by Benjamin Marks, Economics.org.au editor-in-chief
Almost all films claimed to be libertarian display no libertarian insight. They are merely films where a libertarian result is achieved after overcoming obstacles, because the protagonist kept his word, stuck to his guns, did not play all his cards too soon, questioned others, was less greedy than the villain, attracted a following and that kind of thing. It is wrong to call such films libertarian, as there is nothing distinctly libertarian about being resourceful, righteous, stubborn and persuasive, which are the only characteristics highlighted, and they are the same characteristics featured in films glorifying government, politicians and reformers.
So finding libertarian films is not as easy as searching the internet for “libertarian” and “film” (until now, anyway). Other alleged shortcuts to finding libertarian films are equally fruitless. For example, in contrast to what many people claim via the use of unrepresentative examples, before the Motion Picture Production Code was enforced in 1934, there was not a greater percentage of libertarian or meaningfully politically incorrect films.
There are very few films with stories illustrating libertarian insights. There are far more films with a moment of libertarian wisdom.
II. Great Libertarian Moments in Film
In Ali Baba Goes to Town (1937), Eddie Cantor ends up in Baghdad, shows them how the New Deal works and, when unrest threatens, successfully guesses that the incantation to make the magic carpet fly, thereby saving the day, is not “abracadabra”, “alakazam” or “sim sala bim”, but a far more sinister hocus-pocus: “inflation”. Of course, he finds it hard to control.
In Mister 880 (1950), Edmund Gwenn plays a small-time counterfeiter who figures that what he is doing is not as bad as accepting government assistance. Check out this dialogue:
“Mr Miller, I understand you were in the Navy for many years. […] You were eligible to enter a Veterans’ Home. Now, instead of committing a crime against your government [the counterfeit of about 40 one dollar bills a month], wouldn’t you have proven a better citizen if you had …?”
“Hang on now. Goodness, no. I thought about that. I looked up the records. It costs the government 82.70 a month for each person. I didn’t need over 40 or 50. I saved the government a lot of money. Yes, indeed. Quite a bit.”
This leaves unsaid that government is the biggest of all counterfeiters. But it does encourage comparison with the fact that, when government does not steal outright through taxation, it just prints money (and borrowing only delays one or both of those activities).
In The Americanization of Emily (1964), James Garner tells Joyce Greenfell and Julie Andrews: that his religion is cowardice; that with so many do-gooders trying to do good and failing spectacularly, it is better not to even try; and that offending war widows and mothers of soldiers who have died by saying that the deaths were in vain and a total waste, is the thing to do, for otherwise people will keep on wanting to enlist, avenge the dead and do their family and country proud.
In The Formula (1980), George C. Scott checks-in to a Soviet hotel. He has to carry his bags up to his room because the porter died. He goes to use the lift. It doesn’t work. He says, “No wonder the porter died.”
There are some other great libertarian moments in films that I will talk about later in this essay. But despite such amazing quality, there is one film that is so interesting, intelligent and entertaining, that it puts all the others to shame. And this film does not merely have moments of libertarianism; the entire film is libertarian.
Easily, the best libertarian film — yes, I have seen every film — is: Monsieur Verdoux (1947). This is a film so neglected that even libertarians have failed to acknowledge its existence. The film is readily available to everyone, and has been for generations. It is not some obscure foreign-language film; in fact, it features the most famous Western person ever. It is available cheaply on Amazon.com here and for free on YouTube here.
III. Monsieur Verdoux Synopsis
Prompted by Orson Welles, Charles Chaplin produced, directed, wrote, composed the music and starred in this loose re-enactment of the real life of Henri Désiré Landru. (During WW1 Landru advertised in the lonely hearts section of Paris newspapers that he was a widower and desired to meet a widow with view to matrimony. In 1921 Landru was convicted of murdering 10 women and the teenage son of one of them.1)
The eponymous protagonist, played by Chaplin, is one of those rare creatures: a brazen benevolent beguiling bigamous bluebeard (I’ve always wanted to say that). He is the sole income provider for his wheelchair-bound wife and their young child. After losing his job and failing to find employment elsewhere, he gains access, under fraudulent guises, to the money of wealthy single women by befriending, marrying and — continuing the progression — killing them. His only motive is the welfare of his family; that is, his first wife — often referred to as the “invalid” wife (not the best word choice) — and their young son. When they die, his shenanigans draw to a close.
It is not clear how his family died — a provocative thing to leave unsaid. Verdoux may have killed them for humanitarian reasons, believing the world unfit for them to live in, especially since most of his investments failed. In circumstantial evidence, or to show that it would have been “in character”, he shuddered when he saw a baby’s shoe being knitted and he committed many less direct mercy killings. I think it more likely that they died as an accidental result of Verdoux’s poor finances, of a disease that the fragile were particularly susceptible to in those days. I believe this because it is more commonplace, not because the court proceedings and newspaper headlines shown in the film do not list his family among his victims, for I lack faith in such sources. In any case, the film’s message would not change.
The death of Verdoux himself and his wife and child, gave him occasion to reflect upon his actions. In Verdoux’s introduction, from beyond the grave, to the story of his life, he says “unfortunately I did” act on “undaunted optimism”. So for Verdoux the moral of the story is: undaunted optimism is not good. He is largely right that this is the moral of the story, but, as we will see, there is far more to it than that.
Verdoux did not merely want his family to survive at all costs; he wanted them to prosper at all costs. His wife said she was happy when they lived in just one room. She said this fearing, prophetically, that Verdoux was working himself to an early grave; but its truth remains, if it was sincere, for value is subjective. Although when they were less prosperous she may have expressed dissatisfaction, now that she sees that Verdoux is working under such strain, she claims to have been relatively happier back then. No one is ever satisfied.
Verdoux believes that government is criminal and disadvantages those who fail to ambitiously capitalise on its inherent corruption — in other words, that the only way to make a living is to make a killing. And so, for his family, he tries to capitalise on it the same way government and those in league with government do, but with one difference: he does it alone. This makes for satire, for we see government in miniature — it is like sending supporters of government to a shrink. This same juxtaposition is displayed when we see Verdoux saving a caterpillar, which parallels government apprehending comparatively small-time criminals (and also parallels government treating vices as crimes). Verdoux, when he sees he has failed, says it is not because he acted criminally, but because he was not ambitious enough personally or was unwilling to associate with those who were. But this reasoning for his failure matures after his death, where he comes to realise that “undaunted optimism” was his failing, not insufficient optimism, which would have been required if he was to aim for the bigger things he implies shortly before his death that he would need to do to succeed.
IV. In Other Words
To describe Verdoux in more political but less descriptive terms: He only presides over his own family and its necessities. Where his jurisdiction ceases, so too does his powers; which is why he subsequently submits to a more powerful authority. Therefore, Verdoux, although not your average Jeffersonian, is a family-friendly politician who practises small and limited government. He even allowed a certain party to secede.
However, he did generously donate humanitarian aid to a foreign party, with money that was not his to give, of which his own sovereign territory would neither have approved, nor, in retrospect, possibly, have survived without. The recipient of the aid was genuinely thankful and became successful as a result, but it is surely a violation of Jefferson’s dictum to avoid foreign entanglements. Verdoux saw this, perhaps too late, and nobly attempted to distance himself from it.
Militarily speaking, Verdoux is a soldier covertly operating, often undercover, behind enemy lines, dutifully serving his family and homeland, and inflicting precise attacks with almost no collateral damage. However, due to difficulties on the home front, the enemy triumphs, and Verdoux — understandably demoralised living among his enemies and their allies who destroyed his hopes and dreams — succumbs to post-traumatic stress disorder, is unable to integrate into society, turns to drink, rejects the assistance of a compatriot and nonsensically rambles in public until he totally loses his head.
It is a vigilante film, because Verdoux takes matters into his own hands, enforcing his own personal statesmanlike code of conduct. But Verdoux acts neither out of revenge, nor out of a sense of justice. He enforces, not law, but his own well-meaning legislation: his family welfare policy.
V. Common Criticisms Corrected
The second scene of Monsieur Verdoux is often criticised for being so unpleasant that even when misfortune strikes the characters, no sympathy is felt for them. Far from criticising this inability to gain the sympathy of viewers, it should be praised. Does it fail to make you laugh? Is it because none of the characters are appealing or sympathetic in any way? How interesting and unique for a situation like that to be intentionally written and directed. What the scene does is pique a minor mystery, suggest that the possible victim is not someone to lose many tears over, and introduces Chaplin’s character.
The repeated (tracking) shot of the train wheels rolling is often criticised as a cheap and unimaginative way to signify travel. This is an unimaginative criticism. The fact that we see the wheels rather than the scenery signifies the focussed and efficient manner that Verdoux went about his work. Another important message the wheels communicate is how easily speed, distance and the wheels of progress can separate one’s family from one’s actions, and that people often go to great lengths, often thousands of kilometres, to separate their action from its results, preventing as easy a comparison between domestic and professional behaviour. It also hints that Verdoux: is a government in training; rails against the country, yet sticks to the straight and narrow; does not have a license to drive, but may have a license to kill; and, as the cliché about Mussolini went, ran the trains to schedule.
The common misinterpretation of Monsieur Verdoux as a frivolous tragicomedy unworthy of critical thought may partly be explained by the shock of seeing an uncharacteristically unsentimental Chaplin film overwhelming the critical capacities of viewers. Chaplin pretty much abandons his sentimental storylines, which had brought him fame and riches. And Verdoux, although sentimental of certain family and professional values, is unmoved, or satisfied in a nonchalant way, by the fraud, theft and murder he commits. However, this attempt to apologise for these incompetent viewers of Monsieur Verdoux fails, as it could easily be argued that The Kid (1921) contains all the elements of Monsieur Verdoux. The Kid also deserves attention from libertarians because it contains the best example in film of Bastiat’s important broken window parable.
Some people confuse Chaplin’s arrest, trial and execution as a vindication of the moral order of society. Actually, Chaplin handed himself in when he could have easily eluded capture, admitted his crimes freely and had a clear conscience.
A professional value that he displays is professional courtesy to a like-minded colleague. He gave her some seed capital (although he did not take advantage of her), which ended up being his best investment, for she went on to marry a munitions manufacturer. Verdoux, however, was not, as is often claimed, a ruthless moneymaker, for he did not cash-in his richest investment. He was a family man. Soon after his family disappeared, so did he; such was his total dedication to his family.
Some reviews I have read are so reluctant to accept or unable to comprehend the libertarian message of Monsieur Verdoux that they consider it a defence of murder, as if Chaplin would have made a film defending war and the status quo, unlayered and with full sincerity. The darkness of the film’s humour is precisely in Verdoux’s obvious criminality combined with his lack of any generally expected and traditionally expressed feeling of guilt; he is neither boastful nor contrite. The film’s profundity stems from two factors: (1) Verdoux still acknowledges that he is guilty; and (2) Verdoux sees that government behaves the same as he, just on a larger scale, without admitting guilt. Both factors avoid utilitarian moralising in appraising government and lifestyle. As Nietzsche said, “as easy as it would have been in these instances to make guilt the lever of the drama, just as surely has this been avoided.”2
According to all other reviews I have read, which are largely based on the comments of the protagonist — why anyone would attach such weight to the comments of so disreputable a character I do not know —, Monsieur Verdoux is a critique of both capitalism and war. However, the criticism of capitalism is superficial and misguided: superficial, because although it is critical of what it calls capitalism, nothing is earnestly suggested to replace it; and misguided, because the business cycle and war-profiteering are not features of capitalism, but of government intervention in the money supply and government adoption of “business”, which should be called thievery, mercantilism or corporatism rather than business, capitalism or freedom. And the film’s criticism of war — the warfare state — is real and significant, but not as explicit — ignoring parts of Verdoux’s commentary — as its criticism of the welfare state, which the entire story illustrates.
In 1947 the welfare state was not what it is now, or it was only so as a result of wartime measures (that were rarely repealed), so perhaps Chaplin’s identification of the warfare state rather than the welfare state was more relevant then. Obviously, WW2 had just finished. And Landru killed during WW1.
In any case, today his wheelchair-bound wife and young child would still be the recipients of theft from wealthy women (and others). The theft would be different now to what Verdoux did, because, as Verdoux said, “numbers sanctify”; they would be “entitled” to it. The legalised theft (taxation) of the welfare state is on such a large scale that its very scale dissuades many from even questioning the use of force involved, and majority support or passive acquiescence is considered to magically prove justice. But if anything the fraud that “numbers sanctify” makes it far more fraudulent and pernicious than Verdoux, who at least had good manners and gave each individual victim something that they wanted in return, and his crimes were obviously on a smaller scale. To add insult to injury, today the criminal act is done by people in the name of the victim (taxpayer), as an expression of the rights and freedom of the victim; it is even claimed that the victims’ ancestors fought wars to defend this very situation — which, if true, is a good reason to: be antiwar, differentiate between precedent and goodness, and dislike one’s ancestors.
It is true that the welfare state does not necessarily directly kill its victims. Verdoux, also, did not always kill those he victimised; but once you admit, in principle, that you are entitled to the money of single women (for a needy cause), or that you might as well take some of their property away from them, taking away all their property, including their very bodies, is not such a big step and is congruent with the principle involved. If you are justified taking away some of their property under false pretences (for a needy cause), then you are justified taking it all. (“Needy” is a subjective term that can mean absolutely anything: there are happy homeless people and suicidal millionaires. Yet “neediness” is what the welfare state is based on.)
Obviously, the principles of the welfare state and the warfare state are the same. The left-wing criticism of the warfare state is incompatible with their support of the welfare state, and vice versa for the so-called right-wing. And those who oppose conscription, in principle, should also oppose the conscription of the money of people (taxation). Generally, the welfare state refers to government at home, the warfare state to government abroad. Like the welfare state, which is not just about stealing, wars are not just about killing; they are both ostensibly for welfare interests, and ignore the absence of consent by those forced to fund and interact with its unfair comparative advantage in “allowable” use of force. To return to and conclude the point I was making: it is correct to call Monsieur Verdoux an antiwar film; indeed, no antiwar film is better; my quibble is with the lack of emphasis by reviewers and within the film on its critique of the welfare state.
Many reviews object to Verdoux’s contextual commentary (i.e., comparative moralising), claiming that it takes away from the aesthetically pleasing subtlety of the storyline, breaks character and does not add anything of value. Yet these same reviews call the film anticapitalist and fail to address its relevance to the welfare state; so much for their faith in subtlety, their belief that allusiveness is far from elusiveness. Besides, Verdoux’s commentary is very well delivered, adds humour to the film and is perfectly congruent with his character; for he is often pleading and preaching when communicating, and never one for small talk, nonsense jokes or empty manners, except when aiming for something on a different level. Plus, Verdoux explaining the satirical message of the film to us himself heightens the satire, for we see what is essentially a politician both telling the truth — that is, admitting his guilt and even incriminating himself — and being humble — that is, admitting his failure and possible reasons why, and lessening his prospects of regaining anywhere near his previous position.
The same critics who dislike Verdoux’s description of his behaviour, seem to all prefer Chaplin’s slapstick to his attempts at profundity, saying they most like the scene in the boat with Martha Raye. Slapstick can be profound, but in this case it is used quite simply and explicitly. Verdoux’s commentary is far more subtle and profound. If Chaplin had used slapstick to communicate the same message, he would go around taking the law into his own hands, lynching politicians, giving them slaps to the head, etc. When critics object to both the subtlety and the directness of something, it is difficult to know how to respond; though they seem more deserving of a slap to the head than reasoned argument. Anyway, even if Monsieur Verdoux is too blatantly presented, its message for countries with large welfare and warfare states makes it profound, or at least its bluntness excusable.
For a final illustration of critics failing to comprehend the film: Verdoux does not practice comparative moralising to defend himself; he uses it merely to explain his actions and incriminate government. Critics incorrectly claim he is defending himself, and then go on to claim that he is wrong to do so. On top of this, the critics themselves probably defend government using different applications of comparative moralising. For example, they want the arts, including films, to be subsidised by the government, because art is educational and cultural, and other educational and cultural activities are subsidised by the government. It does not enter into their reckoning to question government in its entirety, which is the central message of Monsieur Verdoux. It requires critics to engage with the film and not be mere voyeurs. The final shot has Verdoux walking away from us and earthly existence to the guillotine; unlike Verdoux, we are still here.
The ambiguity of what we should do is made clear by Verdoux’s failure to preserve his family; and also his satisfaction drinking rum for the first time, even though he is already prepared for his execution. He does not regret his choices, but he admits there were alternatives. This provokes us to reflect on how much of a pain in the neck many choices are, and that there is sometimes a fine line between going too far and not far enough. After the film ends, issues remain; the ending is not a solution; more questions are raised than answered; matters are summarised, not concluded; they remain unresolved, but come to a head. These features are cleverly displayed in many conservative films, especially Madigan (1968), Duck, You Sucker (1971) and Coup de Torchon (1981), which I discuss below.
VI. Other Libertarian Films
I have read through lists of libertarian films and am surprised not to find Monsieur Verdoux mentioned, especially since it is a better film, and a more libertarian one, than any other.
A film is not a libertarian film if it is only against a certain kind of government activity, which gets in the way of what government “should” be doing. Films like The Distinguished Gentleman (1992) fall into this category.
Most antiwar films have war merely as a setting. They are romantic about peace when they could just as easily be romantic about war. Good antiwar films are not so much antiwar as conservative. War is used merely as an application of their unromantic sentiments. If the film is truly conservative, although it may object to war and want peace, what it wants never really matters. There is never wholesale change, decisions are always made at the margin. The films don’t have high expectations for peace, and its characters try to make the most of war and the situation they are in. This is so, for example, with Paths of Glory (1957) and The Americanization of Emily (1964): Paths of Glory shows, to the end, the many levels of injustice and incompetence typical of and resulting from government legislation, and that addressing an issue is often a futile and even distracting practise when there are far bigger problems; and The Americanization of Emily critiques the correctness, possibility and validity of courage, pride and valour.
Monsieur Verdoux is antiwar because of the force of its argument — that is, argument devoid of utilitarian trappings: reducing the warfare state to a comparatively ridiculous smallness and modesty. Five other good antiwar films that use non-utilitarian arguments are:
- Walker (1987) contrasts the aims and optimism of war with its operation
- The Professionals (1966) contrasts what soldiers are told they are fighting for with what they are actually doing3
- Idiot’s Delight (1939) contrasts a typical circus confidence game with war, not entirely successfully, making war look even more ridiculous precisely because of the movie failing in this
- No Greater Glory (1934) ridicules war by having children behave like adults — that is, behaving immaturely —, then, after going through all the sentimental brouhaha, on the pacifist side, rubs it in and trumps it all by showing that what they were ostensibly fighting over wasn’t even theirs to fight for — a legal argument.
- The Eagle and the Hawk (1933) does what all the other antiwar films listed do.
Also like Monsieur Verdoux, these films are undeservedly absent from libertarian movie lists.
Other than Monsieur Verdoux, I do not know of any other film that successfully argues against the welfare state in all situations; even Escape from L.A. (1996), with its heroically paleoconservative — and, largely for a different reason, politically incorrect — ending, doesn’t go far enough. There are many films which show life among coercively-extracted-welfare recipients, in large part probably because most film-makers are or have been recipients themselves; but I am unaware of any about those who do the coercive-welfare-collecting, which is the obviously objectionable part. There are films which show an instance or two of coercive-welfare-collecting, but they lack the planning and systematic nature of the welfare-collecting by Verdoux, and the purity and centrality of the coercive-welfare-collecting theme. Far and away and equidistant from Monsieur Verdoux and all other films, the next nearest films illustrating and critiquing the welfare state are: Bicycle Thieves (1948); the first part of O. Henry’s Full House (1952), which is a film version, starring Charles Laughton and Marilyn Monroe, of the most libertarian and the most cynical of O. Henry stories, “The Cop and the Anthem”; and The Black Cannon Incident (1985), which nicely illustrates the centrality of the subjectivity of value and its applicability to government intervention.
There are films addressing a different but important aspect of the welfare state: the pseudo-psychologising of human behaviour, involuntary hospitalisation of those with imaginary diseases and the insanity plea to get away with crime. Film is an excellent medium for the communication of mental illness, not that mental illness is a communicable disease, except insofar as it entails following the germs of bad, unliked or unusual ideas. Acting is not merely an excellent way of depicting mental illness; it is the only way. Crazy people make scenes and go through episodes, just like films. In Love Crazy (1941), The Devils (1971), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), Primal Fear (1996) and The Crucible (1996) symptoms of mental illness or bewitchment (what’s the difference?), and there are only symptoms to go by, are faked successfully and communicated to us as fakes. In Deadly Strangers (1974), A Woman Under the Influence (1974), Fear of Fear (1975) and Changeling (2008) the diagnosis of mental illness is used in place of asking questions about what caused the behaviour. In M (1931), a murderer and raper of children is arrested by the entire underworld to keep him out of the hands of the state, where he would just plead insanity, and get away with it. (The film then ends with mothers telling us that whether or not the justice system works, it does not bring back the victims, therefore, instead, we should just better supervise our children. I can’t understand where the “instead” comes from.) In Death Wish 2 (1982) and 10 to Midnight (1983) a vigilante who does not believe in mental illness gives criminals their comeuppance. In The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974) the behaviour of a very odd fellow — who was terribly abused by people — is ridiculously explained as being caused by brain abnormalities. And both King of Hearts (1966) and Revolutionary Road (2008) show how arbitrary and incorrect the distinction is between people inside mental hospitals and people outside them; indeed, a mental hospital is best defined as something built inside-out, for there are more crazy people outside mental hospitals than inside them.
There is only one film that shows that the electoral process is unjust. The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer (1970) shows that political election means that people have a say in what is not theirs to have a say in, and that through their votes they can even sabotage their own freedom and lead to their being ruled by a dictator. Another libertarian message the film has is showing the absurdity of the government monopoly of political elections, by suggesting that government also have the monopoly of political surveys.
The many films on the behaviour, burdens and obligations of politicians, bureaucrats, entrepreneurs and revolutionaries can easily be and are dismissed as not applicable to a specific bureaucracy, economy or government program; perhaps other libertarian films can too, but there are many more facts to clear away and extricate, and themes to purify, identify and reapply, with these kinds of films. This is largely because they are or imply utilitarian arguments. Even if utilitarian arguments are realistic and true, by themselves they are almost always, in film, clichéd, unexciting and uninteresting. The trick in advocating libertarianism is to avoid utilitarian arguments, for utility appraisals cannot be transferred elsewhere and enthusiasm for the one thing rarely lasts, or at least cannot be relied upon. Instilling fear can last, but susceptibility to fear does not suddenly disappear, so new fears may trump old ones. The best thing to do is to illustrate the principle of government, what it entails and where it leads.
VII. My Aim
My aim in writing about Monsieur Verdoux is not to spoil it for potential viewers, or at least not primarily; you’ve all had a chance to watch it and have either failed to watch it critically or succeeded in not watching it at all, so if I do spoil it for you, the punishment is deserved; it is you I spoil, not the film; and a film of its quality, importance and structure cannot be so easily spoiled anyway; besides, I really do the opposite, illustrating the film with a correct and rewarding interpretation. Neither is my aim to provide all the reasons why the film is my favourite, many of which are not to do with its libertarianism.
My ostensible aim is to bring it to the attention of libertarians to aid them in convincing people to cease supporting the welfare state. Before — or, in addition to — advising people to read unpopular economists with difficult names, they can prescribe a Charlie Chaplin film. Perhaps that would be of some benefit. Although one must admit that Monsieur Verdoux is not the catchiest of titles. A better title would be: The Bluebeard and His Babes; The Great Dictator: A Prequel; Chaplin Breaks His Silence; or Chaplin Kills Women to Feed Family, Maybe Kills Family Too — the last two titles would have worked better at the time of the film’s original release, as it would leverage off the publicity Chaplin’s private life was receiving at the time.
Libertarians could ask the following three questions of welfare state supporters who, having seen the film, do not think Verdoux acted justly:
- If Verdoux only took, say, 30% of each woman’s money, then would his actions be just?
- If a majority/large number of people behaved like, a majority/large number of voters voted for, or a government endorsed Verdoux, then would his actions be just?
- If Verdoux robbed women, not merely for his own needy family, but for many other needy people too, then would his actions be just?
Obviously, if they answer these questions in the negative, it should not be difficult to convince them of the libertarian position, for defence is a welfare issue too, and once you have convinced them of that, the job is done; unless they want a government to save endangered frogs and pronounce the Christianity or State-sanctioned sanctity of gay marriage. True, some arbitrary “moral” justifications for government are still not addressed, but at least the fact that tax is theft has been established. People can still support the theft, as long as the theft is from other people or themselves in the past, but they cannot maintain that it is voluntary. You could argue that Verdoux’s partners were willing, but it is a bit much to claim that everything was voluntary and honest. The partner’s might have been sexual animals — just as, apparently, we are all political, social and sinful animals — but the women were still victims.
VIII. Ideas for Attracting Viewers
Monsieur Verdoux as the best feminist film ~ This last paragraph makes Monsieur Verdoux not merely the greatest libertarian film, but also the greatest feminist film, for nowhere else are women’s rights so bluntly defended in the face of populist family values. It also discredits feminist affirmative action schemes, for they are well-intentioned and aggressive, just like Verdoux. It would have been superb if Verdoux chatted with women advocating affirmative action schemes (which are intended for needy women), and then proceeded to rob and — for both its dramatic effect and to ensure Verdoux would not be caught — murder them (so that their estate can help a needy family). By saying that it is the greatest feminist film ever made, we should be able to get everyone who wants to be politically correct to watch the film.
Monsieur Verdoux as Chaplin’s best film ~ Convincing people to watch the film should be easy, even though its U.S. release flopped and it hasn’t got the attention of many other Chaplin films, despite it being his best, even according to Chaplin himself, who said, “Monsieur Verdoux is the cleverest and most brilliant film I have yet made.”4 That Chaplin thought it was his best film should be enough to convince them. If it is not, then tell them it is very different to other Chaplin films.
Monsieur Verdoux as better than The Great Dictator ~ A very large number of people have seen Chaplin’s most popular film The Great Dictator (1940). Most people who see it are disappointed by its simplistic and romantic political message. I am tempted to think that it is actually a sarcastically overly-romantic film, and so is actually very cynical and conservative. In any case, the fact is, many people who see The Great Dictator are disappointed by what they see as a lack of great political commentary. So it should appeal to them that everything they wanted The Great Dictator to be, Monsieur Verdoux, which was Chaplin’s next film (seven years later!), is.
Monsieur Verdoux as excelling in the same way that many “cult” and “classic” films do ~ Many people unfamiliar with Monsieur Verdoux appreciate films with the same sentiments — that is, films which are unromantic or amoral, and either justifies that position or uses utilitarian arguments congruent with it — to wit, films which argue: that success is due to luck or cheating, that idealism is detrimental, that confrontation is complicated, that resolutions are either unsuccessful or immoral, and that problems are often insoluble — in short, truly conservative films. Such films are obviously greatly outnumbered, but their novelty value, provocative power, profundity and realism have attracted some of the best talent and most respect. There is such a wide variety of films with these features that a keen movie-watcher is sure to be a fan of at least one of them, so the libertarian desperate to attract viewers to Monsieur Verdoux should find plenty of leverage to help them advertise. It could be argued that Monsieur Verdoux is similar, better and more relevant than any such films. I go through them in the next section.
XI. Other Conservative Films
Here are more than 50 examples, some of them I expand on above, some of them I expand on in the list below and some of them I just list, maybe to expand on in the future:
- Drugs are one of the ripest areas for conservative commentary. The Mystery of the Leaping Fish (1916) features a detective, himself a heavy drug user, stopping drug importations. Everyone knows that the detective is a drug addict, but no one mentions it or hesitates at the hypocrisy, even though it could not be more obvious. It doesn’t bother anyone. Nice. Realistic. Two other brilliantly conservative drugs films are The Wet Parade (1932) and The French Connection (1971).
- Blackmail (1929)
- Liberty (1929) — Laurel and Hardy’s most politically incorrect film.
- The Finger Points (1931) — It would have benefited from the love triangle ending unbroken. Barthelmess could have tried to feed information to the other suitor. And the film could have ended with the girl having both men, the message being that the morals considered proper aren’t necessary for success, and not only in the world of journalism and business.
- The Threepenny Opera (1931)
- Topaze (1933) — This is based on a play by Marcel Pagnol. It was made into film several times, twice with Pagnol himself directing and once with a fellow named Peter Sellers starring and also directing. I have only seen the 1933 version. The best summary of the story is this excerpt from Pagnol’s script: “Today [with phrases like, ‘Dishonesty leads to failure and loneliness,’ ‘It’s better to endure harm than to do harm,’ and ‘Money does not bring happiness’] their usefulness seems to be only to throw the crowd on the wrong track while the shrewd operators divide the booty; so that in our time contempt for proverbs is the beginning of wealth.”5
- The Eagle and the Hawk (1933)
- No Greater Glory (1934)
- The Meanest Man in the World (1943)
- Champagne Charlie (1944) — This one makes it on the list solely on the strength of the song “When Pigs Begin to Fly.”
- The Curse of the Cat People (1944)
- Brighton Rock (1947) — It suffers from a cynicism based on bad luck, rather than a lowdown society, but it is refreshing to learn that in the world of film there is such a thing as bad luck that goes unremedied.
- Carol Reed and Graham Greene’s best films, The Fallen Idol (1948) and The Third Man (1949), are both conservative.
- Pytlákova schovanka (1949), reminds me of The Beggar’s Opera (1983)
- Decision at Sundown (1957)
- Stanley Kubrick’s best films, Paths of Glory (1957) and Dr. Strangelove (1964), are both conservative.
- A Time to Love and a Time to Die (1958) — This film is conservative, not just in its messages, but also in its sarcastic use of sentimental clichés, which director Douglas Sirk masterly exploited in many of his 1950s films. The way Sirk deals with clichés is so precarious but always so perfect. It is an amazing talent.
- Luis Buñuel’s best films, Nazarín (1959) and Viridiana (1961), are both conservative.
- Make Mine Mink (1960), which is similar to The Smallest Show on Earth (1957).
- The Americanization of Emily (1964)
- The Collector (1965) — A man kidnaps a woman. He does not merely lust for the woman or want power over her; eventually the woman very reluctantly gives in to those things, but to her shock and horror they are not enough. What the man wants is for the woman to genuinely like him. When she pretends, convincingly enough, to like him, the man refuses to believe it, and believes that she is just acting. There is nothing the victim can do. The man is not satisfied either. Once he has effectively murdered the woman, and gotten away with it, he then goes out and kidnaps another.
- Seconds (1966)
- The Night of the Generals (1967)
- The greatest of horror films, Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Omen (1976), are both conservative, as all genuinely horror films ought to be, to deserve the name horror. Self-proclaimed horror films are usually the most romantic, for the hero overcomes even more scary obstacles than usual and still manages to triumph; whatever that is, it is not horror. Also, interestingly, to all those who think that it is writers who write the cynical/pessimistic/conservative endings, and the producers and directors who make it populist, it was the producer of The Omen and the producer of The Third Man who thought up the endings of those films, not their “writers”.
- Shame (1968) — Viewers often think Shame’s main character, Jan, compromised his principles in the face of war. But the opposite is the case: he upheld them. Joseph Heller put it in words equally clearly: “‘What would they do to me,’ [Yossarian] asked in confidential tones, ‘if I refused to fly [the missions]?’ … ‘We’d probably shoot you,’ ex-P.F.C. Wintergreen replied. … ‘We?’ Yossarian cried in surprise. ‘What do you mean, we? Since when are you on their side?’ … ‘If you’re going to be shot, whose side do you expect me to be on?’ ex-P.F.C. Wintergreen retorted.”6
- Don Siegel’s best film, Madigan (1968), is conservative. It is a film about a cop and his wife. The title character (played by Richard Widmark) is unable to spend much time with his wife because of his work. As a result, he gets distracted by a girl when picking up a felon, and the rest of the film is about him trying to catch the felon. His wife almost commits adultery, but doesn’t. Then Madigan gets the felon, but dies whilst doing it. So Madigan does his job and gets the girl, but dies. But it was good that he did his job. But if he had spent longer with his wife, then she would have been happier and he probably would not have been distracted by the girl when he tried unsuccessfully to apprehend the villain. But if he did spend more time with his wife, then he may not have done such a good job in the past, and may not have got so close, and he did get close, to apprehending the villain in the first place. So, the moral is … well, as the commissioner (Henry Fonda) says at the end, “There is no right thing to say, is there?”
- The best James Bond film, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), is conservative. A few other James Bond films have conservative elements.
- The Green Wall (1970)
- The best film of Sergio Leone, Ennio Morricone, James Coburn and Rod Steiger, Duck, You Sucker (1971) — also titled A Fistful of Dynamite and Once Upon a Time … the Revolution — is conservative. It has many parallels with Monsieur Verdoux. Some of these similarities are simply occasions where clever filmmaking can shine, but they often also reflect the maturity of the message, which is a general statement against romanticism in politics. It is mature film-making with a mature message (this probably explains why both films were so often misunderstood or shunned by viewers). Both films feature failed expectations on many levels. Verdoux, for example, thinks a girl is smiling at him, when she isn’t; later ignores one who is, when he doesn’t imagine she could be; and when a judge accuses him of crime at his own trial, he looks about for the accused. These failed expectations or surprises are due to misplaced optimism or pessimism, reflecting what he is looking for and aiming at, and to communicate that Verdoux was surprised to be accused, or considered it unfair given how minor his crimes were compared to the crimes of others. In Duck, You Sucker the typical western showdown has disappeared altogether, and the result is always surprising or unfair. Also, both films introduce their characters beautifully. But there is a tangent between the films. In Duck, You Sucker, Juan Miranda and his family were successful until they aimed for bigger things. In contrast, Verdoux blames his failure to look after his family on the fact that he did not do things on a big enough scale. What are we to make from these conflicting messages? That these films reinforce each other’s conservatism, by showing that one of the alternative routes each could have taken might have had the same result, and also that although at one time, or for other people, success may momentarily be achieved by following one course of action, it is no certainty.
- Unman, Wittering and Zigo (1971)
- Marlon Brando and Michael Winner’s best film, The Nightcomers (1971), is conservative.
- O Lucky Man! (1973)
- The John Wayne films to end all John Wayne films, and the most neglected, Cahill U.S. Marshal (1973), is conservative.
- Revolver (1973) — Oliver Reed’s greatest film. One of the most profound and mature endings I have ever seen (or imagined).
- Deadly Strangers (1974)
- Posse (1975)
- Hustle (1975) — Robert Aldrich’s and Burt Reynold’s greatest film and the only one of his films whose story reflects what we find so charming about the general characters that Burt Reynold’s plays. The director, Robert Aldrich, also did Kiss Me, Deadly (1955), which has many conservative elements, but the truncated ending makes for a far better film than the ending that is considered the “official” one.
- Shampoo (1975) and Don’s Party (1976) — this double-feature makes for the best entertainment and commentary for election night viewing. They apply political situations to romantic relationships. The more you read into these films, the more profound they are. I guess I should write something expanding on that eventually.
- Going in Style (1978)
- Eskimo Limon (1978)
- An Enemy of the People (1978)
- The One Man Jury (1978)
- Coup de Torchon (1981) — based on the great Jim Thompson’s greatest work Pop. 1280. It does a brilliant job of putting into film the recurring thought of the novel’s protagonist: “I thought and I thought, and then I thought some more. And finally I came to a decision. I decided I didn’t know what the heck to do.”7 That is such a beautiful line. Thompson was also involved in writing Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957).
- Missing (1982)
- The Naked Face (1984)
- Woody Allen’s best films, The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) and Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), are both conservative.
- A Story of Women (1988) — directed by Claude Chabrol, who also directed Landru — alternately titled Bluebeard — (1963), which is a very toned down version of Monsieur Verdoux, with far less artistic license.
- The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990)
- The Player (1992)
- Hero (1992) — also known as Accidental Hero. It salvages the thematically unromantic The Great McGinty (1940) and Meet John Doe (1941) from some incongruous episodes that add unjustified optimism and spoil the story. The Great McGinty, instead of being a story about how being good doesn’t pay off, becomes a story about how the lead character should have decided to be good sooner, as if that would have been more successful. And Meet John Doe has a nonsensically romantic ending that rubbishes the depth of the story. Incidentally, the endings of Meet John Doe and Ace in the Hole (1951) should be switched; that way both films would be much more consistent, powerful and thoughtful, and belong on the list. That is, Meet John Doe should have ended with Gary Cooper’s suicide, and Barbara Stanwyck crawling back to her publisher desperate for work to feed her family; and, in Ace in the Hole, the main characters should, at the end, have become romantically involved, and taken the money, but left the scarf, no matter whether the husband died, was crippled or healthy. Most films would be better off with a conservative ending; for example, Call Northside 777 (1948) should have ended with proof that the prisoner did commit the murder and Frenzy (1972) should have had the falsely accused and wrongly imprisoned being “caught red-handed” at the end.
- Swimming with Sharks (1994)
- Apt Pupil (1998)
- Lord of War (2005)
- Beowolf (2007)
- Watchmen (2009)
We are just one large viewing of Monsieur Verdoux away from the libertarian revolution. Sit back and enjoy.
Monsieur Verdoux is the kind of film that people will be better able to appreciate on second viewing, because it should be cheaper then, in a pure free market.
- Unlike Landru, Verdoux does not advertise in newspapers, which is unfortunate, as newspapers are often to blame for — or, at least, complicit in — the popularity, proportion and incidence of the things that Verdoux achieves on a far smaller scale. It would have been great if Verdoux had advertised in newspapers, compared the content and motive of his advertorials with typical editorials (and who their authors sleep with), and had a nice monologue on this, arguing why we should be skeptical of what we read in newspapers and never draw conclusions from the limited and partial facts they provide, and conclude by saying that there is no greater threat to liberty than a free press. ↩
- Friedrich Nietzsche, Daybreak, trans. R.J. Hollingdale, ed. Maudemarie Clark and Brian Leiter (Cambridge University Press, 1997), p. 141, bk. IV, para. 240. ↩
- The story’s twists and turns remind me of Švejk’s commentary on war: “First we defeat our enemy, then we pursue him on and on and in the end we can’t run fast enough to get away from him.” From Jaroslav Hašek, The Good Soldier Švejk, trans. Cecil Parrott (London: Penguin, 1974), p. 363, part II, chapter 3. ↩
- Charles Chaplin, My Autobiography (London: Bodley Head, 1964), p. 490. A Countess from New York (1967) was the only film Chaplin made after these comments, and he chose not to change them. ↩
- Marcel Pagnol, Topaze, trans. Renée Waldinger (Great Neck, N.Y.: Barron’s Educational Series, 1958), p. 143, act IV, scene IV. ↩
- Joseph Heller, Catch-22 (London: Vintage, 2004), p. 67, ch. 6. ↩
- Jim Thompson, Pop. 1280 (New York: Black Lizard, 1990), p. 4; see also p. 217. ↩
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