Charlie Chaplin’s somewhat cynical, entirely charming and surprisingly provocative Monsieur Verdoux marks the beginning of his post WWII move into more subdued, thoughtful work. While not completely bereft of the slapstick humor that made him famous, Monsieur Verdoux is a much darker piece for the master of silent comedy, carrying with it the widespread despondence that encompassed a global population who had just witnessed one of the most horrific wars in human history.
Instantly losing a career thirty-years in the making, Henri Verdoux (Chaplin) is desperate to make a life for himself via any possible means. Driven past the limits of sanity, Verdoux decides to use his cunning charms and superior intellect to seduce rich single women into marriage. Maintaining a “stable” of wives, Verdoux travels to every corner of France on a constant mission to rid the women of their worldly possessions, and, in succeeding, rids them of their lives.
The audience is introduced to Verdoux via the family of Mr. Verdoux’s latest victim, as to show the full impact of his crime. While the family is completely intolerable, it is still understood that real people are dying. Yet Chaplin is careful not to dispense too much goodwill towards either side as Verdoux goes about committing his heinous crimes. Keeping a steady balance of audience empathy and scorn, Chaplin gingerly adds weight to both sides, as to not tip the scales and lose his audience. Slowly gathering facts about Verdoux’s life – his limitless love for his crippled wife and young son, unyielding charm, and possession of a (somewhat misguided) moral compass, the audience remains almost fully on the side of an otherwise evil man.
Just as Chaplin’s Verdoux beguiles scores of aging women, Chaplin likewise bewitches his audience. Never ending streams of poetry flow from Verdoux’s lips as he is courting a mark or in reproach to a seldom-visited lover. Just as he is boundlessly lovable as the clumsy tramp, Chaplin is even more absolute in his charisma when freed from the shackles of silence, and the bonds of poverty. Equally as ceaseless in charming the various women and men he encounters on screen, Chaplin is impossible to wholly condemn or dislike.
Monsieur Verdoux is “based on an idea from Orson Welles,” and anyone familiar with Welles’ work, can easily see how the dark themes and plot would fit perfectly into the Dutch-angled and heavily shadowed noir landscape for which he was famous. Chaplin has taken a noticeably lighter route with his amicable Verdoux and comedic tone. This brilliant juxtaposition that Chaplin forces onto his audience confuses sensibility, blurring the lines between evil and acceptable behavior – exactly mirroring widespread sentiments during and after the war. Chaplin’s film is a statement about the social acceptability of greed and violence. In a speech towards the end of his film, Chaplin remarks that if you kill one person, it is a tragedy, if you kill thousands, it’s business, “it is numbers that sanctify.” After a brutal decade that saw the effects of the Holocaust and the atomic bomb, Chaplin is well founded in his convictions. In a world where victories in battle are lauded with praise, yet individual murders are seen as national tragedies, Chaplin’s questioning of the acceptability of violence is well founded – and a topic that is still widely-debated to this day.
Chaplin himself is marvelous, but it is the actresses he’s chosen to surround himself with that make the picture work. Martha “Big Mouth” Raye lends an unmistakable anti-charm Verdoux-sweetheart, Annabelle Bonheur, providing a solid footing for his continued likability. Almost completely insufferable, Bonheur proves to be Verdoux’s greatest obstacle, and his most annoying wife, as her ceaseless luck is an ever-prodding thorn in Verdoux’s side. Chaplin is careful to introduce us to only two of Verdoux’s wives (Audrey Betz’s Martha being the only other), as not to promote too much audience scorn. Chaplin’s cast is a product of their time; the fast-talking, business-minded swindlers of the 1930’s permeate the film, as do the isolated super-rich who avoid all social responsibility for the needy. Chaplin plainly acknowledges that he is the villain of the film, but while he is certainly the center of focus, he is surrounded by countless instances of lesser villainy.
Only Charlie Chaplin could make a film about a murderous philanderer so powerfully endearing (The Dictator is equally as perplexing). Perhaps a challenge from fellow filmmaker Orson Welles, what results is the pragmatic story of a man forced to the edge of his sanity to make a living in an utterly insane world. Surrounded with death and thievery, Chaplin’s Verdoux is much more a product of a world gone mad than a horrible murderer. Even managing to squeeze in an all-encompassing moral, Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux is a charming and poignant film whose timeless message is every bit as relevant as it was in 1947.