Four Great Films About Poisoners
Perhaps the most civilized means of dispatching a loved one -- or even a total stranger -- seems underrepresented onscreen. And the commercial failure of these four largely neglected films may explain why.
- •Monsieur Verdoux (1947, dir. Charles Chaplin)Stands with Limelight as Chaplin's greatest achievement. His titular Verdoux is the most endearing bluebeard in cinema. The pleasure is in Chaplin's performance and in the film's contrasts: between Verdoux's evil deeds and his undeniable, albeit conditional, humanity, and between his predatory greed and his aristocratic, yet self-mocking charm. Chaplin's weakness for sentimentality is entirely absent here in perhaps the best black comedy ever made.
- •The Young Poisoner's Handbook (1995, dir. Benjamin Ross)A debut feature of exceptional polish based on the real-life crimes of 'teacup poisoner' Graham Young. It's creepy, it's funny, it's biting, it's got a killer soundtrack, and it uses a 3-part structure as apparent homage to A Clockwork Orange and to satirize British working class both before + after the transition from 50s repression to liberated "swinging" England of the mid 60s. As with Monsieur Verdoux, the poisoner's narration serves a moral counterpoint. One of my favorite films of the 90s.
- •Ivy (1947, dir. Sam Wood)The usually vulnerable & guileless Joan Fontaine is cast against type in this period noir to chilling effect, as that's *Joan Fontaine,* the most achingly gorgeous of Hollywood stars, the Unknown Woman herself, who appears to be methodically poisoning her husband to a slow death. It's a soft, familiar face, so the icy cunning is like a sucker punch. The image of the doctor's hat on the table as a signal of trouble to the villain as she arrives home also appears in The Young Poisoner's Handbook.
- •The Minus Man (1999, dir. Hampton Fancher)Like its lead character, a seemingly benign drifter named Vann who poisons strangers, Fancher's sole film as director is tonally bland, resisting the usual gothic-leaning stylization for something more flat. Casting choices--Owen Wilson as Vann, Brian Cox and M. Ruhl as Vann's dysfunctional landlords, J. Garofalo as a would-be love interest--help create an off-balance distribution of energy, forcing the noise to the margins and reinforcing how someone like Vann is able to fly under the radar.