Go ahead, call me Mr. Scrooge. I deserve it. Of all the Charlie Chaplin films I could have picked to look at this month (from a great recent selection at the Riondel Market), I chose Monsieur Verdoux.
Monsieur Verdoux?!? Isn’t that the one based on an idea by Orson Welles? The infamous 1947 “Comedy of Murders”? The film that outraged fans of the Little Tramp to the point of homicidal frenzy?
Well, uh, yes. You can blame me, but you really couldn’t blame them. Seeing their beloved Charlie in the role of a Bluebeard who’d done away with a dozen rich women to support an invalid wife, and who wasn’t at all sorry for his crimes, was not the kind of role-reversal the public was prepared for. With Monsieur Verdoux, the beloved Charlie vanished and was replaced by a new clown with the lights of two World Wars in his eyes.
Henri Verdoux is one of Chaplin’s finest roles. If you thought Anthony Hopkins was creepy in The Silence of the Lambs, try Verdoux. When he tells his wife and son that they are the only things he loves on this earth, he is not exaggerating. He’ll buy food for a stray cat or a stray girl, but human lives are ciphers to him. He won’t step on a caterpillar, but he’ll blithely trim his roses as an incinerator chuffs away grotesquely in the background. He’s a vegetarian who addresses poetry to the moonlight (“How pale this Endymion hour!”) on his way into his latest victim’s bedroom.
Verdoux was a classic case of mistaken identity. Chaplin’s audience thought they knew who the Little Tramp was. Chaplin thought he knew who his audience was. They both should have known better. All of Charlie Chaplin’s earlier comedies had contained strong challenges to established order. They were, in the truest sense, subversive. The Little Tramp was an outsider who played by no rules but his own. He was always on the wrong side of The Law. That he was beloved was due to a combination of Chaplin’s sheer comic genius and an overlay of sentimentality that seemed to assure the audience that the Lion could be made to lie down with the Lamb. Probably only a handful of anarchists, surrealists, and socialists recognized the Little Tramp for the resounding Slap! in the face of Society he really was. Chaplin, on the other hand, should have realized that by 1947 he was considered morally bankrupt in America. He was being hounded as a suspected communist sympathizer, and vilified for the allegedly scandalous immorality of his private life. It is difficult to understand how he could have imagined that the same public which was turning against him would spend $12 million (Chaplin’s own prediction just prior to the release of Verdoux) coming to see a film that confirmed their deepest suspicions. Make that impossible to understand. Chaplin always considered this his best film. He wrote it, directed it, produced it, and composed the superb musical score for it. Perhaps his enthusiasm led him to forget that he’d been giving people 20 years of (more or less) happy endings. Verdoux ends at the gallows. The helpless heroine shacks up with a munitions manufacturer. Thanks for nothing, Charlie. And a Merry Christmas to you, too.
The film was annihilated at the box office. Chaplin withdrew it from circulation for 17 years.
Monsieur Verdoux was meant to be Chaplin’s wake-up call to the 20th century, to a century which seemed to be trading Right & Wrong for Profit & Loss. Sell anything. Sell to the highest bidder. Deal with the Devil if the price is right. Pay lip service to morality while the deals are going down. Henri Verdoux is the voice of outrage. He never repents. God forgives; he doesn’t. He’s accused of being “a cruel and sinister monster,” and his accusers arc correct. He just happens to be a cruel and cynical monster with a point.
You can’t even empathize with Verdoux for trying to keep his family alive in the jungle of a Depression-decimated ‘30s society. Sure, it’s too bad he’s been laid off after 35 years with his bank. It’s also too bad he obviously didn’t use any of those 35 years to lay something aside for his family’s security. He’s right in declaring bitterly that “business is a ruthless business”. Yet he rationalizes his crimes as a “business enterprise,” and, like a financial junkie, plays his ill-gotten gains on the stock market.
Henri Verdoux is the perfect product of the society he condemns—one where dealing in death has become scientific and crime only pays in a big way. “One murder makes a villain—millions a hero. Numbers sanctify.” It’s Verdoux’s most memorable line. He also calls himself an amateur. The two great wars had shown Chaplin what the real professionals could do. And he hadn’t yet seen the killings fields of Vietnam, Afghanistan, Cambodia, Angola, Mozambique, Iraq, Bosnia, East Timor, Burundi, Rwanda.
By the way, Monsieur Verdoux is a comedy. In saying good bye to happy endings, Chaplin sacrificed none of his brilliance in choreographing physical mayhem with balletic grace and hilarious effect. Verdoux’s extraordinary dexterity in counting money says more of his character than could any number of words. And in co-star Martha Raye, who brilliantly plays the one woman whose vulgarity & zest for life utterly defeat Verdoux’s most calculating plans, Chaplin found one of the finest foils of his long career.
“Genius serves to point out to the world the moral truth which universal stupidity obscures and endeavors to destroy. Our thanks, then, to the man who, over there on the immense Western screen, beyond the horizon where the suns decline one by one, projects your shadow, O great realities of mankind, perhaps the sole realities, moral truths whose worth is greater than that of the whole universe. The earth sinks beneath your feet. Our thanks to you above and beyond the victim. We offer you our thanks, we are your humble servants.”
–from “Hands Off Love”, a defense of Charlie Chaplin published by the leading writers and artists of the Surrealist Movement, Paris, 1927
Looking Back & Second Thoughts
“As for being a mass killer, does not the world encourage it? Is it not building weapons of destruction for the sole purpose of mass killing? Has it not blown unsuspecting women and small children to pieces—and done it very scientifically? As a mass killer, I am an amateur by comparison. However, I do not wish to lose my temper, because very shortly I shall lose my head. Nevertheless, upon leaving this spark of earthly existence, I have this to say: I shall see you all, very soon.” –Monsieur Verdoux
“It’s just business. That’s the history of many a big business. Wars, conflict… it’s all business. One murder makes a villain, millions a hero. Numbers sanctify, my good fellow.” –Monsieur Verdoux
After a 7-year wait, no one expected Charlie Chaplin to come up with a film like this. Judging from the general reaction of the public and critics at the time, no one wanted him to. For the first time, at the premiere in New York City, Chaplin was booed and hissed. A press conference the day after the premiere was a Commie-baiting horror show (“the worst lynching by critics you ever heard,” said Orson Welles). One of the few exceptions was critic James Agee, who took three consecutive columns in The Nation to praise the film. Amazingly, Chaplin’s screenplay was actually nominated for an Academy Award, losing out to Sidney Sheldon’s screenplay for The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer.
Suck it up, haters. Monsieur Verdoux is an extraordinary film, demonstrating that Chaplin could turn his talents to the sound film as effectively as he had to the silents. It’s hard to believe he was almost 60 when he made Verdoux. He truly was ageless. In his autobiography, he himself wrote, “I believe Monsieur Verdoux is the cleverest and most brilliant film I have yet made.” Chaplin’s only misstep was in expecting that a film whose themes included state-sponsored murder would trigger any reactions other than outrage and denial.
Perhaps that theme has become a little easier to digest now that in addition to the Holocaust we’ve had the examples of Mao’s cultural revolution, the Vietnam war, the Taliban, Central and South American death squads, drone warfare, and botched and bloody regime changes in Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan. As I write this, President Rodrigo Duterte has sanctioned the murder of thousands of alleged drug dealers in the Philippines in a campaign not unlike the one that claimed the lives of countless victims during the European witch hunts. Chaplin’s Verdoux would have gotten grim satisfaction out of seeing a man such as Duterte feted by President Trump and other world leaders.
Despite its grim underlying coda, Monsieur Verdoux moves at a brisk pace. Chaplin created one of the cinema’s first true anti-heroes, a charming sociopathic monster who might have been the model for Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter more than four decades later. Like Verdoux, Lecter is a stone-cold killer with a wicked sense of irony and a soft spot for one woman. The only real difference was that in 1947 there was no way in hell that the Motion Picture Production Code would sanction a film in which a serial killer didn’t pay the ultimate price for his crimes. As it is, I’m still not sure how Chaplin got his film past the censors. Even Verdoux’s death flaunted the rules—he went out with style, tasting his first glass of rum for one last new experience before the curtain came down. No grovelling, snivelling, regrets, or last-minute conversions. Even his walk to the guillotine echoed the Tramp’s exit from earlier films. Maybe censors just didn’t understand how subversive the film really was. Or maybe they were hoping its predictable failure would bury Chaplin once and for all (after the premiere, a Hollywood producer sent a telegram to gossip columnist Hedda Hopper: “I have seen the last film of Chaplin”). Simon Louvish, in his biography of Chaplin, takes a couple of pages to detail the changes censor Joseph Breen demanded be made to the original script. It’s a testament to his brilliance that Chaplin managed to make them all without compromising his film one iota.
Verdoux moves as briskly as it does because the director has mastered the rapid-fire dialogue, laced with double entendre and irony. He’d worked the on script from November 1942 to the start of production in April 1946. The film had been carefully storyboarded. For the first time, he worked from a shooting schedule (the movie would be completed in an astonishingly brief 12 weeks). Chaplin cuts skilfully between Verdoux’s stock market machinations, his real and attempted seductions, and his idyllic country home with his invalid wife and child. And he sidesteps some obvious pitfalls by using Martha Raye and Isobel Elsom to humanize Verdoux’s victims. Without the characters Annabella Bonheur and Marie Grosnay, Verdoux’s misogyny might have been the film’s. These are both strong, independent women who act as foils to Verdoux’s savoir-faire and lethal cynicism. Although they, too, fall for his seducer’s shtick, their resistance is a key factor in his downfall.
Chaplin throws in some brief moments of slapstick humour, as if he couldn’t quite let go of the past. I’d say the slapstick works, darkening the picture by its very incongruity. It’s the kind of thing that would have appealed to Verdoux’s Olympian disdain for the human race. Nothing says “What fools these mortals be!” better than a pratfall or a volley of slaps. Martha Raye’s character is in the grand comic tradition of invincible vulgarians, putting paid to the best-laid plans of mice and homicidal men. Many of the same critics who panned Chaplin’s film praised Raye’s performance as the one bright spot in a dreary diatribe.
There are a couple of obvious questions that one could raise. Can sociopaths as ruthless as Verdoux and Hannibal Lecter really ever care about anyone but themselves? Can there be a Clarice Starling or a beloved Mona Verdoux? Was Chaplin thinking of all those high-ranking, cultured Nazi officials who went home to their wives and children after designing and building the machinery of the Holocaust? Would we be surprised to learn that some of them were, like Verdoux, vegetarians? I think I just answered my own questions. Besides, the historical model for Verdoux did have the same remarkable affection for his own family.
How did Verdoux’s wife and son die? How was it that a man as astute and apparently devoted as Verdoux was to his family could have failed to provide for their security after 13 profitable murders? We know he got them a clear deed to their home, so would he have really gambled their whole future solely on the stock market? And what of the young woman whose life he spares at the last moment because her story resembles his own? Empathy, from Verdoux? Not likely. Before he changes his mind, he actually sets aside a portion of her intended last meal because he doesn’t want to waste good food on a dead woman.
It must be the film’s cruellest twist that his magnanimous gesture confirms his darkest suspicions. The young woman goes on to become the mistress of a powerful munitions manufacturer, her success and happiness based on the mass manufacturing of death. We’re a long way away from City Lights here.
Monsieur Verdoux was the first of many films based on the life of French serial killer Henri Désiré Landru, active from 1914-1919. There are many striking similarities (the love of roses, the smoking incinerator in the back yard, the number of victims, the loving family), and equally striking discrepancies (Verdoux’s 35-year career as a bank clerk vs. Landru’s five convictions for swindling; Landru’s list of 283 women, on whom he practiced his wiles before resorting to murder; Landru’s insistence on his innocence right to the moment of his execution. There’s an excellent summary of the Landru case in David Wallechinsky and Irving Wallace’s The People’s Almanac—one of my favorite go-to reference sources in the days before Google and Wikipedia.
A favorite moment (and I’m not the only one): the florist’s reaction as she overhears Verdoux’s telephone pledge of undying love to Mme Grosnay (a pun, by the way, on “gros nez” big nose?).
And an interesting observation taken from Simon Louvish’s Chaplin: The Tramp’s Odyssey:
Verdoux’s final walk towards the guillotine was unusually filmed by Chaplin right at the start of the production. This decision might have served a dual purpose: symbolically to seal the fact that all that transpired in the story was destined to come to this moment, and to lift a burden from the actor, whose performance might be subtly altered by concern about the nature of the character’s end. By putting it emotionally out of the way first, Chaplin cleared himself to be the Verdoux he required of himself: the vainglorious and even cheerful sinner, who had no thought for consequences. In his own way, Verdoux was not just Charlie’s alter ego, he was, in fact, the very automaton that Charlie in Modern Times struggled with all his heart to avoid becoming. In that true sense, Verdoux is heartless, and Chaplin plays him that way, with only a few flashes of self-realization that are, in the plot, his weakness, that fault in the machine-human that will inevitably cause it to fail.”