By Richard Brody of The New Yorker
The last film that Charlie Chaplin both directed and starred in was “A King in New York,” from 1957. Nearly a decade later, he made one more film, which I discuss in this clip. He appears in it for only a few seconds, conferring its lead roles on Marlon Brando and Sophia Loren. Of course, there’s no physical comedian who can equal Chaplin (certainly Buster Keaton was the greater acrobat but not the greater presence), but Chaplin, the director—who had started his screen career, under the direction of Mack Sennett, in classic slapstick comedies—turned his last film into a social critique of slapstick, a moral analysis of the roots of comic indignity. Chaplin was one of the great political filmmakers: “The Gold Rush” exposed the ugly side of nineteen-twenties boom time; “Modern Times” took a revolutionary view of the Depression as critique of the modern industrial economy; “The Great Dictator,” of course, mocked the slobbering anti-Semitism and cavalier cruelty of the Nazi regime; “Monsieur Verdoux,” his first postwar film, was, in effect, a Holocaust movie; and “A King in New York” sharply satirizes American commercialism along with American McCarthyism. “A Countess from Hong Kong” has an underlying political context—two revolutions and American diplomacy—but its political perspective goes even deeper, to the long-standing and long-unchallenged moralism that results in pervasive hypocrisy. Chaplin was a sexual revolutionary long before the sexual revolution, and here, at the age of seventy-seven, he foresaw—even unto the film’s concluding tango, half a decade before Bertolucci’s—a world in which sex would break down the doors and come out of the closets.