Limelight's opening, on-screen summation as a "story of a ballerina and a clown" may be the most modest commencement statement for what is certainly one of cinema's great romantic tragedies. Released in 1952, Charlie Chaplin's follow-up to the hostilely received Monsieur Verdoux is indeed the story of a young ballerina whose unlikely relationship with an aging stage comedian summons between them a codependent creative rejuvenation. But this threadbare outline is but a frame for Chaplin to carefully ponder matters concerning his past, his passions, and, more generally, his life and the circumstances which had brought him into the twilight of his career. The result is a beautiful, melancholy meditation on aging and inspiration, and a personal film that, on account of Chaplin's own diminishing popularity and prospects stemming from accusations of supposed communist sympathies, exudes a very real weight in each of its rich, elegant images.
When Calvero (Chaplin), returning home one day following an afternoon bender, discovers the prone body of his downstairs neighbor, a dejected dancer named Theresa (Claire Bloom), the circumstances surrounding her condition and attempted suicide prompt the sympathy of a man who has taken to drinking to alleviate the pain of his own professional decline. The pair bond over their shared misgivings and uncertain futures, growing close while encouraging one another to reengage their artistic impulses. Theresa, bedridden and literally crippled by anxiety, finds in Calvero both a mentor and kindred spirit, just as he in turn finds inspiration and adoration in his youthful counterpart. Together they tell of past loves and losses, setbacks and triumphs, eventually embarking on a new journey as partners both on stage and off—a tradeoff which inevitably cannot sustain the fortunes of both.
Chaplin, almost 40 years into his filmmaking career when production began on Limelight, conducts the film as both consummate craftsman and autocratic auteur (in addition to starring, he's credited here, as he often was, as director, producer, writer, and composer), honing his visual language to its most efficient traits while staging the proceedings in luxuriant yet practical fashion. The film's early scenes, mostly set in Calvero's apartment with just the two lead actors engaged in conversation, feature perhaps the subtlest, most masterful display of Chaplin's compositional command. Often situated at a remove, yet in full communion with the properties of its physical surroundings, his frame is at once observant of and involved with the drama depicted on screen, moving imperceptibly through interior space in a manner that brings to mind the aesthetics of Carl Theodor Dreyer, poised yet charged with psychological unease. Teresa's ballet routines (often doubled by Melissa Hayden) and Calvero's vaudevillian acts (glimpsed mostly in flashback) are similarly constructed and patiently conveyed, allowing the actors' movements and performances (which is to say, performances within performances) to work in synchronicity with cinematographer Karl Struss's camera.
But if Chaplin's formal fluidity and narrative economy facilitate a satisfying dramatic arc, it's through the acutely felt sense of reflexivity that the film approaches the sublime. No matter his insistence that the film was based on the life of little-known stage actor Frank Tierney, the narrative parallels with Chaplin's own career—that is, as a once beloved tramp comic fallen from the good graces of popular interest—are self-evident. Further, the allusions to his father's similar commercial misfortune and retreat into alcoholism shade the film's vast familial lineage (numerous members of Chaplin's immediate family appear, including his son, Sydney Earl Chaplin, as Theresa's tenacious would-be suitor). But these intimations and associations, along with the recreations of the Soho district of London and a late-film unveiling of silent-film compatriot Buster Keaton in a small but memorable role, rather than register as precious or overly nostalgic, instead proceed as reverent acts of personal and cinematic perseverance. That Chaplin was able to grant Calvero one last role in the spotlight even while being denied his own form of recompense is an irony he likely foresaw and accepted. That he was able to do so in such valiant fashion, emerging with one of his most refined, emotionally charged works, is proof of not only his foresight, but also his faith in the longevity of his artistry.
The Criterion Collection debuts Charlie Chaplin's Limelight on Blu-ray, handily replacing the now over 10-year-old Warner DVD. The image has been significantly cleaned and steadied via 4k restoration, and the 1080p transfer is appropriately lush, exhibiting depth and grain and looking generally authentic. Contrast is nicely balanced, with the film's rich grayscale palette translating in textured, tactile compositions. Sound, meanwhile, is presented in a linear PCM track, adequately supporting Chaplin's original arrangements, which resonate in bold, but not obtrusive, strokes. Dialogue is likewise clean and clearly discernible, devoid of background noise and audible artifacts.
Supplemental material is impressive, covering much of the film's contextual and cinematic specifics. Top-lining the selections are a pair of interviews with actors Claire Bloom and Norman Lloyd, who discuss Chaplin's working method, their experience on set, and the complexities of the film's legacy. Diving further into the latter is Chaplin biographer David Robinson in a well researched video essay which outlines much of the film's production and release history, as well as its personal intrigues. Likewise, a 26-minute documentary, produced in 2002 and directed by Edgardo Cozarinsky, reflects on Chaplin's process and legacy via interviews with various family members and directors inspired by his resilience. Elsewhere there are two trailers, an outtake, an audio excerpt of Chaplin himself reading from his novella Footlights, which provided the inspiration for Limelight, as well as two early shorts, A Night in the Show, from 1915, and the never fully completed The Professor, from 1919. Finally, included in the package is an ample booklet featuring a wonderful essay on the film, originally written in 2002, by the late director Peter von Bagh, and excerpts from a vintage, on-set article by journalist Henry Gris.
One of cinema's great romantic tragedies, Charlie Chaplin's Limelight continues to exude a very real weight in each of its rich, elegant images. [Slant]