By this point of my Cinematic Century project I think it’s pretty clear that I have a real affection for the work of Charlie Chaplin. Just about every film that he made has become my favorite film of the year they were released, and he really is one of my favorite creators of all time. Which probably makes my next statement a little strange. Until recently I hadn’t seen any of his films post-the Great Dictator. It’s obviously a pretty huge oversight, but for whatever reason I’d gotten it in my head that the Great Dictator was really the only talkie worth seeing from Chaplin’s later career. I’m not quite sure where that assumption came from, but it had kept me from branching out into the last era of his career. Which meant that today’s installment almost looked very differently. I’d seen a handful of films from 1947, but the two frontrunners when I was first devising this list were Orson Welles’ the Lady from Shanghai and Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past. Both of these films are terrific, but it was probably Out of the Past that came the closest to winning my endorsement for favorite film of 1947. Its an amazing noir, full of great performances, a classic femme fatale, and that trademark bleakness that I enjoy from this era of film so much. It’s one of the finest examples of American film noir, a film full of that tough-guy aesthetic while examining the idea of running from your past, trying to put the mistakes you’ve made behind you and become a new and different person. It’s a hell of a film. But, while I was getting ready to write up Out of the Past I figured I’d fill out some more knowledge of 1947, and decided to finally check out Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux, Chaplin’s film where he plays a serial killer. And I was blown away. I have no idea why I would ever doubt the power of Charlie Chaplin, but I’m very sad that I hadn’t gotten to experience it until now. Because this film is nothing like anything else I’ve seen from Chaplin, and it’s a truly fascinating little film.
The basic inspiration for Monsieur Verdoux came from a man named Henri Landru, a French serial killer who preyed on the swaths of widows left over from World War I, marrying them, murdering them, and stealing all of their money. For whatever reason Orson Welles got it in his head that Landru would make a fascinating subject for a comedic film, and that Charlie Chaplin would be the perfect person to portray the brutal killer. Well, at least that’s what Orson Welles says. See, Welles and Chaplin have very different opinions on the history of Monsieur Verdoux, and knowing the two creators I’m honestly at a loss over who is closer to the truth. It’s probably somewhere more in the middle, because to me both Welles and Chaplin tended toward being slight egotists, but who knows. Welles claims he had the idea to make a comedy about Andru’s killings, but that Chaplin refused to be directed by someone else, so he bought the script from Welles and changed enough of it to credit himself as the screenwriter. Chaplin however claims that Welles came to him with the idea of making a serious drama about Andru, and wanted Chaplin to star in it, only for Chaplin to decide that it wouldn’t suit his talents. However, after backing out Chaplin came up with the idea for making a comedy loosely based on Andru, and just in case Welles would come back at him claiming ownership of the idea he paid him off, not for a script, but just to not raise a fuss. Like I said, I can’t tell which story is true, but whatever the origin Chaplin decided to make a rollicking farce out of the story of a serial killer, and people were not on the same wavelength as it. It didn’t help that Chaplin’s left-leaning politics had earned him a somewhat sour reputation in America at the time, and the film became a rather large failure in the States. But, over the years the film received a reevaluation, and has come to be one of his more respected works. Which is easy to see, because this film is a hell of a tightrope to walk, and Chaplin is able to do it masterfully.
Chaplin plays the titular Monsieur Verdoux in the film, a Frenchman living in between the World Wars, trying to provide for his beloved wife and son. He lost a lucrative banking job after decades of service, and found himself unable to find a suitable line of work. So, for whatever reason, Verdoux has decided that the perfect way to keep his family happy and healthy is to travel around France, creating a series of elaborate identities, and marrying widows and spinsters who have been left alone from the horrors of World War I, only to kill them. We see that Verdoux has several “wives” spread around the country, telling them stories about exotic jobs as an excuse to why he rarely is around to be with them. And, it seems to have worked pretty well. He keeps a ledger of the various women that he’s married to, and their worth, and whenever he’s in need of money to invest he pops over and kills the women, collecting their money and selling their homes. We comes into the film right as Verdoux has murdered a woman named Thelma Couvais, whose family have begun trying to track Verdoux down, and is in the process of selling her home to another widow by the name of Marie Grosnay, and in the process adds another prospective victim to his list. She’s initially put off by Verdoux, but he begins a unrelenting campaign of flower deliveries to win her over, while continuing to trek across the country and keep his wives in order.
Verdoux inevitably returns home to his true wife and child, caring for their every need while, luxuriating the in the chance to just be himself. His wife uses a wheelchair, and it’s clear that Verdoux greatly cares for her, becoming a serial killer just to keep her and their son happy. And, during one of these trips home Verdoux has dinner with a friend of his, a chemist and pharmacist. The two get chatting after dinner, and the friend tells Verdoux of a new poison he’s been trying to perfect, only to have the government tell him to abandon his research, since it ended up fully metabolizing in the body and leaving behind no clues. Which obviously interests Verdoux quite a bit. He ends up cooking up a batch of the poison, and decides that to test it he’ll find a homeless person, poison them, and then wait until an autopsy is performed to hear the results. However, the homeless person he end up finding is a young woman who has recently been released from jail after stealing to provide for herself after the death of her husband in the war. And, upon hearing her story, Verdoux feels too bad for her, and ends up just giving her a good meal and some money, wishing her the best. So, without a proper test, Verdoux decides to return to his most annoying wife, a gossipy socialite named Annabella Bonheur and begins trying to murder her after convincing her to put her home in his name, leading to a series of slapstick encounters where she keeps narrowly avoiding death.
Verdoux is never able to kill Bonheur, but that disappointment is overshadowed by some good news. His flowers have done the job, and he receives word that Marie Grosnay wants to see him and begin a relationship. Verdoux is then able to sweep Marie off her feet, and quickly plan a wedding. Unfortunately for him, Grosnay’s friends decide to throw a lavish wedding, and Verdoux is forced to mingle with potential witnesses. And, to make things even worse, Bonheur ends up attending the wedding, causing Verdoux to keep one step ahead of her, and eventually abandon the wedding before he can be caught. He then loses both Grosnay and Bonheur, who begin suspecting that Verdoux was not what he seemed. And thus begins Verdoux’s string of bad luck. The stock market crashes and he loses everything. And then World War II begins, and he ends up losing his wife and son, leaving him a shambling shadow of the man he once was. Which is when he runs back into the girl he attempted to poison earlier in the film, who is now rich after marrying a war-profiteer she doesn’t love. She wants to thank Verdoux for the kindness he showed her in the past, and brings her to a fancy restaurant, which just so happens to be where the Couvais family are dining. They recognize Verdoux, and call the police to come arrest him. And, sensing what is happening, Verdoux decides to hand himself over to the police when they arrive. Verdoux is quickly found guilty for a staggering amount of murders, despite his argument that civilization loves murder, and that he’s an amateur compared to the nations of the world. The film then ends as Verdoux is led off to be executed by guillotine.
Monsieur Verdoux is really unlike anything else Chaplin had made up until this point in his career. He’d never been afraid to examine some dark subject matter, from the horrors of World War II in the Great Dictator to the destructive nature of capitalism in Modern Times. But this film puts him in the shoes of a murderer who kills several old women who is eventually executed for his crimes. It’s a bit of a shock. I certainly hadn’t been anticipating quite how dark this film would get when I first saw it. Which isn’t to say that it isn’t funny. It’s actually quite funny, using Chaplin’s inimitable skills as a slapstick performer to create some of his funniest and silliest gags. In between all the murder that is. This film often gets notoriety as Chaplin’s first film where he’s not playing the Little Tramp, fully becoming a new type of character. The Great Dictator technically doesn’t feature the Little Tramp, but the Barber is close enough. Verdoux is a very different kind of character. Where the Tramp is good-willed, clumsy, and a bit of a lovable nuisance, Verdoux is a cold, charming, and ruthless character, showing us a whole new side of Chaplin. This still feels like a Chaplin film, with the humor, heart, and excellently shot gags, but there’s something about it that feels completely alien, and ends up drawing me in.
Charlie Chaplin spent an entire career creating a screen persona that was as likable as possible. The Little Tramp was a delightful scamp, full of idealism and kindness, reminding us of the best of humanity, and the idea that even someone at the bottom of society can help those around them. And, although Chaplin lost quite a bit of that good will thanks to America’s fickle feelings towards his personal politics, it’s still quite a shock seeing this actor who is so associated with happy slapstick become a serial killer. And it works great. The idea of taking a comedic actor and giving them a more dramatic work to play against the audience’s expectations is not a new phenomena at all, and can often pay off immensely, subverting your opinions toward them to heighten an already disturbing subject matter. And Chaplin handles it all wonderfully. True, the film is still a comedy, and full of Chaplin’s trademark shtick, but he’s legitimately creepy in this film, all charm one moment and then strangling and old woman the next. When placed up against the totality of his career Monsieur Verdoux takes on an even more ominous tone, showing us that anyone could be capable of this kind of depravity, even someone who has made you laugh for years prior.
Monsieur Verdoux was written and directed by Charlie Chaplin and released by United Artists, 1947.
Categories: Cinematic Century