Monsieur Verdoux (1947)

Directed/Written: Charles Chaplin

With: Charles Chaplin

Martha Raye

Monsieur Verdoux was Chaplin’s fourth feature film beyond the silent era, after sound prevailed in the movies,[1] and the second (after The Great Dictator) in which he appears as a speaking character. It is the first in which the figure of the “Little Tramp” disappears altogether, for it is assumed that the “barber” in The Great Dictator (in which, in a double role, he also plays a version of Hitler) was the latter-day projection of the tramp. There was another, more radical change: up to this point, Chaplin’s polemics seemed to be addressed against easily identifiable social evils—overbearing brutes against weaklings, social circumstance, such as poverty, a mechanized modern society that threatened to disrupt former simplicity and a bright outlook in life, and, of course, the monstrous Hitler and his Nazis who threatened democracy and world peace. Who could argued with such positions—not to mention that the tramp figure elicited sympathy in the audience, for he was the proverbial underdog, who remained cheerful—and won the girl—despite adversity and the world’s indifference. Chaplin’s persona in the screen endeared him throughout the world, made him the most recognizable figure on the screen, and also made him mythically wealthy. But in real life, Chaplin had urgent problems, four failed marriages, charges of federal tax evasion, and a paternity suit in 1944 that threatened to derail his fame and fortune,[2] and even land him in jail. When Monsieur Verdoux was released in 1947, the endearing little tramp persona had vanished, the projected screen hero was a mass murderer, critics condemned the movie, and the same audiences that had worshipped Chaplin for more than thirty years stayed away. The film was withdrawn from distribution after six weeks, and Chaplin was not to be the same man/actor/director again. Though he made one more film in the States (Limelight, 1952), his career as a screen idol was practically over with the failure of Verdoux. Despite all this, Verdoux continued to breathe, and was revived and shown in the America in the mid-1960s, when audience tastes had changed after such dark comedies as Kubrick’s Lolita and Dr. Strangelove, where anti-heroes and anti-war sentiment prevailed.

Judged from today’s perspective, and as purely cinematic terms as possible, Monsieur Verdoux is not only watchable and enjoyable but perhaps one of Chaplin’s greatest achievements as cinematic art. It is an uneven movie, to be sure, and that perhaps can be one of the reasons for its initial failure; but it also has moments of soaring passion, humanity, and a tersely expressed definition of evil that comes not from nuclear waste, asteroids, terrorists, and other such sources, but from the human heart. It is also cinematic art, in manner and style, for it is through visual moments that the Chaplin’s genius is expressed: A blind girl’s hand holding a flower extended toward her savior/tramp, an acrobatic waiter holding a tray with a duck on his fingertips in a push-and-shove motley restaurant crowd, a mad dictator tossing a balloon in the air reaching the wall signs of the double cross, or an incinerator burning the remains of a murdered wife while he is picking flowers in a garden. Not all of these moments are funny, but they are all sum up the cinematic wizardry of which only Chaplin—and only very few other directors—were capable of. Chaplin knew how to make such moments on the screen not just aesthetic marvels but both visually pleasing and emotionally connecting.

Monsieur Verdoux strains to hold two conflicting cinematic elements together—serious drama and hilarity, and in that sense the movie nearly falls apart at the seams, as the two elements collide and then separate, alternating rather than cohering in one whole. The scenes with Martha Raye, for instance, are justifiably called first rate comedy. She is the only wife that, either by cunning, blundering, or happenstance Verdoux fails to kill, though he tries and bumbles every time. She is loud, vulgar, unsuspecting, and invulnerable, for no snare, not even a loop around her neck (literally, in the boat incident) can undo her. The mix-up in poison/peroxide incident, when her maid servant comes out with a mangled hairdo, and Annabella/Martha exclaims: “For the love of Julius Caesar, what happened to you?” is one of the funniest in movie comedy. By contrast, sober moments are almost unbearable to watch, when a once beloved figure of the screen had settled into a diabolically conniving murderer. One incident may sum this attitude up: In a scene at home, for he has a son and an invalid wife in wheelchair (for who he asserts he is working to make a “living”), when a neighboring pharmacist and his wife visit for dinner, Verdoux carefully records the pharmacist’s prescription for an untraceable poison, and then explains to the group how an “arch-villain” would perform the murder. He would invite a homeless person (such people are “useless,” socially) into his hotel room, give them the poison in a drink—preferably wine—and then let the go their way, and death will come in an hour or two, preceded by a “mild” sleep. When his wife observes, “What a diabolical idea!” Verdoux changes the subject. It is of course a diabolical idea, cold, heartless, and worthy only of a hardened criminal, or an utterly embittered individual bent on revenge.

Now, in between these antithetical elements there are two or three incidents—all involving the same persons—where Verdoux seems to be visited by remorse, sorrow for a victim, or a momentary awakening from his torpid dream. Those incidents involve “the Girl,’ an anonymous young woman who crosses his path three times in the entire movie, but these moments bring back Chaplin’s favorite mental state—the emotion that usually been described as “pathos.” It is the emotion where empathy is created for the protagonist or any of those associated with him. Naturally we feel for the tramp when we know he has real feelings that he is capable of understanding his plight, of a downtrodden person, which cries out for sympathy. Ironically, the girl is going to be the victim of his experiment with the poison. He picks her up on a rainy night, on a door step where she has sought shelter from the rain. He offers his umbrella and accompanies her to his apartment, and we assume that she is a street-walker (which she may be) but soon we learn that this was her first day out of prison, where she had spent three months, for “petty larceny.” Verdoux meticulously prepares the poison in a bottle of wine, and serves her a glass with it, exchanging bottles with drinkable wine to serve himself. He has prepared some food for her, and, as she eats, she casually reveals to him that she had loved her husband, an invalid, for whose sake she had stolen. Verdoux changes her poisoned glass (“there is a little cork in it”), gives her another from his bottle, hands her some cash, and she breaks into tears. He has had a change of heart, for she too had committed a crime for the sake of an invalid. He meets her once more in the street, and gives her more money, and a third time, much later in the movie, when he has lost his stock in the market crash, his wife and son had died, and he was poor and broken. She is now wealthy, having married a munitions manufacturer.

These three encounters define a different Verdoux, the one who is capable of and who reforms. The girl had evidently loved him, for his altruism not only saved her but in changed her outlook on life. For just one moment, a spell of euphoria dominates the screen. Her worship and admiration of him does not save him, however. For, again ironically, what she tells him, “to fulfill his destine,” reminds him of the fact that he is a criminal. Awakened from his “bad dream,” to be sure, but still deserving punishment for his crimes. He gives himself up, goes through a trial where he mocks the system of justice by saying to the court in his final statement that, as mass killer, he is “an amateur,” compared to the war machines that prepare to kill millions.

That is Chaplin’s (and the movie’s) overt message. The underlying message is that it is society that creates the criminal, forcing a decent man who, “for thirty years I used my brains but nobody wanted them,” to strike back in revenge and in his struggle to survive. That is still a repulsive message, for killing other persons deliberately cannot be justified under any circumstances. However, his admission of his guilt is owed to the one kind act that he was capable of performing when mired in horrid spirit of resentment and bitterness of soul. The girl does not redeem him entirely, but she does make him repent.

 

[1] The others were City Lights (1931), Modern Times (1936), and The Great Dictator (1941).

[2] David Cook, A History of Narrative Film. New York: W.W. Norton, p. 216.

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