MONSIEUR VERDOUX (1947)

  • Director: Charlie Chaplin
  • Writers: Screenplay by Charlie Chaplin, Story by Orson Welles
  • Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Martha Raye, William Frawley, Marilyn Nash, Isobel Elsom, Margaret Hoffman, Mady Correll, and Helene Heigh
  • Accolades: 2008 Cahiers du Cinema Top 100 list (#63), 1 Oscar nomination (Best Original Screenplay)
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on HBO Max or The Criterion Channel, buy or rent on Amazon Video or Apple TV

Monsieur Verdoux is surprising in a lot of ways. It’s a Charlie Chaplin movie, his first in which he completely casts off his Tramp character (he plays a character in The Great Dictator that isn’t quite the same, but has a lot of similarities), and yet rather than the physical comedy of his silent days, it is very much based in verbal comedy. It is also a comedy about a womanizing, anti-capitalist, morally bankrupt serial killer, in which the audience is invited to sympathize with the killer. At the time it came out, Chaplin was at the center of FBI investigations and public scandal for allegedly being a communist sympathizer and also for fathering a child out of wedlock with a much younger woman. So it seems like a particularly terrible idea to do a movie where he played an evil corrupter of young women whose big speech at the end is, “Hey, I may have killed a bunch of people, but capitalism kills way more, so haha!”

So it’s no particular wonder that Monsieur Verdoux was a massive financial failure in the US, though it is perhaps surprising to us today that it also engendered actual protests and calls for Chaplin to be deported. When he left for London five years later for the world premiere of his next movie, Limelight, his entry permit into the US was revoked and he didn’t return to the country for several decades. Yet in Europe, Monsieur Verdoux was as big a hit as many of Chaplin’s other movies, and over the decades, stripped of its weird, quixotic context, it has gained a reputation as kind of a secret masterpiece.

The movie is based on the story of actual French serial killer Henri Landru. Chaplin stars as the titular Verdoux, who we know is doomed because the movie opens with a shot of his gravestone. Having been laid off from his bank teller job of 30 years during the Great Depression, he turns to seducing, marrying, and then murdering rich widows for their money. The actual Landru murdered at least ten people, though his career was many decades earlier. Chaplin attempts to pull off a sort of trick, in which he asks the audience to identify with the killer rather than the victims. He keeps us in Verdoux’s perspective pretty much the whole time, up to and including occasionally looking directly at the camera and all but winking at us. On the other side of things, the cops trying to catch him are entirely uninteresting and ineffectual, and the people he’s killing are universally awful harridans.

I’m not sure how I feel about Monsieur Verdoux, but it seems like the key to unlocking it is in Verdoux’s relationship with a younger girl played by Marilyn Nash. In the tradition of past Chaplin ingénues, she plays as a refugee from modern times in the middle of an old movie. He picks her up off the street in effort to “test” his new poison, thinking no one will miss her because she tells him she just got out of prison for stealing a typewriter (Is this a weird French trope? It figured prominently in Les Quatre Cents Coups too). But after talking with her about life, the universe, and everything, he lets her go and gives her money. He later runs back into her and we think for a moment that maybe this is the actual girl for him, one he’s not faking it with, but she tells him that she’s rich now because her new guy is an arms manufacturer, and now everyone needs weapons. Then we get a montage of Mussolini and Hitler stock footage.

Chaplin was, around the time of 1931’s City Lights, one of the biggest stars the world had ever seen. But within the course of about fifteen years he fell from grace, hard. Some of that was his personal life (the guy did marry an 18-year-old in his 40s, something that didn’t really go over great then but really really would not go over great now), but a lot of it was his absolute refusal to compromise or go with the flow. He didn’t just delve into politics with Modern Times, The Great Dictator, and then Monsieur Verdoux, he did it in ways that didn’t fit into any of the boxes people put politics into at the time. 1947 wasn’t the moment to go, “war is a sucky product of capitalism,” at least not in the US. In Europe this message played somewhat better, for reasons that likely understandable. And it was in Europe that Verdoux found its audience.

It’s interesting that, at the time, one of the many things critics derided Verdoux for was for feeling old-fashioned. Not just in the sense of having this aging silent movie star at its center, but in the sense of feeling more like a George Bernard Shaw play than a Hollywood movie. The title card calls it a “Comedy of Murders,” a purposeful play on “Comedy of Manners.” Which is basically what this is. Yet I find it amazing that Chaplin, who became ultra-famous based entirely on physical comedy, could also carry a movie with vaguely Oscar Wilde-ish wordplay. There’s a great scene where he butters up a mark over the phone from a flower shop, which is all played in two shot with the florist (Barbara Slater), who we watch listen to his platitudes and get hit by him like a ton of bricks. I would think it’s very hard to make a movie with a hero who’s not even that handsome, where the premise is he’s irresistible to women, but somehow this movie is very believable in that sense.

A word here, perhaps, on the story credit on this movie received by the great Orson Welles, which remains controversial to this day. The stories told be Welles and Chaplin differ, but it appears that Welles at some point came to Chaplin and pitched him the idea of starring in a movie about Michel Landru. Chaplin refused on the basis that he didn’t star in any films by other people. According to Chaplin, he later, independently, had the idea of doing a comedy about a serial killer, and remembering that Welles had once mentioned doing a Landry movie to him, paid Welles $500 to “clear any problems.” Welles said that was not what happened, but that he “believed that was how Chaplin remembered it.” Fine. Anyway, Welles’ name is on the movie, but he apparently had no actual involvement in the production of the film itself.

So Monsieur Verdoux is not the famous Charlie Chaplin movie, but it has been the subject of complete critical re-evaluation over the years. On the (admittedly all over the place) 2008 Cahiers du Cinema Top 100 list, it is somehow the highest ranking of Chaplin’s films. I was surprised how well it worked for me, in a completely different way from any of Chaplin’s other films.

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