's life at the time he was making 'Monsier Verdoux' adds a great amount of context to the film. It adds a sense of sadness, betrayal and defiance – especially when you get to the film's climax and resolution. The film itself is good, but pairing it with a knowledge of the back story is what makes it a Criterion-worthy release.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Criterion has placed 'Monsieur Verdoux' on a Region-A BD-50 that's housed in a standard-to-Criterion bulky clear keepcase. The spine reveals it to be number 652 in their collection. Included is the largest Criterion booklet that I've seen to date. If fact, it's so big that page 2 (of 36) is a Table of Contents. As usual, it features original stills, cast credits, notes about the transfer and – not one – but three essays: "Sympathy for the Devil" by Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, "My New Film" by Chaplin himself and a section from André Bazin's "The Myth of 'Monsieur Verdoux.'" Nothing plays before the main menu.
The folks at Criterion have done a great job cleaning up this 1947 picture and giving it a solid 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode that presents 'Monsieur Verdoux' in its original 1:33:1 aspect ratio. While there are some age-revealing defects and damage to the picture, it still looks much better than you'd expect from a 66-year-old film.
The included booklet explains that "this new 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." For the most part, the film is devoid of dirt, debris and scratches – but not entirely. It's obvious that the majority of the work has been done on the central areas of the screen. Slight traces of scrubbing are visible, but mostly only on the outer edges of the image. The expected vertical scratches, although cleaned up and lessened, are only found there. Between minutes 20 and 31, there are three scenes that feature an erratically-moving hair or fiber at the bottom of the screen.
Much like the last Chaplin Criterion Blu-ray that I reviewed, 'The Gold Rush,' fine details are few and far between. Rigid lines don't exist; most carry soft edges – not solely due to the age of the print, noise reduction and scrubbing, but because filmmakers of this era didn't often use revealing and defining close-ups.
On the plus side, Criterion has balanced the contrast and black levels so that there's a consistency from one shot to another during the entire film. Much has been done to improve and preserve 'Monsieur Verdoux' and it's noticeable.
Criterion has also done a lot of solid work to restore the film's sound track. As the transfer notes explain, the clear and clean mono Linear PCM track results from the original track being remastered at 24-bit from a sound negative.
The use of sound in 'Monsieur Verdoux' is fantastic. Reoccurring events, situation and characters have their own distinct musical queues, but the scoring that takes place between them is very beautiful. It's so pretty and unconventional to the film's theme that it adds an extra layer of overall creepiness. Since the spousal murders couldn't be shown on-screen, loud an chaotic orchestral numbers represent the killing taking place off-screen. The first murder attempt that we see is preceded by the beautiful score, interrupted by the chaos, and followed-up with Verdoux whistling a pretty tune while walking out of the scene of the crime. With the music playing a character of its own, it's great to have it ring our without any distortion at all.
The vocals are also just as clear as the music. There isn't a single trace of aging or damage. Not one pop, crackle or hum. The only downside is the central, dynamic-less nature of monaural audio – but at least it's completely uncompressed.
For film history buffs, 'Monsieur Verdoux' is an easy recommendation. Charlie Chaplin is one Hollywood's greatest stars. The film sums up some of the bitter sentiments he had about the United States while telling a wickedly dark tale of seduction, murder, and deceit. Criterion has done a great job cleaning up the 66-year-old film's wear and tear, making it much easier to view than most films that age. 'Monsieur Verdoux' is a film that's just as interesting to learn about as it is to watch. Thankfully, Criterion has given it more than one hour's worth of special features offering insight into its production and historical relevance. If you study film, this Blu-ray should be mandatory viewing.