On this, the 14th of February 2014; we celebrate the Valentines Day Massacre. Now why we would choose to immortalize this memory with it’s own holiday, I shall never know. However, in keeping with the tradition of V-day, I shall endeavor to press through this most barbaric of holidays with a movie marathon of sorts.
The first movie on the list is 1947’s Monsieur Verdoux. Starring, directed by, scored by, and finally written by Charlie Chaplain from an idea by Orson Welles. Instead of playing his usual “Tramp”, he plays a serial murderer with a warped sense of morality. It’s a somewhat comic version of real life French serial murderer and real life “bluebeard” Henri Landru. (Now I’m going to be honest here, I just figured bluebeard was one of Blackbeard’s less famous relatives.) A bluebeard is the male version of the much better known “black widow” (a woman who marries and then murders her husband, often for his fortune.)
A black comedy that would seem quite beyond Chaplains comfort zone, were it not for his dramatic turn in moments from 1940’s The Great Dictator.
While Monsieur Verdoux is dark, it’s comedic charm lies very much in our title character’s journey and from jaded con-man whom only see’s real love within the context of the family he’s trying to support; and the glimmer’s of hope that begin to reawaken his hope that mankind isn’t completely bereft of hope.
Chaplin delivers a flawless performance. An amazing cast of female actors surrounds him. The performances of these “victims” are such, that one almost forgets that this is a “Charlie Chaplain” film. Martha Ray especially shines as the mark that just won’t die. In fact, she delivers my favorite scene; in which Verdoux, quite unsuccessfully, attempts to kill her while out fishing. This is easily my second favorite Chaplain scene, the first being the famous speech from The Great Dictator.
The film ranges from darkly comic, to strait drama, and at times stark social commentary. The final act brings scenes of stock market crash and Nazi oppression and war. The one person whom he shows kindness to (in spite of his initial plan to kill her in a ruthless experiment), is the one person that in turn shows him kindness in the end. Alas, he cannot escape justice, and refuses to try.
Judge: “Monsieur Verdoux, you have been found guilty. Have you anything to say before sentence is passed upon you?”
Henri Verdoux: “Oui, monsieur, I have. However remiss the prosecutor has been in complimenting me, he at least admits that I have brains. Thank you, Monsieur, I have. And for thirty-five years I used them honestly. After that, nobody wanted them. So I was forced to go into business for myself. As for being a mass killer, does not the world encourage it? Is it not building weapons of destruction for the sole purpose of mass killing? Has it not blown unsuspecting women and little children to pieces? And done it very scientifically? As a mass killer, I am an amateur by comparison. However, I do not wish to lose my temper, because very shortly, I shall lose my head. Nevertheless, upon leaving this spark of earthly existence, I have this to say: I shall see you all…very soon…very soon.”
The second film on the list is Fritz Lang’s psychological masterpiece, M. A taut German language thriller from 1931 that is just as chilling today as it was when first it graced the silver screen, if not more so. Peter Lorre stars as the unassuming, but quite disturbed serial killer Hans Beckert. He has begun targeting young girls in pre World War II Germany. The setting is reminiscent of the gangster flicks set in Chicago or Detroit. In fact, the mob underworld seems to be strait out of a Scorsese or Coppola film. The police are in frenzy; staging nightly raids of bottom feeding bars and security sweeps of homeless shelters. It is no wonder that the local mob boss is upset, it’s cutting into his bottom line. But just like Coppola’s Godfather, this mob boss is also concerned about his people. The police aren’t going about it fast enough, so they decide to take things into their own hands. So begins the watch of the homeless network. The eyes and ears of every homeless person are on alert for any stranger who takes an unnatural interest in little girls. I don’t want to give away the whole movie, so I’ll just say that the police procedure seems spot on. The story rarely slows, and when it does, it feels natural. The writing is incredibly tight. Peter Lorre’s performance is seamless and he gives one of the most impassioned speeches, from a villain, that I have ever heard. I am sure that I won’t forget it anytime soon.
Hans Beckert: “I can’t help what I do! I can’t help it, I can’t…What do you know about it? Who are you anyway? Who are you? Criminals? Are you proud of yourselves? Proud of breaking safes or cheating at cards? Things you could just as well keep your fingers off. You wouldn’t need to do all that if you’d learn a proper trade or if you’d work. If you weren’t a bunch of lazy bastards. But I… I can’t help myself! I have no control over this, this evil thing inside of me, the fire, the voices, the torment!”
The third and final film as we wind down our celebration is a little known 1987 indie called, I Was a Teenage Zombie. Basically, it’s your average 80’s teen comedy about a bunch of high school kids (that look like 25 year olds) who want to get high (but ONLY on weed! No acid, cocaine or LSD for these kids) and possibly fall in love (or just get laid), at the upcoming dance. Of course, their dealer screws them. When they ask for a refund, a fight ensues and the dealer… slips on a banana peal. They think he’s dead- but not really. He then wakes up while they are trying to dispose of the body and yet another struggle commences, until he gets a bat to the head, actually killing him. They then dispose of his body in a toxic sludge filled river. A short time later, zombie drug dealer knocks off our hero Dan Wake (Michael Rubin in his first, and last leading roll). When his friends realize they have no choice but to fight zombie with zombie, they steal poor ole Dan’s body and dump it in the river as well. Normally, this would be very, very bad judgment. However, lucky for these misguided teens Zombie Dan comes to the rescue. The problem lies in the fact that Zombie Dan is still in love. Of course, the death toll rises, Zombie Dan tries to woo his human girlfriend (not going to work out… really), heads get twisted and dances still happen. Zombie Dealer meets Zombie Dan. They don’t get along. Heads roll. Bittersweet ending. This is one movie that I can’t recommend with good conscience. However, if you must watch it, I’ll tell you my secret. I actually had a good time watching this B-movie. Far from a masterpiece, it is mindless fun and some special effects that are so bad they’re good. It was clearly shot on a shoestring budget with16mm. While it will never reach the cult status of a film like Slime City (which I do highly recommend), it works as a decent way to pass the time.
“I was young, reckless, and in love. Then… I was DEAD, young, reckless, and in love.”
I hope you all had a fabulous V-Day. Mine wasn’t half bad.