Note: A couple of years ago I did a series of reviews for Halo-17, an Australian music and arts website which from what I can tell is no longer out there in cyber space. In the past I have occasionally linked to some of these reviews here at Twenty Four Frames. Recently, it seems all the links lead to an internet void; subsequently I have been occasionally posting these reviews here in updated versions. The original postings with broken links have or will be deleted.
Dare I say that “Monsieur Verdoux: A Comedy of Murders” is Charlie Chaplin’s best film? If not, his best certainly one of Chaplin’s best, a brilliant black comedy unlike anything else in his portfolio. It was not his first feature film without The Little Tramp character that would be “The Great Dictator,” though the Jewish barber may be a close relative. Verdoux is a totally different characterization, little trace of sentimentality and a murderer.
It must have been a strange film to the American public of 1947, only two years after the end of World War II; black comedies were rare back in those days, I can only think of “Arsenic and Old Lace” as an early example. Besides that, Chaplin was on the outs with the U.S. politically, Chaplin leaned toward the left and from the 1930’s on his films took on a political bent. “Modern Times” depicts poor workers and striking labor unions and in “The Great Dictator,” Chaplin practically stops the film cold with a dramatic political speech where he addresses the audience as comrades. During World War II, he did not support the Allied war effort, which led to a public outcry. FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover had been keeping a file on Chaplin for years. In addition, he was fighting off a scandal with a very young actress named Joan Barry who claimed she fathered his child. Blood test would prove the child was not his though damage to his career was done. By the time “Monsieur Verdoux” was released, two years after the end of WW II, with its attack on capitalism, many critics attacked back and the crowds stayed away. Some theaters even refused to play the film. While there were many critics who disliked the movie, and or Chaplin, the film did have its supporters. James Agee wrote an extended three part essay in “The Nation” calling it, “One of the best films ever made.”
Henri Verdoux is a banker with an invalid wife and a young son when the depression of 1929 arrived. Like millions of others, Verdoux lost all his money. In order to keep his wife and child living comfortably Verdoux faked having a job where he had to travel. In different towns, he would court and marry wealthy women, only to poison them, keeping their fortune in the process. With his real family, Verdoux is a gentle, elegant and loving man. The family is vegetarian. When his son plays too rough with their cat, he scolds him gently. One of his rich “wives” is loud mouth, brash, uncouth Annabella (Martha Raye) who trust no one refusing to tell Verdoux where she keeps her money. At the same time, Verdoux is also pursuing Marie Grosnay (Isobel Elsom) a financially well off single woman. After weeks of sending flowers, she finally succumbs; they go out and eventually plan to marry. But first, Verdoux needs to get rid of Annabella. After failed attempts to poison her, he takes her on a fishing trip in a small boat where he attempts to strangler her and throw her over board but is constantly stymied by the loud mouth nagging wife. Those familiar with Theodore Dreiser’s novel “An American Tragedy” will recognize Chaplin’s parody.
The only touch of sentimentality in the film happens when Verdoux meets a young woman, just out of jail, who is only known as The Girl (Marilyn Nash). At first he plans to murder her as part of an experiment with a new poison he developed, however despite her recent problems The Girl is so full of life Verdoux, in a moment of compassion, sends her on her way after feeding her. Some years later they will meet again, Verdoux is down and out but The Girl is now a mistress to a munitions manufacturer and is doing well.
Verdoux is eventually caught, put on trial and sentenced to hang. At the end of the trial, the judge asked him if he has anything to say. He is unrepentant. Chaplin, defending his character’s behavior says, “As for being a mass killer, doesn’t the world encourage it? Is it not building weapons of destruction for the sole purpose of mass killing? Has it not blown up unsuspecting women and little children……..As a mass killer, I am an amateur by comparison.” Later on, after being sentenced, waiting in his cell he continues his philosophy, “One murder makes a villain, millions a hero, numbers sanctify.” The film ends with Verdoux being led to the guillotine.
The film does have some distractions, Chaplin’s high pitched voice for one as well as an unadventurous camera style, even for 1947. His use of close ups of train wheels traveling the rails to illustrate Verdoux going from one city to another is a prime example. Additionally, his courtroom speech is self righteous, coming across as paternalistic, speaking with a sanctimonious superior tone.
The storyline is of course familiar, based on the famous French bluebeard, Henri Landru, who killed eight wives. Chaplin’s involvement in the film began when Orson Welles wanted Chaplin to star in a film he was making about a Landru type character. When this did not pan out, Welles sold the idea to Chaplin for $5,000 dollars and a screen credit. It would take Chaplin five more years to get the film completed.
After its initial release and failure, Chaplin’s first, the film was withdrawn from circulation and not seen for seventeen years. In 1964, The Plaza Theater in New York put together a Chaplin Film Festival and with that, “Monsieur Verdoux” was seen by the public for the first time since its initial release. The festival was a huge success with “Monsieur Verdoux” not only the highest grossing film of the festival but breaking box-office records for the theater.
By 1964, the public outcry over Chaplin’s politics died out, though he did not come back to America until he received a lifetime achievement award from the Motion Picture Academy in 1977. Black comedies were becoming more in vogue by then also. In the 1950’s there was Hitchcock’s “The Trouble with Harry,” The Bolting Brothers “I’m Alright Jack” and Ealing’s “The Ladykillers.” Hitchcock with his droll introductions to his classic TV show, “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” brought dark humor into our homes. The 1960’s saw Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove” and Tony Richardson’s “The Loved One.” The times had finally caught up with Chaplin and “Monsieur Verdoux.” Many critics today consider it one of Chaplin’s best and Jonathan Rosenbaum included it in his Alternative to the AFI Top 100 American Films list. Today black comedies are common from “The King of Comedy” to the Coen Brothers.
In a New York Times article by J. Hoberman, he mentions Brooklyn film programmer, Jacob Perlin, who recently relicensed some of Chaplin’s films and how he was struck by “Monsieur Verdoux’s” foresight on our more recent predicaments with corporations like Halliburton and Blackstone. As Verdoux says “Wars, conflicts – it’s all business.”