Gentleman's Agreement (Directed by Elia Kazan)
The Nominees: The Bishop's Wife, Crossfire, Great Expectations, Miracle on 34th Street
Monsieur Verdoux: A Comedy of Murders (Directed by Charles Chaplin)
My Nominees: Crossfire (Edward Dmytryk), Kiss of Death (Henry Hathaway), Miracle on 34th Street (George Seaton)
|At the same moment that Europe's liberated Jews were struggling to make their home in Palestine and establish the state of Israel, the academy was recognizing a film for taking a stand against anti-Semitism. Gentleman's Agreement from Elia Kazan addressed the issue through the scope of a journalist (Gregory Peck) who goes undercover as a Jew in order to learn about hate crimes first hand. I am always proud of the academy for rewarding films about important social issues and at the time, this film may have seemed to be as hard as they come but today the film’s impact has weakened and the approach to the subject seems a little tepid.
To be honest, I prefer the year's other expose on anti-Semitism, Crossfire from Edward Dmytryk, based on a novel by Richard Brooks which had been about homophobia and gay bashing. Both films were part of an odd time in Hollywood, the six years between the war and the blacklist when filmmakers were experimenting with darker, more cynical subject matter.
One of the best is also one of Chaplin's favorites among his own work. Monsieur Verdoux: A Comedy of Murders, which was based upon the real-life case of Henri Désiré Landru, a French bluebeard who between 1914 and 1918 seduced and murdered 11 women in order to gain their money. He went to the guillotine in 1922, after being convicted on all 11 counts.
The story was suggested to Chaplin by Orson Welles who offered to direct him in the project but Chaplin wouldn't hear of it. He had never appeared in a film he had not directed by himself and he did not intend to start here. So Chaplin put the project together himself as director, producer, screenwriter and he even wrote the score. It remains forever unknown what Welles would have done with the story but Chaplin's version works beautifully as a masterpiece of pitch black comedy. He plays Henri Verdoux, a charming Frenchman who recalls his story from the grave. He was once a banker but was put out of work by the depression. Now he needs a new method with which to support his loved ones, so he takes extended business trips, assumes a new identity, charms, seduces, marries and murders wealthy but unwise women for their money. It is nothing personal, just business. Thus far, he has been successful thirteen times until a kink develops in his plan in the form of Annabella Bonheur (Martha Raye) a simpleton with little brains but a lot of mouth whom Verdoux finds a little difficult to bump off.
Meanwhile, during a conversation with a colleague, he hits upon a plan for a foolproof poison that will make the cause of death look like a simple case of heart failure. Attempting to try it on a derelict, he picks up a woman off the street and brings her home out of the rain. He feeds her and gives her the tainted wine and before she has a drink, she recounts her hard luck story and he takes away the wine before she can drink it. He gives her money and sends her on her way.
What works so beautifully in Monsieur Verdoux is that Chaplin moves so effortlessly and his plans seem to come off without a hitch. We become so accustomed to his success that when he fails, it comes as a surprise. Verdoux’s failures stir up some of the funniest moments in any Chaplin film. Take for example the moment when he attempts to give Annabelle the poison. Her maid, who is going to bleach her hair, takes the bottle containing the poison while Verdoux takes the bottle containing the peroxide. He puts the peroxide in Annabelle's wine while the maid puts Verdoux's poison in her hair. While Verdoux is running through the house thinking he has swallowed his own poison, the maid is upstairs running through the house while her hair is coming out in clumps. It is all staged beautifully, like a bizarre comic ballet.
Another brilliant scene involves Verdoux's second attempt to bump off Annabelle by taking her on a fishing trip. He intends to strangle her with a rope but she keeps getting distracted and doesn't even notice when the rope is around her neck. This comedy of errors ends, inevitably, with Verdoux being dropped in the drink.
The other thing that works is Verdoux himself - this is a wonderfully original creation by Chaplin. He doesn't look or sound like any character that Chaplin ever played and is the first true attempt to rid himself of all traces of The Tramp. Verdoux, with his haughty voice, his pencil-thin moustache and his graceful manner has a way of moving about in an effortless manner. We sense that he can get away with anything and he almost does. He is acold- blooded killer who stuffs the bodies of his victims in an incinerator, but there is a place in his heart for the lesser creatures in God's creation. He has sympathy for a caterpillar that he nearly steps on, he loves cats, especially strays, and of course has sympathy for the girl. An ironic twist comes in the end when he is caught, he accepts defeat but refuses to be defeated by his predicament. "Wars, conflict - it's all business," he says "One murder makes a villain; millions, a hero. Numbers sanctify, my good fellow!" His face never registers despair even as he is led to his end.
Chaplin took on the project during a rough period in his personal life. He was under the government microscope, accused of being a communist, and at the same time was in the midst of a paternity suit of which he turned out not to be the father. The film was a colossal flop and the censor boards of the United States would not approve the picture for release for another 17 years. Critics ripped the film to shreds and some theaters refused to show it. Chaplin pulled it from release and it wouldn't be seen in the United States until 1964. It was only with time that this film found an audience, and today it is lauded as one of his very best.