Along with City Lights, Charles Chaplin considers A Countess From Hong Kong his best film. That in itself doesn't mean very much; traditionally, film directors either prefer their most recent film or have a tendency to love the disaster, the film Otto Preminger describes as "one's sick child." If you're willing to take the word of the uniformly unfavorable newspaper reviews, Chaplin's preference for countess over his other films can be written off on one of these two counts. But you'd be making a mistake. Chaplin knows what he's talking about, and A Countess From Hong Kong is a fascinating film, in my own opinion his best.
Limelight was essentially a tragedy, The Great Dictator, Monsieur Verdoux, and A King In New York bitter social satires. Countess, his first film in over ten years, marks Chaplin's return to a kind of comedy he hadn't created since Modern Times. In many respects the comedy is similar to that of the earlier films. Though American comedy since Lubitsch and Wilder has tended increasingly toward the verbal, Chaplin still largely ignores the potential of comic dialogue, emphasizing the visual jokes instead.
On the surface, the dialogue is the weakest part of the film; the critics pounced on awkward exchanges (NATASCHA: "Careful, these pajamas are transparent!" OGDEN: "So are you!") and lines like Brando's "I want you to know this is the first real happiness I've known." But criticizing the dialogue on conventional grounds is meaningless; in Chaplin's film, lines have little significance in themselves. The dialogue cannot be divorced from how a character says his line or what he looks like while he's saying it: these factors combine to form complete characterizations. Chaplin has carefully directed the line-readings of his cast, and it is no accident that Marlon Brando's prosaic romantic murmurs are spoken by the actor as if he were trying to recite a shopping list.
Criticism of Chaplin's old-fashioned visual style and relentlessly stationery camera not withstanding, few directors use the camera as successfully to convey characterizations: he holds a close-up of Tippi Hedren just long enough for the actress to become uncomfortable, and in the context of the scene, Chaplin is able to transfer that quality of detached restlessness from her to the character she is playing.
A Countess From Hong Kong is, on occasion, old-fashioned, but only when Chaplin Clings to anti-quated dramatic devices. Sometimes the dialogue becomes overly expository, as if he were substituting lines for title cards reading, "Four days later," or "Meanwhile". But frequently his instinctive use of silent film mechanics works successfully. In silent comedy, one of the primary goals was to break down the defensive barriers between the audience and the film-maker by manipulating audience emotions to involve them in the action. Having discovered that audiences laughed at the misfortunes and embarrassments of other people, Mack Sennett, and later Chaplin, revelled in low comedy. Cahiers du Cinema theorizes that Countess breaks the barrier between audience and film-maker through use of two extended bits of low comedy: a brilliantly executed seasickness sequence, and a running gag where Ogden, unable to send Natascha out of the bedroom, heightens the volume of the radio to drown out the sound of his urinating in the nearby bathroom.
Though it resembles Chaplin's earlier films, Countess contains much of the bitterness of Limelight and A King in New York, giving the romance a darkly pessimistic overtone. The 70-year-old director's point of view has soured over the years, and certain feelings can be inferred from his new film. Chaplin can neither take comfort in the security of old age or have faith in youth. The society girl with whom Brando dances is self-centered and vapid, a Marxist parody of upper class Capitalism. Her continual references to the beliefs of her father imply that she has been corrupted by Chaplin's low generation. In a parallel scene, old Miss Gaulswallow (Margaret Rutherford) is shown as equally useless, having partially retreated into a senile second childhood.
In general, Chaplin has little sympathy for modern society: the ship's Captain is slightly corrupt; Ogden's wife, Martha excudes coldness and cares only for money: Ogden's best friend, Harvey (Sydney Chaplin), is ineffectual, his part consisting mainly of reacting and commenting on the action. Natascha tells him she thinks Ogden doesn't love her; he thinks for a moment and finally says, rather tentatively, "I don't agree." It is the best he can do.
Ogden, Chaplin's hero, is no more appealing than the people around him. He comes on as a diplomatic prig, spouting. Moral Rearmament gibberish at a press conference, Socially reserved and emotionally up-tight. He never changes. Although he professes love for Natascha in the last third of the film, there is no sign of any difference in his wooden personality. Chaplin's treatment of the character forces us to question his capacity for love, and look for other less romantic motives for his behavior.
Ogden is as shallow and one-sided as the rest of the characters. Brando's performance must be one of the great jobs of subordinating personal acting style to the strong will of a director who has carefully modulated each nuance of movement and dialogue.
If time, then, has added to Chaplin's disenchantment and made him slightly misanthropic, it hasn't erased his sentimental romantic spirit. He is obviously enchanted with mature women. Andrew Saris, writing in the Village voice, points out that Chaplin loves each dance hall girl in the opening sequence. And when Natascha is introduced with another Countess and a Baroness, she is presented second, not last, as she would be if she were the star attraction; Chaplin's camera lingers lovingly on all three.
Predictably, Natascha stands out as the only multi-faceted character in the film. The first important side of her personality is Natascha as a woman; she is beautiful, enigmatic, infinitely resourceful. Yet basically simple and romantic. In short, she is a tried-and-true Chaplin stereotype, a modern version of the ideal girl Chaplin worships in City Lights and so many of his other films. The second side of Natascha is more interesting: Natascha as Chaplin. With his coaching, Loren frequently gives a brilliant imitation. Wearing Brando's huge baggy pajamas, she waddles as if she were the tramp; in a too-tight suit, she pops a button, her face casually assuming the embarassed smile Chaplin made his trademark.
The references don't stop there, for Chaplin blesses Loren with the wonderful close-ups he reserved for himself in his previous films. It is to Chaplin's credit as a major artist that the film's excellent romantic climax is not a scene but a single close-up of Loren as she watches Brando's boat sail away, thinking he is on it. The shot lasts a full fifteen seconds, and is truly unnerving.
Chaplin still feels that a movie camera should photograph the action in front of it, and do nothing else. Consequently, his camera almost never moves, and the compositions, not always pleasing in themselves, are purely functional. If he cuts to an off-balance full shot of a room, with Brando in screen right and a door in screen left, we know instantly that someone will open the door within a few moments. This simplistic concept of film-making has made Chaplin unfashionable with technique-conscious students. But the film-making in A Countess from Hong Kong is highly sophisticated; the editing has great direction and force, each cut timed to convey degrees of humor, and establish patterns and rhythms to which he can subtly refer in later scenes. Frequently he win cut back to a camera set-up used in a previous scene anticipating the recurrence of a running joke or device. Like John Ford, Chaplin juggles emotional quantities with great dexterity, mixing elements of laughter, romance, and suspense in single short scenes; much of this is brilliantly achieved simply by varying the speed of the camera panning.
Chaplin adhered to the philosophy of film-making he created, long after it had been abandoned by the mainstream. But this doesn't make his art old fashioned. A Countess From Hong Kong is modern cinema, though not, perhaps, what we have come to expect from modern cinema. Take the new Chaplin film on its own terms; contrary to all those patronizing critics, the old man hasn't really lost his touch, and Countess is a glorious romance.