Original release: April 11th, 1947
Running time: 124 minutes
Director: Charles Chaplin
Writers: Charles Chaplin, Orson Welles
Cast: Charles Chaplin, Martha Raye
The story of a white-collar worker, who loses his job in an economic crisis and struggles to support his disabled wife and young son, could easily be set in today’s world. As it happens, in Monsieur Verdoux, the economic crisis in question is the Great Depression, and in watching the film today we look back on an era with an alarming number of parallels with our own.
Monsieur Verdoux sees Chaplin playing the titular Verdoux, a debonair but unemployed bank clerk who turns to marrying and murdering women for their money to support his real wife and son. His antics are played out in a darkly comedic style as he wraps the unsuspecting women around his finger to get what he wants.
Despite this darkly comic storyline, Verdoux is an urbane seducer who takes his work very seriously and is able to live guilt free because he considers it just that; work. The only real Chaplin-esque comedy comes through his repeated attempts to do away with his coarse, brash, lottery-winning wife, Annabella (Martha Raye), who inadvertently avoids his schemes.
These are by no means comparable to his most iconic slapstick moments from his silent comedies or the visual splendour of the globe/shaving sequence in The Great Dictator (1940), but they do remind us where he’s from.
What’s interesting is the pronounced shift Chaplin made with Monsieur Verdoux. Gone is the little tramp character, and as such, so is the warm and syrupy feeling those stories imbued.
With its exploration of the twisted morality of business; the morality of death in war; the plight of the everyman and surviving the Depression, it was unsurprisingly not overly popular with a public celebrating their brave soldiers winning World War II.
Monsieur Verdoux was refused by many cinemas and picketed at a number of theatres that did show it, until they relented and it stopped screening.
I would never argue Chaplin is not trying to sock hard at evil and injustice, as he clearly is. His political views come across and his central arguments are interesting ones. The theme which sticks with us is the idea Verdoux is the independent businessman of murder who’s labelled a criminal, while the munitions manufacturer and soldiers are seen as heroes.
“It’s all business” he says, “One murder makes a villain, millions a hero; numbers sanctify.” It’s not entirely surprising to see why audiences might have taken offence.
The issue is he has to literally say this. The maxim of filmmakers is “show – don’t tell” and given his past, Chaplin was one of the greatest directors in this regard, but in Monsieur Verdoux, rather than showing these societal problems and finding a way to engage us with it, he comes across and pontificating on the matter and as such, doesn’t engage at all.
This is highlighted even more so when most of the justification comes in the closing stages without enough attention given to it previously.
Still, Monsieur Verdoux is funny – in a wicked way rather than a ‘ha ha’ way – it certainly has things to say and Chaplin is on fine form as Verdoux. I don’t think it’s anywhere near one of his best films but it’s certainly worth a look if only to see Chaplin as you might not have see him before.
Ben has had a keen love of moving images since his childhood but after leaving school he fell truly in love with films. His passion manifests itself in his consumption of movies (watching films from all around the globe and from any period of the medium’s history with equal gusto), the enjoyment he derives from reading, talking and writing about cinema and being behind the camera himself having completed his first co-directed short film in mid-2011.
His favourite films include things as diverse as The Third Man, In The Mood For Love, Badlands, 3 Iron, Casablanca, Ran and Grizzly Man to name but a few.