2013 sees the Criterion Collection release Charlie Chaplin‘s Monsieur Verodux (1947). With this film, Chaplin’s sentimental Tramp was unquestionably dead, and in its place was an elegant black satire about a mass murderer. Critics and the public alike vilified Chaplin for this shift, to the point of picketing theaters, booing him at the Broadway Theater premiere, and eventual forcing the film’s withdrawal from the American market. James Agee, Kenneth Anger, and Bosley Crowther were among scant few notables who went against the tide and sang the film’s praises, declaring it a masterpiece. Later revivals have seen contemporary critics belatedly joining the film’s original champions. Today, Dennis Schwartz writes, “Monsieur Verdoux remains an unusually provocative satirical black comedy that’s subversive and gives one a greater sense of Chaplin’s political breadth from his previous work.” This reappraisal is not surprising: Verdoux‘s dark, sardonic humor is attuned to the modern mindset.
While Monsieur Verdoux does not compare to Chaplin’s most assured silent work, it is his most successful sound film (although that may not be saying much). The idea of Chaplin playing a Bluebeard type came from Orson Welles. Predictably, Welles suggested himself as director and, even more predictably, nothing came of it. Chaplin decided to pursue the idea solo, embarking on a screenplay. He offered Welles a “story idea” credit, and much to Chaplin’s chagrin, Welles accepted.
In retrospect, Monsieur Verdoux might be seen as an antidote to Chaplin’s next feature, the excessively saccharine Limelight (1952). The initial critical and commercial failure of Verdouxwas comparable to the situation with Harry Langdon‘s bleak Three’s A Crowd (1927), after which Langdon reportedly tried to rebound with the populist-minded Heart Trouble (1928) (since that film was not distributed and is now lost, it is impossible to assess whether or not Langdon’s effort for a comeback would have been successful). Chaplin attempted to rebound from the commercial failure Verdoux with Limelight. Although Limelight proved to be a commercial success, critical reception was mixed. In her infamous review the critic Pauline Kael referred to it as “Slimelight” and, according to a Chaplin biographer, Pablo Picasso walked out on the film, finding it to be nauseatingly sentimental. The two films which followed Limelight were critical and commercial failures. To its credit,Verdoux does not overdose from Chaplin’s heart-on-sleeve sentiment.
Monsieur Verdoux is based on the life of serial killer Henry Desire Landru, aka “The Bluebeard of Paris”, who was convicted and executed for the murder of eleven women in 1922. The film opens with Verdoux’s voice-over narration from his tombstone, immediately indicating that what is about to unfold is far from the dance of the dinner rolls.
Verdoux is a banker who has lost his job during an economic crisis. At home he has an invalid wife and young son. In his late fifties, Verdoux knows his prospects for employment are slim and he resorts to marrying and murdering wealthy women to provide for his family. The Tramp faced the perils of Capitalism in Modern Times (1936), but here his response is an all-out blitz.
Chaplin’s Verdoux is an artful murderer. His is an aesthetic approach to killing, related to but opposite of The Great Dictator‘s Hynkel. He only really comes to life when he is engaged in the art of murder. Some of the physical comedy falls flat (Verdoux tumbling out of a window). Chaplin cannot resist mocking, then milking, the bourgeoisie heartstrings in the scenes of a paralyzed Mrs. and son at home in the lonely Spanish villa.
The best stroke here is Chaplin’s casting of Martha Raye as Annabella, the one wife he simply cannot kill. Chaplin always knew the value of a great female foil and he has one in the thankfully low-brow comedic antics of Rae, who contrasts beautifully with Chaplin’s self-praodying, effete elitism. Even in a film about a killer of women, Chaplin, commendably, does not succumb to a patriarchal ethos. Verdoux’s numerous attempts to kill Annabella prove unsuccessful and she proves as valuable to him as Jack Oakie’s Napaloni was to Chaplin’s Hynkel in The Great Dictator (1940). Verdoux’s final attempt on Raye’s life is an extended and somewhat clumsily executed spoof of Theodore Dreiser’s novel “An American Tragedy.”
Chaplin provides a second strong female counterpart in Marilyn Nash’s “The Girl” who reads Schopenhauer and laments Verdoux’s loss of cynicism. Nash calls to mind elements found in Chaplin’s previous leading ladies (Paulette Goddard‘s Gamin from Modern Times, most specially) and she prefigures Claire Bloom’s Thereza in Limelight.
Naturally, Chaplin will not forgo painting his societal misfit with a degree of sympathetic coloring and he does this, as typical in his late works, with an extended anti-war speech that also tackles the dog-eat-dog tenets of Capitalist America. On his way to the gallows, Verdoux gets in one last, brief anti-organized religion quip. Thankfully, the cold-blooded killer Verdoux is not as long-winded as The Great Dictator‘s Barber or Limelight’s Calvero. Chaplin, as expected, is best in his pantomime moments. 1947 Audiences expected laughter from Chaplin. They didn’t get much of it from this morality play. Still, despite its flaws, Monsieur Verdoux has withstood the test of time better than any of Chaplin’s sound work. However, and not surprisingly, his best silent work somehow seems more contemporary.
The Criterion Edition includes a making of the film documentary, an audio interview with co-star Nash, three theatrical trailers, and essays.