Retrospective: Monsieur Verdoux

At the onset of Monsieur Verdoux’s release, Charlie Chaplin was in an interesting state both as a brand and as a human being. It had been seven long years since the release of his smash hit The Great Dictator, and during that time much had changed in regard to his place in the American public eye and also with his own personal beliefs. Chaplin had been one of the world’s biggest stars for more than three decades at this point, but due to the heaps of negative press received for his numerous tumultuous relationships with women as well as accusations of being a supposed communist sympathizer, his star was fading fast.

Now, what is really interesting about this controversy is how Chaplin decided to respond. Most artists/celebrities would probably attempt to mitigate the situation by attempting some sort of damage control. Instead, Chaplin decided to make a film where he plays a man who kills women in order to steal their cash. Not only that, but he did this all while attaching a theme where he criticized his opponents for contributing to a system of living that had shed all sense of humanity by that point; essentially doubling down on his political positions and in the process throwing gasoline onto the fire. In addition to giving the middle finger to his critics, a long-term goal was also finally achieved by the director. In The Great Dictator, Chaplin attempted to abandon once and for all his most notorious character of The Tramp, the very character who had brought him his success and fame. However, the result ended up being only a half-measure as the film’s Jewish Barber character was basically The Tramp in all but name. Monsieur Verdoux finally sees Chaplin shed the skin of The Tramp once and for all, opening the once boxed-in artist to an uncharted land of creativity. The result is not only a brand-new type of Chaplin character for cinematic audiences to digest but also a film that stands far away from the types of emotions usually elicited from his works, such as the still endearing City Lights.

As previously mentioned, the film’s titular character, Henri Verdoux, is a bluebeard: a man who marries multiple women and later murders them. Verdoux’s reason for doing so is for money, which is why he specifically targets wealthy widows. The story begins in the early 1930’s, right in the time of The Great Depression, where Verdoux lost his job as a banker. Also feeling the impact is his family, composed of his son and wheelchair-bound wife. This provides him personal validation for the crimes he commits. Much of the plot unfolds episodically, with Verdoux slipping into various identities with the various wives he plans on killing in the near future.

The perspective doesn’t stay with Verdoux, however, as the focus is also given to others who are caught in the web of his transgressions. The film actually begins with the camera not on Chaplin but instead on the family of a woman who was oddly charmed by a mysterious suitor (Verdoux). They worry over her whereabouts as she has not been heard from for weeks since running off to elope with this strange man. Despite their suspicions for the health and wealth of the newly wedded bride, little do they know that the deed is already confirmed to have happened as the film cuts to Verdoux’s actual introduction. We meet him as he is tending to a rose garden while in the background black smoke pours out of a small smokestack, a result of the incinerated remains of his newest victim. Just minutes into the film and Chaplin has already filled the screen with political imagery.

The political message is constantly pushed to the forefront, though much of the time it is hidden in plain sight. The symbolism of a man pushed to the edge by the very system he devoted his life to in order to provide security for his family is enough on its own, but then add in the act of him turning his knife on the very part of society that stands to benefit from the suffering of others takes it all up a notch. By this point, Chaplin was not a stranger to including a political message in his works. Where The Great Dictator ended with pleas for peace and understanding, Monsieur Verdoux shows the search has come up empty, leaving only isolation and cynicism. The world had undergone change during the gap between those films, with the catalyst for that change being the occurrence of World War II. It seems the events of World War II took the optimistic dreamer once responsible for The Great Dictator and broke his spirit, leaving behind an artist with a much colder view of the world. Verdoux, the character, acts almost like a fortune teller, forewarning the pre-WWII world of the atrocities to come. However, he also isn’t shy about pointing blame, downplaying his crimes in the process. At one point he states, “Has the world not blown unsuspecting women and little children to pieces? And done it very scientifically? As a mass killer, I am an amateur by comparison.”

It needs to be noted though that Chaplin isn’t simply interested in criticizing the world at large as he doesn’t let his main character off the hook either. Verdoux is exposed on multiple occasions for his hypocritical nature. He might not completely be blowing piss and wind with his beliefs, but he also is not exempt from contributing to the very same society he has put on blast. While he commits his crimes and seeks out future victims, he is also neglecting the people he uses as an excuse for doing so. He spends very few moments with his family, and when he does make time for his wife and son he quickly comes up with an excuse to part himself from them, claiming that he “has business elsewhere,” despite the wishes of his wife that he do otherwise. She particularly brings up how she would be content with living in poverty if that would offer more time they all could spend together. This reveals that despite the character’s initial morbid, Robin Hood mentality that he is actually selfish in his desires. If Monsieur Verdoux had a subtitle attached, The Great Contradiction would be adequate.

The intent and meaning behind the film can be interesting, but what does that matter if it isn’t entertaining? Luckily, despite the thematic changes since The Great Dictator, Chaplin’s display of skill and artistry in front of and behind the camera has not faltered. The subject matter may be very macabre at times, but it can be very hilarious as well. The episodic nature of the plot gave Chaplin the chance to experiment with tone and feel, allowing him to use various genre elements when jumping from scene to scene. The comedy is often dark, including a repeated gag of Verdoux constantly failing at trying to murder one of his wives, but it is also infused with the slapstick the director was known for. Thanks to Chaplin’s performance, it’s just as easy to root for the character to achieve success in his murderous endeavors as it is to pity him in the film’s more dramatic moments. Chaplin may not be falling off of ladders in this picture, but he still shows an amazing range in total control of his body language and emotion.

The direction is not overly showy or flashy but is instead classy and effective. Having mastered his craft during the silent era, Chaplin makes great use of conveying different emotions by visuals alone, such as a scene with two dancers in a loving embrace as the camera moves on to Verdoux watching in envy. The film’s perhaps greatest moment of visual accomplishment comes from a moment where the camera is static, showing Verdoux (with his back to us) standing in the hallway looking out the window at the moonlight. His (soon-to-be) victim sits out of view from us in the bedroom beside him as he recites poetry. This could be easily played for laughs as the wife reacts to the quirky nature of Verdoux, but instead thanks to the mise-en-scène of this moment Chaplin injects tension. Verdoux continues speaking almost in riddles as he turns to enter the bedroom, however, the camera still stays put while the music begins to swell. The moon outside of the window is then replaced with the glow of the next morning, telling us all we need to know about the crime that had been committed in the visually absent bedroom interior.

That being said, the shifting nature of perspective and characters sometimes clashes with the flow of the film. Specifically, when the time is spent away from Verdoux himself, the information being thrown at the viewer can almost be exhausting. Some of the other characters, such as members of the family from the first scene, just aren’t as capable of carrying the picture and are a bit dull in some moments. It’s during these few moments it seems the film is teetering on falling apart, and under a less capable director may have done so, but thankfully the movie doesn’t spin its wheels for long as these moments are few, and Chaplin quickly puts the train back on the tracks.

Monsieur Verdoux is a film about a man coming to odds with himself and his beliefs, which is also reflective of the artist behind it, shining a light on the hypocrisy within. It’s also a transformative project, where Chaplin shredded his past persona by murdering The Tramp to begin anew. The result is a bold work of art for its time, especially from a celebrity as once beloved as he was.

Unfortunately, audiences did not seem to care. The age of Chaplinitis was long gone, and at that point many would have more than likely preferred to have not heard anything from him at all. World War II had ended, and the world was trying to mend the wounds caused from it. Instead of pure escapism, Charlie Chaplin was there to remind them that not all was well, and that humanity was, in fact, compromised. Monsieur Verdoux grossed around 5% of what The Great Dictator had brought in. United Artist, in an attempt to salvage the situation, pulled the film and re-released it with a new advertising campaign stating, “Chaplin Changes, Can You?” It is evident now that audiences were not ready for that change. Then again, it doesn’t really seem feasible that Chaplin himself would not have anticipated this in some way. Monsieur Verdoux was not particularly made for audiences and instead was a very personal film for the director. This is perhaps a sort of selfish action, but Henri Verdoux himself would likely respond by saying that people as a whole are inherently selfish. As it stands, it’s not completely without issue, but it is one of the most important and personal works from the filmography of one of cinema’s greatest minds.

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