THE DVD SHELF: Chaplin's "Monsieur Verdoux," Olivier's "Richard III" and Douglas Fairbanks as "The Thief of Bagdad"

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19 May 2013

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This month's column looks at Blu-ray releases of the Chaplin classic, "Monsieur Verdoux"; Laurence Olivier's stunning "Richard III"; and the Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckler, "The Thief of Bagdad."

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Charles Chaplin, in his later years and later films, struggled with the old Charlie; both the character, and the style of filmmaking that had made him the most famous actor/director/writer/producer in the world. "City Lights" and "Modern Times"—both made while he was in his forties—were built around variations of his Little Tramp. And brilliantly so, allowing Charlie (the character) to comment on the changing world. "The Great Dictator" (1940), finished when Chaplin was in his fifties, deftly placed the Tramp in Hitler's shoes. Here was the clown dangerously playing with pure and non-fictional evil, and emerging victorious.

After a long stretch, Chaplin returned in 1947—as he neared sixty—as Monsieur Verdoux [Criterion]. Now an old man, there was no Tramp in sight. (As it happens, his next film—"Limelight," in 1952—did incorporate the flavor and the world of the Little Tramp.) "Verdoux" stands out among Chaplin's films for its—what? Strangeness? The idea: Chaplin as a modern-day Bluebeard, inspired by the real-life serial murderer Henri Landru.

This came from Orson Welles, who wanted to direct and write the film. Chaplin seems to have turned down the idea, as he wasn't about to work for another director; forgotten it; and then come up with his own version of Chaplin-as-Bluebeard. Ultimately, Welles was paid for the rights and credited for the original idea. (Welles' mood at the time can be seen in "The Stranger," in which he played a mass murderer living in a small town with his innocent wife. "The Stranger" is in the same moral vein as "Verdoux," but far more gripping.)

Chaplin's Verdoux is a proper French gentleman with an invalid wife and small child secreted away. He supports his family, in desperate times of economic depression, by marrying rich middle-aged women and killing them. Things work out neatly, of course, until Verdoux is inevitably tripped up and sent to the guillotine. A good deal of fun is had along the way. Unfortunately, there is an uncomfortable amount of preaching about how society—in bad times—forces decent folk to find ways to survive.



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