"I am not a Communist. I am just a clown," Chaplin proclaimed with characteristic disingenuousness in 1943. Through much of his career, his political leanings and their relationship to his art were the subject of widespread critique from each end of the political spectrum, ranging from the United States government to the highest echelons of the Soviet film industry. Joan Mellen places this relationship, its social context, and its repercussions at the centre of her compelling new study of Chaplin’s last silent masterpiece, Modern Times.

Paying tribute to the persona of the ‘Little Fellow’, as Chaplin liked to call the Tramp who had his final incarnation in this film, Mellen maps the developing social themes of Chaplin’s oeuvre. Her analysis encompasses his underprivileged London upbringing, his subsequent political beliefs and activities, and the broader social context of early-twentieth-century America. She shows how the fusion of these elements helped his films to resonate with so many cinema-goers, even while they troubled political powers and commentators to a degree that prompted J. Edgar Hoover to engineer Chaplin’s legally dubious exile from the US in September 1952.

If this approach seems to risk a hackneyed oversimplicity, it’s a pitfall that Mellen skilfully avoids. Instead, she finds evidence for her carefully woven arguments in a wealth of different sources, from which she derives and conveys an intricate and absorbing picture of a filmmaker whose depictions of the resilience of the human spirit within the dispassionate social system can be understood as the highest expressions of a philosophy that saw, in Chaplin’s own words, "the theme of life [as] conflict and pain".

While paying detailed attention to elements of Modern Times itself, Mellen finds particular profit in considering the discourses that surrounded the film. Drawing on judiciously selected contemporary reviews, news articles and interviews, as well as Chaplin’s own writings, she shows how his political thinking, and degree of commitment to expressing it on film, was shaped in significant ways by his dialogues with leading intellectuals of the time – H. G. Wells, Albert Einstein, George Bernard Shaw and Mahatma Gandhi amongst them – as well as by criticisms levelled by politically committed reviewers.

In the light of such evidence, she argues that evading the political nature of Modern Times – as some writers such as Andrew Sarris have attempted – is pure folly, even if Chaplin’s statements to the press often endorsed this untruth. During the production of Modern Times, she notes, Chaplin shirked controversy, declaring that his new film would be "a comedy picture with no endeavour to comment or satirize on social or political affairs". Such statements, she implies, reflected the true nature of the project far less than they did a justifiable nervousness as to the efficacy of first amendment protection.

Even while Chaplin strove to avoid being labelled a cinematic propagandist, he was often willing to espouse broadly socialist views to members of the press, as well as speaking regularly on behalf of organisations such as the National Council of American-Soviet Friendship that fronted for the Communist Party. As far back as 1922, Chaplin had been the subject of an FBI file, labelled ‘Communist Activities’, which Mellen’s final chapter explores in remarkable detail. It expressed concerns about the dissemination of his views within his cinematic work "in view of the effect which such pictures will have upon the minds of the people in this country".

Mellen argues that Modern Times, perhaps more than any of Chaplin’s other pictures, did indeed take shape in response to pressures from the left. She reports his depression at accepting the truth in charges that his previous film, City Lights (1931), had failed to question the permanence of the social organisation depicted, which had led one critic to decry him as "an accomplice of capitalism". Even so, Chaplin took pains to refute the suggestions made by Boris Shumyatsky, head of the All-Union Soviet Film Trust, that he had altered elements of Modern Times in response to Communist suggestions.

Through details of Chaplin’s life and film, Mellen paints a portrait of a man deeply committed not only to the expression of the human condition but also to a desire to raise "the standard of living of the American people". Through this glimpse of the artist as a self-styled "citizen of the world" and "patriot of humanity" she guides us toward a grounded appreciation of the nature and context of Modern Times, illuminating not just its contemporary social importance but the value system on which rests its continued popularity and prestige.

Plus: 100 Westerns (Edward Buscombe, 272pp, ISBN: 1844571122, BFI Publishing) – The Western, Edward Buscombe tells us in his introduction to this pocket-sized guide to the genre, accounted for "at least a fifth of all titles released" by the American film industry between 1910 and the early 1960s. No wonder the genre has enjoyed such an enduring popularity and has fascinated critics as well post-modernists: the sheer number of pictures (Buscombe mentions 7,000) is enough to justify the enormous interest in these films as a cultural phenomenon and a key component of American identity. Like film noir, Westerns transcend genre to become an aesthetic (as in the case of Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, Wim Wenders’s Don’t Come Knocking), employed by directors not only in America but also unlikely places such as Hungary (as is the case of Miklós Jancsó’s The Red and White) and Brazil (Glauber Rocha’s Antonio das Mortes). Buscombe brought together an eclectic selection that includes the classics (such as John Ford’s 1948 Fort Apache and Andy Warhol’s camp 1968 Lonesome Cowboys). A neat capsule guide.

(Antonio Pasolini)