BEFORE HANNIBAL LECTER, before Psycho, before the serial killer film became the pervasive genre of our time, a post- Little Tramp Charlie Chaplin explored the venerable but now largely unfamiliar "bluebeard" theme. The term has its roots in 15th-century France, coming to mean a serial marrier/murderer who preys upon lovelorn old ladies. Hardly the sort of innocent material one associates with Chaplin, but the world was considerably darker in 1947—when the film nonetheless flopped at the box office.
starring and directed by Charlie Chaplin
runs January 28-30 at Consolidated Works
Now, Verdoux is receiving its first Seattle screening in over 50 years, in conjunction with Consolidated Works' "Free Will and Wanton Lust" theater production and two-weekend "Cast of Killers" film series. Our present distance from Chaplin's silent film persona is helpful in viewing Verdoux afresh, and movies like Scream have certainly prepared us to greet murder with laughter.
To start with, simply hearing the British-accented Chaplin's prim, twitchy character speak is amusing, as he begins narrating his tale from the grave. Downsized during the '20s, he takes to his new "business" with fastidious abandon, profiting from a dozen spousal bank accounts.
Though uneven in tone, occasionally sentimental, and burdened with a wooden subplot, Verdoux has lots of funny comic business that Chaplin both performs and directs to great effect. We're rooting for him, of course, as he frantically prunes his roses, pounds his piano, incinerates his wives, and befriends stray cats.
In the end, as fascism and WWII approach, Verdoux asks of murder, "Does not the world encourage it?" Clearly Chaplin is looking way beyond cheap explanations and revenge motives. That's why Verdoux's final courtroom account of his crimes startles, as he blames not psychology but economics.