Our review of Monsieur Verdoux (Blu-ray) Criterion Collection, published April 2nd, 2013, is also available.
"One murder makes a villain; millions, a hero. Numbers sanctify, my good fellow."—Henri Verdoux (Charles Chaplin), 1880-1937
Meet Henri Verdoux. A humble bank clerk thrown out of work by the Depression, M. Verdoux has found a more lucrative occupation, one that marks the pinnacle of opportunity in capitalist society. He has taken up "liquidating members of the opposite sex" to earn money to support his loving family. As he remarks, "only a person with undaunted optimism would embark on such a venture."
Even if, for Monsieur Verdoux, the natural end of such a venture is a date with Madame Guillotine.
Monsieur Verdoux considers himself a desperate man in desperate times. His love for his invalid wife (Mady Correll) and cherubic son (Allison Roddan) has led him to the most logical profession he can conceive of. Verdoux has turned his sense of ethics on its head to fit in with the rest of his society. Like Hitler, Verdoux is a vegetarian and an animal lover—and a mass murderer. He is also the most curious character in the career of one of early cinema's most mercurial artists: Charles Chaplin.
By 1947, Chaplin had passed through a difficult transition in his career. Sound films had not been kind to him, and although he produced some of his finest work during the 1930s (City Lights and Modern Times) by incorporating only touches of sound while refusing to use coherent dialogue, his first talking picture, his satire on Hitler entitled The Great Dictator, was really a mixed bag. While the Adenoid Hynkel character (his comic take on Hitler) is deftly portrayed through balletic movement and nonsensical bluster, Chaplin never quite knows what to do with the Jewish Barber who acts as Hynkel's good-guy opposite. The film ultimately hangs itself on an awkward and preachy lecture in its final scene, proof that Chaplin was still uncomfortable expressing his ideas in words.
Worse, the film, while a box-office success, raised accusations about Chaplin's left-wing political leanings, always carefully kept in the background of his earlier films. The red-baiting would eventually drive him out of America in 1952. But the bitterness Chaplin would feel at this betrayal by his adopted country was already working on his mind half a dozen years before, as he embarked on his riskiest film yet. Certainly, Chaplin could afford to take risks by this stage in his career. A true independent filmmaker, Chaplin owned his own studio, had complete creative control, and, through his iconic Tramp character (retired in Modern Times), was, and probably still is, the most recognizable human entertainer on the entire planet. He could, by the sound era, indulge whatever creative (and political) notions he could put to film. Indeed, in most of his films, Chaplin would simply walk in with a general idea of what he wanted to shoot and then take up to 300 takes shaping a scene into exactly what he wanted. Even Stanley Kubrick was not so meticulous in his craftsmanship. In the case of Verdoux, Chaplin actually worked, rare for him, from an already completed script and careful pre-production. Thus, Verdoux may be his most completely thorough film in terms of its satirical attacks. And this concentrated effort to hammer his particular targets while developing Verdoux as a twisted antihero brought out in Chaplin a strange tendency often unnoticed in his more improvisational work, where his instinct for sentimentality often led him to happy endings and weepy reunions.
This strange tendency can also be seen in The Great Dictator. Chaplin found in his inadvertent identification with Hitler an undercurrent of cynicism in his work that had heretofore gone undeveloped. While it only rears its head in curious ways in some of his other films, for instance The Kid's portrait of urban squalor or Limelight's ambivalence towards Chaplin's fickle audience, it emerges fully in Monsieur Verdoux.
Based on an idea handed to Chaplin by Orson Welles, who in turn was inspired by the real case of French serial killer Henri Landru, who played Bluebeard to nearly a dozen women, Verdoux is one of the darkest satires to come out of Hollywood, from one of its most notoriously sentimental directors. Verdoux is an elegant serpent whose fangs drip the disturbing truth about ethical double standard of American and European society between the two World Wars. The ultimate businessman, he treats human lives as a commodity. And at his climactic trial, he draws a brutal comparison between his opportunism and that of governments arming for war. In a breathtakingly daring moment for Hollywood cinema of the time, Verdoux even rebukes a naïve priest by explaining the necessity of evil. No wonder the film was reviled by conservatives at the time.
Verdoux is a wonderfully conceived antihero. He fancies roses, even as his neighbors voice concerns about the odd smells coming from his incinerator. He counts money efficiently and precisely, just like the bank clerk he once was. The money he counts comes from the women he has seduced and dispatched, his flirtatious drivel acting as lubricant to speed them on their way. But when he is not playing sinister lothario, he runs a seedy furniture store and has lousy luck at the stock market. All he wants is to make that big score, so he can retire with his family. It is the stock market, that great hypnotic vortex, that keeps draining all his ambitions, sending him back to murder his next target.
Verdoux only meets his match in the boisterous Annabella (Martha Raye, gleefully over the top), a loudmouthed lottery winner who becomes the quintessential ugly American. For Chaplin, Annabella represents all the worst excesses of the undeservedly wealthy, and, yet, she is terribly resilient, seemingly immune to all Verdoux's attempts to destroy her. And Raye handles the physical comedy like an unfettered tornado, a perfect balance to Chaplin's smoothness as Verdoux. This is a great move on Chaplin's part: we feel pity for this intended victim, but we also root for the charming Verdoux to kill her, if only to shut her up. Thus, Chaplin continually places the audience in an ambivalent position regarding Verdoux, making him one of cinema's most intriguing and ambiguous villains.
Part of the second Chaplin Collection, Monsieur Verdoux is the only major Chaplin feature to warrant only a single-disc treatment by Warner Brothers and MK2 Editions. (A King in New York and A Woman of Paris are packaged together on a single disc apiece, but these are really minor efforts by Chaplin.) Perhaps this is because Verdoux has always been a dreadfully underrated work: a terrible flop when released and often considered (due to its dark themes and focus on dialogue over physical comedy) one of the least characteristic films of Chaplin's oeuvre. Still, the usual extras included with the Chaplin Collection are in evidence. Biographer David Robinson offers a brief introduction on the making of the film. In one of the less pretentious entries in the "Chaplin Today" documentary series (an installment is included on each Chaplin Collection film), director Claude Chabrol (who made his own thriller about the Landru case) weighs in on what the ads in Chaplin's day called "a strange love story that hurts."
While the print for Verdoux is not as sharp as some of the other Chaplin Collection entries (most of them were taken from 1970s reedits by Chaplin, whereas Verdoux languished for many years after its initial failure), it is still in great shape, with a remastered 5.1 soundtrack. While you can purchase Verdoux on its own, I would recommend picking it up as part of the second Chaplin Collection set. The set includes eight films, including six Chaplin features (The Circus, The Kid, and City Lights are all acknowledged masterpieces, as is Verdoux, of course), a collection of two-reel shorts, and a solid documentary on Chaplin's life and career—all for less than half of the price of these films individually. This is a fantastic bargain, and everything in this set is worth a look. Pick up the first Chaplin Collection while you are at it as well.
Monsieur Verdoux may, on the surface, resemble no other film Charles Chaplin made—and few films of any sort in Hollywood (the closest comparison I can make to this character for contemporary audiences might be Hannibal Lecter, and likely Anthony Hopkins had a bit of the suave Verdoux in mind when he assayed this part for the first time on screen)—but Verdoux is also the only film in which Chaplin actually seems comfortable with dialogue. I often wonder what new avenues his work might have taken if the failure of this film had not steered the rest of his films (Limelight, A King in New York) into tepid and self-indulgent attempts to recapture his "glory days." Monsieur Verdoux has long been my favorite of Chaplin's post-Tramp films and one of the highlights in his legendary career. The film is funny, scary, and frighteningly on target even now, when we still see the Powers That Be using the tools of death to bolster their own financial bottom lines. Maybe it is time to watch Monseiur Verdoux again. Maybe this time, we will learn something from it.
Henri Verdoux is condemned to death for his crimes. Charles Chaplin and Warner Brothers are released for providing the public with an important cautionary tale. This court orders further investigation to substantiate Monsieur Verdoux's charges against his society.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Introduction by David Robinson
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