by James Agee
The Nation, May 10, 1947
With deep regret I must postpone my attempt to review Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux. I cannot hope to do it justice, but I do prefer to discuss it a little more coherently than I have been able to, to date. In case this leaves any doubt of my opinion of the film, let me say that I think it is one of the best movies ever made, easily the most exciting and most beautiful since Modern Times. I will add that I think most of the press on the picture, and on Chaplin, is beyond disgrace. I urge everyone to see Monsieur Verdoux who can get to it.
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The Nation, May 31,1947
MONSIEUR VERDOUX — I
Although I have been granted extra space, and propose to discard most other considerations for brevity’s sake, I can say here only a few of the things that I feel need to be said about Mr. Chaplin’s new film. I can only hope that these notes may faintly suggest the frame-by-frame appreciation, the gratitude, and the tribute which we owe this great poet and his great poem; and may help some readers to enjoy more of what he has done than they otherwise might.
The skeletal story: Henri Verdoux, a French bank teller of the thirties who has lost his job in a depression, works out a business of his own whereby he can support his crippled wife (Mady Corell) and their little boy. He becomes a professional murderer of women of means. He courts them, marries them, finesses their little fortunes into his possession; murders them and eliminates their corpses; plays the market with the whole of his profits. We see him at work on four such women. One is going up in smoke when Verdoux first appears. One is a socially prominent widow (Isobel Elsom) whom he woos industriously through most of the film; she takes him for a boulevardier. One is a sour old small-town dame (Margaret Hoffman) whose money he cajoles by stop-watch and whom he promptly murders; she thinks he is a globe-trotting civil engineer. One is a half-daft ex-tart (Martha Raye) who has hit luck in a lottery. She takes him for a sea captain. His efforts to kill her are almost the only passages of pure slapstick in the film.
A very busy little man—his business dashes him all over France and from top to bottom of society—Verdoux can visit his true home seldom. Even when he does he is likely to mix business with the pleasure. He learns from a druggist friend (Robert Lewis) about a new poison, painless and untraceable. He picks up a friendless young woman (Marilyn Nash) to try it out on, but spares her when he realizes that she, like himself, “could kill for love.” When he meets her later, by accident, he cryptically brushes her off. Late in the film, long after he has retired from business, they meet again. But just then and there he is recognized by relatives of a former wife. After showing how effortlessly he could have escaped, he deliberately puts himself in the way of arrest. The film ends with the famous scenes in which Verdoux hears his sentence and explains himself, more or less, to the court and the world; pays his equally cold respects to journalism and to God; and walks to the guillotine.
Disregard virtually everything you may have read about the film. It is of interest, but chiefly as a definitive measure of the difference between the thing a man of genius puts before the world and the things the world is equipped to see in it. There is room neither to analyze nor to argue much about this peculiar criticism; yet in all conscience a few points must be mentioned. The ruck of these reviewers have said, for instance, that the film isn’t funny; is morally questionable; is in bad taste; that Chaplin should never have stopped playing the tramp; that Raye steals her scenes with Chaplin; that Chaplin is no good at casting, writing, directing, producing; that he should have hired people, for all these jobs, who knew the techniques which have been developed since talkies began. Some brief replies:
Not funny. Not much of it is, unless you have an eye and mind for the far from cliché matters which can be probed and illuminated through poetically parodied cliché; an appetite for cold nihilistic irony; respect for an artist who subdues most of his outrageous fun to the grim central spirit of his work.
Morals. For later discussion. I could take more seriously those who have objected on these grounds if any of them had shown himself capable of recognizing an act of moral and artistic heroism when he saw it. Not one did.
Taste. Verdoux is in bad taste if death is, as so many Americans feel; and it it is in bad taste to treat a serious matter seriously, and to make comedy cut to the bone.
The tramp. Very young children fiercely object to even minor changes in a retold story. Older boys and girls are not, as a rule, respected for such extreme conservatism.
Raye. Verdoux cannot properly get many of the big laughs; that is what Raye is there for. She does her job beautifully, and Chaplin feeds her and foils her beautifully. One of the finest aspects of his miraculous performances is his quiet skill and graciousness, in these and many other scenes, as a feeder, a sardonic ringmaster, an inspired emcee.
Casting. Rave’s mere presence disproves that. So does Marilyn Nash; name one trained actress who could give that role, besides her lovely demeanor, her exactly right spirit, vitality, and freshness. So does every player and bit player in the cast. Chaplin is the most perceptive, imaginative, exact man alive, at easting; these reviewers are less so.
Writing. Verbally most of Verdoux is inferior to its visual achievements—that is to say, it is only one of the most talented screen plays ever written. Chaplin also wrote the story and its subtleties; designed one of the few really formed movies in years; invented at least twenty-five characters who live very keenly both as social tapes and as individuals; and reproduced, just as cleanly and quietly, that entire grand façade of a society which was germane to his theme. (The significant omissions are farmers and industrial workers; the world of Verdoux is the world of gain, gotten ill, by chance, by heritage, by crime.)
Directing. He directed this film—all the people mentioned and successes suggested above, and still others as great and greater, handling a munificent complex of characters, ideas, milieux, and tributary styles and tones with all but perfect visual wit and expressiveness and with an all but unblemished grace, force, and economy. For directing as brilliant I refer you to his own Modern Times and to Dovzhenko’s Frontier, there has been none since.
Production. Is criticized as stingy, and as unlike France. Instead, it is a manifesto against a kind of vulgarity in which Hollywood is drowned—the attempt to disguise emptiness with sumptuousness. It looks hand-made, not machine-turned. Like the casting and acting and directing it is poetic, not naturalistic, though naturalistic elements are finely used poetically. Verdoux’s France is a highly intelligent paraphrase, far more persuasive of its place—half in the real world, half in the mind—than most films are of their supposed place, foreign, native, or imaginary.
New techniques. They are on the whole weakened derivations from styles developed before sound came, in Russia, Germany, and, in this country, by Chaplin among others; virtually nothing has been done with sound. Such as the new style is, it can be used decently; that is proved by The Best Years of Our Lives. But in the average well-made movie, such as these reviewers praise, it signifies just this: the art of moving pictures has been so sick, for so long, that the most it can do for itself is to shift unceasingly from one bedsore to the next. Chaplin, by contrast, obviously believes that if you can invent something worth watching, the camera should hold still and clear, so that you can watch it. That is still, and will always be, one of the best possible ways to use a camera; Chaplin is the one great man who still stands up for it.
To be sure, you have to be competent to see what he puts before you; and thanks to the depravities of the latter-day “style,” most of us have spoiled eyes. We cannot appreciate swiftness and uninsistence; nor the bracing absence of fancy composition and prettiness; nor Chaplin’s genius for “mood” when that is important (the first great shot of Verdoux’s closed garden); nor for atmosphere, authenticity, and beauty in mock formlessness (some wonderful loose group shots, full of glass, gravel, gray sky, pale heads, and dark clothing, at the garden party); nor for visual wit (the astoundingly funny long shot of the lake, with the murder boat almost imperceptibly small). We are just smart enough to recognize a cliché; never enough to see how brilliantly a master can use it. So we sneer at Chaplin’s frequent use of locomotive wheels, charging ever more desperately across the screen, this way and that, to mark another business trip or return; saying that he tries thus, unimaginatively, to bind together his formless continuity. But in fact these wheels do a lot at once. They are in the best sense economical; they are cumulatively funny; they cumulatively express Verdoux’s ever more frantic busyness; and they wind tire film up like a tight spring.
(To be continued)
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The Nation, June 14,1947
MONSIEUR VERDOUX — II
Chaplin’s performance as Verdoux is the best piece of playing I have ever seen: here, I cannot even specify the dozen or so close-ups each so great and so finely related and timed that withdrawn and linked in series they are like the notes of a slow, magnificent, and terrifying song, which the rest of the film serves as an accompaniment. I could write many pages, too, about the richness and quality of the film as a work of art, in fact, of genius; and as many more trying, hopelessly, to determine how Chaplin’s intellect, instinct, intuition, creative intelligence, and pure experience as a master artist and as a showman, serve and at times disserve one another: for intellectually and in every other kind of self-exhaustion this seems incomparably his most ambitious film. And since the film is provocative of so much that cannot be examined as fun, I wish I might also use the many thousands of words I would require to do it adequate honor, purely as fun. And all the more because I love and revere the film as deeply as any I have seen, and believe that it is high among the great works of this century, I wish I might discuss at proper length its weaknesses as a work of art and of moral understanding. I have reluctantly chosen, instead, to suggest a single aspect of its meaning, which seems to me particularly important. And this itself, I fear, I may have reduced beyond usefulness.
Chaplin’s theme, the greatest and the most appropriate to its time that he has yet undertaken, is the bare problem of surviving at all in such a world as this. With his usual infallibility of instinct he has set his story in Europe; Europeans are aware of survival as a problem, as we are not. As rightly, he has set aside the tramp, whose charming lessons in survival are too wishful for his purposes, for his first image of the Responsible Man, and of modern civilization. (For Verdoux embodies much of the best that can be said of modern civilization, whether democratic-capitalist, fascist, or communist: whatever he may lack in the way of conscience, he does have brains; and whatever crimes he commits, they are committed, or so he believes, out of compassionate love and in uncompromising discharge of responsibility.) The tramp is the free soul intact in its gallantry, innocence, eagerness for love, ridiculousness, and sorrow; we recognize in him much that is dear to us in ourselves. Verdoux is so much nearer and darker that we can hardly bear to recognize ourselves in him. He is the committed, dedicated soul, and this soul is not intact: we watch its death agonies. And this tragic process is only the more dreadful because it is depicted not gravely but briskly, with a cold savage gaiety; the self-destroying soul is rarely aware of its own predicament.
The problem of survival: the Responsible Man. Chaplin develops his terrible theme chiefly as a metaphor for business. But the film is also powerful as a metaphor for war: the Verdoux home as an embattled nation, the wife and child as the home front, Verdoux as expeditionary force, hero in the holiest of causes, and war criminal. But it is even more remarkable and fascinating as a study of the relationship between ends and means, a metaphor for the modern personality—that is, a typical “responsible” personality reacting to contemporary pressures according to the logic of contemporary ethics.
In the terms of this metaphor the basic cast is small. Verdoux, his wife, and their son are differing aspects of a single personality. Verdoux is the master, the intelligence and the deep unconscious; he has estranged his soul and his future. He has made the assumption that most people make, today—one of the chief assumptions on which modern civilization rests. That is, that in order to preserve intact in such a world as this those aspects of the personality which are best and dearest to one, it is necessary to exercise all that is worst in one; and that it is impossible to do this effectively if one communicates honestly with one’s best. Accordingly the personality which, until the world struck that living down, lived in poverty and docility, but happily, is broken and segregated.
The wife and child are shut away in a home which is at once a shrine and a jail; and there, immobilized, and cut off from the truth, they virtually cease to exist as living objects of love; they become an ever more rigid dream. For when the worst and the best in the personality are thus segregated, and the worst is thus utilized in the nominal service of the best, it is inevitably the good which is exploited; the evil, which thinks of itself as faithful slave, is treacherous master; and evil, being active and knowledgeable, grows; and good, rendered motionless and denied knowledge, withers. Like most men obsessed with the world’s ruthlessness, Verdoux carries his veneration of innocence to the extreme; he is determined that it shall never be touched, shall never change (the song of how many million homesick soldiers: We want to find everything at home just as we left it”). But change is inevitable, and uncontrollable.
Ruthlessness and the murderous adoration of static innocence enlarge each other; and the ruthless man becomes the more ruthless because he has broken all communication with innocence. And innocence itself is altered. At the moment Verdoux tells his wife that they own their home at last, she dares to remember sadly that they were happier when they were poor. Her face show’s the terrible drugged passiveness of the oversustained, the still more terrible intuitive guilt that comes of all that is uneasily apprehended, untold,-and unasked. Small wonder that she has become a cripple; the wonder is that she continues to breathe. Passiveness was forced on her, truth was destroyed, love was undermined, her own love became pity, as surely as her husband’s, and in pity and in fear she failed to question what w7as being done. As is so often true, it was not she who wanted to be so well provided for; that was her husband’s desire, the one desire he might hope to satisfy; so she let him satisfy it.
As for Verdoux, he is irreparably committed. All the heart he has left prevents his confessing to his wife, and prevents his changing trades. He could only have chosen his course through defect of love—vengefulness and self-pity masked as pity, pity masked as love; the love-destroying, monstrous arrogance it requires to make the innocent answerable for your guilt—and the constant necessity of deceiving love has damaged love still more profoundly. Like many business men who feel unloved, or incapable of full enough love, he can only propitiate, and express, his love by providing for his family as handsomely as possible. ( He can desire this of course, rather than the bare subsistence his wife prefers, only because he respects the standards of the world he thinks he despises. During his docile years, remember, he served at the high altar of modern civilization, breathing year in and year out The Bank’s soul-dissolving odor of sanctity, all day, every day, touching the sacred wealth he must never dare touch with his conscious desire. When he was thrown out of his job, this ruthlessness released the tremendously impounded ruthlessness in him.) But that is never well enough to satisfy him—and only his satisfaction really counts, in this household—for his wife and child scarcely exist for him except as a self-vindicating dream, which he must ceaselessly labor to sustain, improve, perfect, be worthy of. A vicious cycle is established. Only through the best good-providing possible can Verdoux at once express his love, quiet his dying intuition that his love is defective and that he is wrong even in the little that he believes to be right, sustain the dream that is all that remains of love, require of himself ever more obsessive industriousness in crime, and silence his wife.
As good, by his will, is ever more stonily immobilized, evil becomes ever more protean in disguise and self-disguise, ever more mercurial in its journeyings. (The personality is also a constant metaphor for modern civilization—in which, for one instance, creative power is paralyzed except in the interests of gain and destruction; in those interests it is vigorous as never before.) Verdoux cannot bear to sit still, to stop work, long enough to realize his predicament. He cannot feel “at home,” at home. He has to act his roles as perfect husband and father, dearly as he wants merely to be both, just as he acts all his other roles. All that he loves is saturated in deceit; and he in self-deceit as well. He gets home seldom, apparently never longer than overnight; the divided spirit can only assert its unity, even its illusion of unity or its desire, in twilight contemplation or in dreams; and the pressure of business is always on him. The pressure of business indeed! Verdoux’s family is almost lifeless; such piteously cherished life as it retains, he is hopelessly estranged from. All that requires his intelligence, skill, and vitality, all that gives him life, is in his business. He is the loneliest character I know of: he can never be so desperately lonely as during these hours among those dearest to him, when he must deceive not mere victims, or the world at large, but those he loves. The only moments during which this appalling loneliness is broken, during which he ever honestly communicates, however briefly, with other human beings, are those few moments during which he can know that his victims realize they are being murdered. No doubt he loves his wife and child—there are two of the most heart-stopping, beautiful close-ups ever made, to prove that—but in the fearful depths into which he cannot lisle a glance he loves only their helplessness; and deeper, only the idea of love; and that only because it consecrates his true marriage, which is to murder.
(To be continued)
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The Nation, June 21, 1947
MONSIEUR VERDOUX — III
(Monsieur Verdoux has been withdrawn and will be rereleased only after a United Artists’ build-up which will, I hear, try to persuade people that they will kill themselves laughing. I will take care to notify renders of this column of its return, and of changes, if any are made. I am grieved to be so late—or early—with this review, but not very; this film has too long a life ahead of it. It is permanent if any work done during the past twenty years is permanent.)
The most mysterious line in the film, Verdoux’s reference to having “lost” his family, becomes clear if the three are seen as members of a single personality. The wife whom segregation and deceit so inevitably paralyzed was dying a slow death from the moment she became uneasy and failed with her own kind of misguided tenderness, to beseech her husband’s confidence; and the child could not long have survived his mother.
With their death Verdoux all but dies himself. He becomes old, bent, sore, stiff, not only through heartbreak or because all that he most cherished in his nature is destroyed, but because their death has deprived him of the one motive he would recognize for his criminality. The third meeting with Miss Nash, for all its handsome prospects, revives him only to an old man’s charming glimmer; but as soon as danger once more requires work of him and, after showing how effortlessly he might escape, he casually surrenders himself to society’s vengeance, he limbers up and shines like a snake which has just cast its winter skin. All that remains now is memory and the pure stripped ego, the naked will to survive which discovers, with ineffable relief, that there is no longer any point in surviving.
With his soul dead at last, it is no winder that Verdoux asserts himself so proudly, in the courtroom and death cell, in terms of his dream of himself. He would have explained himself less proudly and with greater moral understanding to his wife, but he had successfully avoided that possibility, at the cost of their marriage and her life. His dream of himself is urgently challenged only once, by the girl whose life he spares; and he successfully resists that challenge in the strangest and, I think, most frightening scene ever filmed.
I had expected this film to be the last word in misogyny; but although there is a good deal of it about, Verdoux’s handling of his victims is in general remarkably genial and kindly. The one really hair-raising moment of that sort is the chance second meeting with the girl, the scene in which he brushes her off After all, Verdoux risks nothing against the poor frumps he lulls or tries to lull, except his life. But the girl is infinitely more dangerous. She is the one human being with whom he holds in common everything he regards as most important. Both have known love as passionate pity for the helpless, both could lull for love; both would be capable of maturer love, if at all, only with their own kind. The girl is much closer to Verdoux than his own wife, or his murdered wives; in sparing her he has betrayed both his marriage and his vocation. Since he is above all else a family man and an artist, she threatens the very structure of his soul. But the deranged and deadlocked will which has made-and sustained Verdoux is never so strong or so ruthless as when it faces the threat of cure; and I know of no moment more dreadful or more beautifully achieved than that in which Verdoux veers from the girl, the sun on his suddenly shriveled cheek, and mutters in the shriveled, almost effeminate little voice of more than mortal hatred and terror: “You go on about your business.”
But why does Verdoux become a murderer? One good answer is: why not? Verdoux is a business realist; in terms of that realism the only difference between free enterprise in murder and free enterprise in the sale of elastic stockings is the difference in legal liability and in net income. And if the film is regarded as a metaphor for war, we may blush to ask Verdoux why, or if it is regarded as a metaphor for the destruction of the soul, murder is almost too mild a vocation. Yet we may still ask why, and wonder why Chaplin’s only direct statements, most of which are made through Verdoux, are so remarkably inadequate. Verdoux, to be sure, is grandly in character in holding society accountable and in absolving the individual; but is this all that Chaplin knows? If so, he is as surely a victim and dupe of evil as Verdoux or the civilization he excoriates, and all that goes deeper in the film is achieved intuitively, as if in a kind of waking dream. If he knows better, then he is gravely at fault, as artist and moralist, in making clear no more than he does, still worse in tossing the mass-audience so cynical and misleading a sop; and one of the purest and most courageous works I know of is, at its climax, pure and courageous only against the enemy, not in the face of the truth. For the answers to why and how criminality can be avoided, we can look inward more profitably than at the film; for all that is suggested in the film is operant in each of us. If Chaplin had illuminated these bottom causes more brightly than we can see them in ourselves, Verdoux would be a still greater work of art than it is. But in proposing so richly suggestive an image of process and effect in the world and in the personality, and in proposing it so beautifully, the film, with all its faults, is one of the few indispensable works of our time.
It even contains and implies the beginning of the answer. Good and evil are inextricable, Verdoux insists. But his fatal mistake was in trying to keep them apart. If the film is regarded as a metaphor for the personality, and through that metaphor, as a metaphor for the personality as the family as business as war as civilization as murder, then this is certain: if the man and wife had honored their marriage with more than their child, the murders would never have been committed, the paralysis would never have imposed itself or would have been dissolved, and the wife and child would never have been shut into that exquisite tabernacle of a closed garden, but all three would have lived as one in that poverty for which the wife was forlorn, in the intactness of soul and the irresponsibility of that anarchic and immortal lily of the field, the tramp, the most humane and most nearly complete among the religious figures our time has evolved; whom for once in his life Chaplin set aside, to give his century its truest portrait of the upright citizen.