Madness and Civilization

Monsieur Verdoux and the meaning of Chaplin's cinema
by Tom McCormack  posted July 22, 2010
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1.

When Charlie Chaplin's Monsieur Verdoux was released in April 1947, its director was already on his way to becoming persona non grata in American culture. On top of personal scandals (in 1943, 24-year-old Joan Barry filed a paternity suit against him), the Cold War was shifting into gear and Chaplin was suspected of having communist sympathies, and more abstractly of being plain anti-American (despite having lived in the States for more than 35 years, he had never become a U.S. citizen). So when Chaplin held a press conference for Monsieur Verdoux on April 12, the press was ready to pounce.

It had been seven years since Chaplin's last movie, The Great Dictator, and presumably, he was hoping for a hit. As chronicled by John Wranovics in his book Chaplin and Agee, the conference was doomed from the start. Ed Sullivan, then a gossip columnist and virulent red-baiter, announced the event in the scandal sheet Graphic, proposing a list of questions to pose to Chaplin, such as "Why didn't Chaplin entertain the U.S. troops or visit our wounded in military hospitals during the war? Does Chaplin prefer democracy, as defined by Russian communism, to democracy as defined in the United States?" Thanks in part to Sullivan, a minor scandal ensued. The press asked why Chaplin was not an American citizen, whether he was a communist sympathizer, whether his friends were communists, and if so, whether he would continue to be friends with them, etc. Unsurprisingly Verdoux tanked, both with the critics and at the box office.

The film, which screens as part of Film Forum's Chaplin Festival on July 28, tells the story of the eponymous banker who loses his job and, with an invalid wife and a child to support, turns to seducing well-off women and then murdering them and stealing their money. At the end of the film, his wife and child dead, Verdoux wanders the street destitute, no longer motivated to kill. When the family of one of his victims recognizes him, he refuses to flee and basically turns himself in. He justifies himself before the court by arguing he is just like any other businessman, and goes to his death with a relatively light heart. Ideologues found much to despise about the film. Right-wing groups picketed, causing it to be temporarily withdrawn from distribution. Even those sympathetic to its general premise found the execution lacking in style. Two chief criticisms were that the direction was clunky, as typified by the constant use of train wheels to signify movement from one location to another, and that Verdoux's final speech was trite, riddled with pseudo-philosophical clichés. I will address both these criticisms later. For now, it's worth noting that two of the most highly esteemed film critics of all time were quick to come to Verdoux's defense: James Agee and André Bazin.

2.

Agee could not stop raving about Verdoux. On May 5, 1947, he wrote a positive review for Time and, later that month, wrote a three-part defense of the film for The Nation. "Disregard virtually everything you have read about the film," he told readers. "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." Agee was not only enthusiastic about the film but also enraged by the perceived ignorance of the film's detractors. He began his tripartite piece in The Nation with a list of complaints about Verdoux followed by rebuttals. Starting with the claim that the film was "not funny," Agee replied, "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." Some people claimed that Chaplin should have stuck with his Little Tramp character, and Agee wrote, "Very young children fiercely object to even minor variations in a retold story. Older boys and girls are not, as a rule, respected for such extreme conservatism." To complaints about the film's writing, Agee said, "Verbally most of Verdoux is inferior to its visual achievement—that is to say, it is only one of the most talented screenplays ever written." To those who criticized the production values and set design, Agee said the bare-bones style of the film was in reaction to Hollywood's tendency to "disguise emptiness with sumptuousness," and that Verdoux "looks handmade, not machine-turned." He went further, claiming the film had "atmosphere, authenticity, and beauty in mock formlessness."

On the plot of Verdoux, Agee wrote that it was "about the bare problem of surviving in a world such as this." In his struggle to survive, Verdoux had "estranged his soul and his future." His wife and child are "shut away in a home which is at once a shrine and a jail; and there, immobilized, they become an ever more rigid dream." Agee goes on to argue that Verdoux's dedication to earning money is the product of a "defect of love." "Like many businessmen 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." All of this is because Verdoux "respects the standards of the world he thinks he despises." "Only his satisfaction really counts, in this household—his wife and child scarcely exist for him except as a self-vindicating dream." "He has to act his roles as perfect husband and father, dearly as he wants to be both, just as he acts all his other roles."

3.

Like Agee, Bazin set up his review not only as an appreciation, but as a response to other critics—the film was not warmly received in France either. Bazin is most famous in the States for "The Ontology of the Photographic Image," a landmark essay in film theory. But he also used a lot of ink to make arguments about popular culture that seemed ridiculous to many at the time, but are now so taken for granted that we hardly recognize their newness when we read them in Bazin. Namely, he argued that various genres and figures in popular culture constitute myths—myths as essential to our understanding of ourselves and our culture as Greek myths were to the Greeks' understanding of themselves and their culture. Now, the idea that pop culture genres like westerns might be important "myths" within our culture is commonplace; it's been rendered so by the application of the tools of structuralism, semiotics, psychoanalysis, etc. to pop-cultural artifacts—tools that were all incubated, of course, in the study of traditional myths. But at the time Bazin was writing, the seriousness with which he dealt with popular culture raised more than a few eyebrows. Today it'd be hard to argue with Bazin's assertion that Chaplin had "become part of the consciousness of mankind," that "never since the world began had a myth been so universally accepted."

It was his focus on myths that caused Bazin to bristle frequently against the "auteur theory," or the politique des auteurs, an idea that was born out of the magazine he co-founded, Cahiers du cinéma. For champions of "the auteur theory" certain films were interesting based on their place within an exceptional director's body of work. For Bazin, a good western was interesting as a western, because the western was such an essential myth within the culture. But this way of thinking could also lead Bazin to become an ultra-auteurist—individual directors, he would argue, created their own myths, and thus their movies were all essential to reading the variations of these myths. This was the strategy that Bazin used to read Chaplin, and he wrote of "the wonderful necessity of Monsieur Verdoux—that of myth." "The moment one includes Monsieur Verdoux in the Chaplin myth," Bazin said, "everything becomes clear, ordered, crystallized."1

Bazin claimed that Verdoux was not a radical break from Chaplin's past work, but a sort of settling of accounts by way of inversion. Verdoux was the exact opposite of the Tramp, and in being the exact opposite, covered much the same ground. (Note: in France, the Little Tramp is referred to as "Charlot," which Bazin's translator has turned to "Charlie," so every time Bazin writes "Charlie," he means the Tramp. When he refers to Chaplin himself, he writes "Chaplin.") Bazin says that "Charlie is always there as if superimposed on Verdoux, because Verdoux is Charlie." He goes on: "There is no feature of the former that is not turned inside out like the fingers on a glove." Where Charlie has trouble with women, Verdoux charms them into submission. While Charlie is terrorized by the police, Verdoux easily outwits them. "No matter into how many elements you break Charlie down there is not one whose opposite you will not find in Verdoux." And there is an overarching logic to these reversals: "Charlie is essentially a socially unadapted person; Verdoux is superadapted." What, then, is Chaplin telling us about social adaptation? And what was he previously saying about social maladaptation?

4.

My argument is that, in ways both subtle and blatant, Monsieur Verdoux, in terms of its content and the public reaction it garnered, foreshadowed the cultural tumult of the late 1960s and 1970s—and that it recasts Chaplin's previous work in a way that reveals the deep cultural roots of the radical agenda of "the '60s." Take another look at Agee's language in analyzing the film. Verdoux has "estranged his soul." His wife and child are "shut away in a home which is at once a shrine and a jail; and there, immobilized, they become an ever more rigid dream." This isn't like the language that would be used, in the 1960s, to attack the suburban dream; this is that language. Of course, in 1947, anti-bourgeois sentiments were not new. If anything was new it was the flavor of Agee's language and the popular platform—this was happening in movie theaters and the pages of Time and The Nation. Agee wrote, "Like many businessmen 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." "Only his satisfaction really counts, in this household—his wife and child scarcely exist for him except as a self-vindicating dream." We come across, again, this idea of a dream that is in fact an excuse, a lie. Even when discussing Verdoux in formal terms, Agee's writing reeks of the '60s. Verdoux "looks handmade, not machine-turned." Agee praised the film for "atmosphere, authenticity, and beauty in mock formlessness." He might well have been talking about folk music, appreciating the scrape of the fingernails against the strings of the guitar.

There are more treasures to be found in Agee's review. He writes that Verdoux is a "Responsible Man," "a metaphor for the modern personality—that is, a typical ‘responsible' personality reacting to contemporary pressures according to the logic of contemporary ethics." Verdoux may very well be the first in a line of 20th-century characters—the model citizen as homicidal maniac—that stretches through Bertolucci's Marcello Clerici in The Conformist and up to Bret Easton Ellis's (and Mary Harron's) Patrick Bateman in American Psycho. The unifying text for this type is probably Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Serialized in The New Yorker in 1961, and revised and expanded into a book in 1963, Eichmann in Jerusalem argued that Holocaust villain Adolf Eichmann really was as boring as he seemed to be, that he merely thought he was being an upright citizen—that it was possible he was, by many definitions, an upright citizen, "a typical ‘responsible' personality reacting to contemporary pressures according to the logic of contemporary ethics." Arendt quoted psychiatrists who spoke with Eichmann and claimed that his outlook on his family was "not only normal but most desirable." Another said Eichmann was "more normal, at any rate, than I am after having examined him." Half a dozen psychiatrists examined Eichmann and all of them settled on: normal. A minister said he was "a man with very positive ideas." Because Arendt took Eichmann at his word, instead of assuming that his normality was a mere façade, her book aroused a furor among Holocaust scholars, one that has lasted to this day. But Eichmann in Jerusalem quickly found a following in the counterculture of the 1960s—not so much because it shed any light on the Nazis (though it might have), but because it seemed to confirm a deeply rooted feeling that many intellectuals had after living through the 1950s: that conformity could be, and perhaps usually was, as wicked as the most dire transgression, that transgression might actually be preferable, that not only might evil be banal, but banality itself—the banality of, say, Levittown—could be viewed as a force of evil. (This latter sentiment is a misreading of Arendt, but it's not very hard to get there.)

If we put Eichmann up against Verdoux certain facets of the film snap into place. I believe that, when Chaplin loaded Verdoux's mouth with clichés, he knew exactly what he was doing. When Verdoux's son plays a little too rough with the household cat, Verdoux chastises him, "Violence begets violence, son." I don't think his self-justifications at the end of the film are meant to be any less deluded, and that Chaplin wasn't far off when he called Verdoux "the cleverest and most brilliant film of my career." A penchant for cliché was the defining quality of Eichmann. "As long as he was capable of finding, either in his memory or on the spur of the moment, an elating stock phrase," Arendt wrote of Eichmann, "he was quite content." She could have been writing of Verdoux. And the complaint about Verdoux, echoed by many modern critics, that Chaplin relies too heavily on cutaways of trains—obviously this takes on an eerie resonance. The trains don't just refer, obliquely, to the Holocaust; they also symbolize order, industrial progress, rationality—all things that found themselves under attack in the counter-enlightenment thought that gestated in the Frankfurt School and bubbled over to the surface of American culture about 20 years after Verdoux was made. The train wheels are sister objects to the gnashing machinery that chews up and spits out the Little Tramp in Modern Times.

5.

The counterculture that embraced Eichmann in Jerusalem found an academic arm in psychiatrists like R.D. Laing and Thomas Szasz, and in philosophers like Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze; people who argued, among other things—and yes, I'm abstracting some general sentiments from a broad, heterogeneous group of thinkers—that what society called insanity, maladaptation, was actually a valid way of life and that what society called sanity was in fact madness or worse. That we are all potential Eichmanns, because every regime is a fascist regime, different only in the extent to which methods of control are hidden. (It's worth pointing out that the title of AMC's Mad Men, which offers a view of the early 1960s from the perspective of the later 1960s, is no accident.) Critics of these thinkers tended to regard these ideas as unprecedented, a kind of radical anti-culture—and proponents of this thought, with a natural sense of self-promotion, often nodded along. But how new was this kind of thinking? How unprecedented were the 1960s? That one can find premonitions of this thought in the realm of high modernism—and in art and philosophy generally—is beyond dispute. That one can find premonitions in popular culture is more interesting. Certainly this attitude toward madness and sanity, adaptation and maladaptation, finds its popular apotheosis in the 1950s in the pop writing of the Beats, but it goes back much further than that; one can see it at work in many of the comedies that came out of early Hollywood, particularly in the work of the most popular entertainer who ever lived, the first universally recognizable symbol in the global village: Charles Spencer Chaplin. Issues of sanity and madness were on Chaplin's mind when he made Verdoux. In an interview, he called Verdoux a "madman," and said, "When a thing is overstated it becomes ridiculous. This is the salvation of man's sanity." At the press conference for Verdoux, Chaplin stated, "We are going to grow up a bunch of neurotics."

Bazin is right when he says, "Monsieur Verdoux casts a light on Chaplin's world, sets it right and gives it a new significance." Verdoux is superadapted and he's a madman. The Tramp is maladapted—and if we follow the logic insisted on by Bazin—he is supremely sane. James Agee—who a colleague once described as "a sort of hippie a generation prior to the hippie era," and who, a friend noted, "got more delight out of factory-second sweaters and a sleazy cap than a straight dandy does from waxed calf Pearl shoes"—said that the Tramp "indicates what is obviously the good way to live: to live that way would mean a complete ‘withdrawal from the world' for each individual; would mean the destruction of the world as is."

The Tramp is an unflinchingly antisocial character—he's not some whitewashed vision of perfection. He is greedy, reviles and is reviled by those around him, respects nothing and no one, and by the standards of conventional morality has one saving grace. Verdoux is incapable of real love; like Eichmann he knows only clichés and sentimentality. The Tramp, meanwhile, is almost the only person in Chaplin's universe actually capable of love. Kindness and love, in Chaplin's world, only exist where a character is marginalized or maladapted. Think of the millionaire in City Lights. When he is drunk his manners fall away, he is suicidal, a vision of maladaptation—and he is kind and giving, loving even. When sober, on the other hand, he is well mannered, he looks respectable; he is a well-adapted gentleman, a "responsible man"—and he is stingy and mean. For Chaplin, society is ever-corrupting. His issue wasn't really with capitalism, but with society, period. This is why many a Marxist ended up disappointed with Chaplin. Just as hippiedom, in a certain light, with its emphasis on individual over collective liberation, seemed to many a sort of political dead end, Chaplin doesn't offer much of a vision of social change (the grandstanding at the end of The Great Dictator notwithstanding). Modern Times is less an indictment of labor practices than a revolt against labor itself. The only option Chaplin really gives us is, well, to turn on, tune in, and drop out, "a complete withdrawal from the world."

I'm not, by any means, the first to see a radical in Chaplin. To point to just one example, in 1973 dissident experimental filmmaker Saul Levine made The Big Stick/An Old Reel, in which he superimposed footage of the Tramp running from the police with footage of Vietnam War protests. The film can be seen as a companion piece to Levine's New Left Note, a rapid-fire montage of '60s demonstrations named after the Students for a Democratic Society's newspaper, of which Levine was then editor. The footage of Chaplin in The Big Stick is looped; he continually escapes from the police only to find them once again right behind him—an image of circularity that encapsulates many of the cultural tides of the last century.

6.

Conservatives like to set themselves up as the defenders of "traditional" values, pitting themselves against the tide of the new, strange, and, they like to claim, transitory. But what does it say about our traditions that the man who was perhaps the most admired, most recognizable, most loved star of all time went so far in presaging the radical dissent that would fracture our society and spark the "culture wars" that rage on today? If Bazin was right—and he seems to be—that the icons of popular culture constitute a mythology, make up a modern-day religion with rites and rituals, that they have "become part of the consciousness of mankind" and that no understanding of ourselves is complete without an understanding of them, then it seems to me that many modern-day conservatives are in need of a serious reckoning with just what our "traditional values" really are. As the Chaplin Festival unfolds in New York, it's worth taking stock of what we're really celebrating. Especially at a time when the most popular comedies of the day are superficial moral fables about responsibility, cloaked in vulgarity—a backlash, if there ever was one, against the Chaplins of the world.



1. Bazin makes some interesting arguments in this essay as well as some ridiculous ones. He first claims that a sociological, political reading of Verdoux will not reveal very much, and then goes on to give a sociological and political reading of the film. He insists that viewers actually sympathize with Monsieur Verdoux (we don't), and even goes on to say that Verdoux's killing of women is justified because the women betray his feminine ideal, which is, to say the least, disgusting and creepy. 

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THE AUTHOR

Tom McCormack is a critic living in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared in Cinema Scope, Film Comment, Rhizome, The L Magazine, and other publications. He is a regular contributor to Moving Image Source, an editor at Alt Screen, and the film and electronic art editor of Idiom.

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