Monsieur Verdoux

Director: Charles Chaplin Producer: Charles Chaplin
Writers: Charles Chaplin & Orson Welles (Original Idea)
Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Martha Raye, Marilyn Nash, Charles Evans, Ada May
Studio: Charles Chaplin Productions & United Artists  Year: 1947

Why I DVRed It: I have been making a concerted effort to watch as many Chaplin films as I can, and so I DVR any that come on. Despite my lifelong love of film, I am embarrassed to say I had never seen a Chaplin film all the way through until I watched Modern Times on TCM a few years back, and I’ve liked each one I’ve watched since then. Monsieur Verdoux is a black comedy and Chaplin plays essentially a bad guy who has bad things happen to him rather than his usual shtick of a good guy who has bad things happen to him. I like black comedies, and I like Chaplin, and I like TCM… so, given the opportunity to combine them, I scheduled the film to record on my DVR.

Presentation on TCM: The film was not introduced, though it was on as part of TCM’s 31 Days of Oscar in February, and it happens to be one of the (supposedly) better Chaplin films that I had yet to see. Unlike many of the other Days of Oscar films, Monsieur Verdoux was not all that well-received in its initial run in the United States (making it strange that it received any Academy Awards nominations, but it did: for Best Original Screenplay). Since then, however, Monsieur Verdoux has grown in popularity, though it is still nowhere near as well known as Modern Times, City Lights, The Gold Rush, or The Great Dictator. Unlike those movies, Monsieur Verdoux does not star Chaplin’s Tramp character (or a Tramp-like character as in the case of The Great Dictator), making it the least typical of the other beloved Chaplins (in plot at least).

Synopsis: The movie follows the murder spree of Parisian gentleman Monsieur Henri Verdoux (Chaplin), who marries rich women, gets them to close out their bank accounts, and then murders them. He does all of this ostensibly to support his invalid wife and his son, whom he would be unable to provide for otherwise after being released from his bank clerk position during the Depression. An investigation brought on by the family of Verdoux’s thirteenth victim combined with his inability to kill the loud, obnoxious nouveau riche Annabella Bonheur (Martha Raye) hound Verdoux throughout the film. Verdoux invests all of his “inheritances” in various stocks under various identities, and he makes friends with a prostitute (played by Marilyn Nash and known in typical Chaplin fashion only as “the Girl”) while also trying to woo the very rich widow, Marie Grosnay (Isobel Elsom). Hilarity and tragedy ensue.

Analysis (contains spoilers): Chaplin made Monsieur Verdoux with less freedom than he typically enjoyed. The post-war economy limited his budget, and the war rationing of film stock made film hard to come by. Thus, Chaplin was forced to film with a completed script, a strictly regimented shooting schedule, details of individual shots and framings, and with a well-rehearsed cast rather than a cast largely improvising while cameras rolled as he usually preferred (so, he was basically forced to make the movie the way most directors make their movies…). The film also had to gain approval from the Breen Office, which required Chaplin to censor out hints that Verdoux was sharing beds with his multiple wives or that the Girl was a prostitute. In other words, Chaplin was not afforded the luxuries usually given to a filmmaker of his stature. Still, despite the limitations, Chaplin would often remark that Monsieur Verdoux was the best film of his career (he would occasionally hedge this opinion, but still…).

American audiences would not agree, however. It was seen as subversive, anti-capitalist, anti-American, and anti-the present, even though the film takes place in France in the decade before it was released. Still, it shocked American audiences who protested the film, even though its politics are pretty much the same as those of the much beloved classic Chaplins. What had changed between the 1930s and 1947 was not Chaplin but America. The nation no longer was politically left and trying to work to get past the Depression—instead, America was in the midst of a consumerist boom, and the mass culture coalesced around what historian T. Jackson Lears has referred to as a “new class.” This class of white and blue collar workers created, supported, and reinforced the liberal belief in something called the American Way of Life, which combined an optimism about the future with a pragmatism about the dangers lurking to threaten that optimism (i.e., Communists). Thus, the films manufactured by Hollywood and that Americans consumed throughout the late 1940s tended to reinforce consumerism, capitalism, and optimism (the notable exception of course being the film noir genre, but even those films tended to reinforce American values through the punishment of the protagonist and/or his/her pursuit of money or sex). Monsieur Verdoux takes a stance against fascism, capitalism, and military expansionism. The protagonist buys a nice house for his wife and child and spends the rest of the film buying material goods to impress women and investing in the stock market. Neither of these work for him.

Throughout the film, Chaplin seems to even suggest that capitalism has ruined nature and the beautiful. In the first disguise we see, Monsieur Verdoux is an eccentric widower who impresses a prospective homebuyer with his beautiful garden. Throughout the film, he attempts to woo the same homebuyer, Marie Grosnay, with lavish flower arrangements he spends a small fortune to procure. This natural beauty is, thus, a prop in his ruses to win murder victims’ love. Any true beauty that exists in the film is as artificial as Verdoux’s various aliases. The sets are clearly staged backdrops, and Verdoux’s expositions about the beauty of the French countryside only underscore the false beauty of the world and the frauds Verdoux himself is committing.

Monsieur Verdoux uses purchased beauty (flowers) to lure his victims.
Monsieur Verdoux uses purchased beauty (flowers) to lure his victims. © 1947 – Warner Bros. All Rights Reserved.

All of this ties into the politics of the film, as well. The authentic backdrop of Verdoux’s world is the Great Depression and the rise of fascism throughout Europe. There is real beauty in the world (the flowers, for instance), but the world has hardened Verdoux into only seeing money and violence. Thus, the only beauty in the world of Verdoux is the beauty that can be purchased, even if purchasing it means committing murder. But, as Verdoux himself puts it, “This is a ruthless world, and one must be ruthless to cope with it.” And coping with it means begetting beauty to beget violence and vice versa in a vicious cycle.

The film, though set before World War II, is most seriously about the repercussions of the conflict. It seems to suggest that after witnessing such carnage, the citizens of the world would have no choice but to retreat into the sort of cynicism Verdoux himself suffers. As he told one interviewer during his promotional press conferences for the film, “Von Clausewitz said that war is the logical extension of diplomacy; Verdoux feels that murder is the logical extension of business.” For Chaplin, the post-war American retreat into business and consumerism was not worth celebrating and was actually quite dangerous. This did not win him many fans.

Chaplin himself was already unpopular with the American public even before the release of the seemingly anti-American film. He was accused (somewhat accurately at least) of being a philanderer and pervert after Joan Barry’s very public paternity lawsuit against him, charges of violating the Mann Act, and his decision to marry the 18-year-old Oona O’Neill (he was 54 at the time). During the war, he had campaigned vocally for the creation of a second front to help the Soviet Union against Germany, and his friendships with Communist entertainers and artists as well as his overt leftist politics now won him the dreaded label of Communist. Monsieur Verdoux was met with protests, negative press, and bad reviews (with some exceptions of course, notably from Bosley Crowther and James Agee), and it did not do well at the box office, especially compared to his previous film, The Great Dictator.

In watching the film, I understand the interpretation at the time as anti-American. However, the film really seems to be more of a statement against the senseless violence of the war years and the selfish capitalistic impulses in the world (which, yeah, I guess is kind of anti-American…). Verdoux is a murder, but as he reminds the audience from the stands of his trial:

After being sentenced to death, Verdoux decries a society that rewards genocide but punishes homicide.
After being sentenced to death, Verdoux decries a society that rewards genocide but punishes homicide. As he states elsewhere, “One murder makes a villain; millions, a hero. Numbers sanctify, my good fellow! © 1947 – Warner Bros. All Rights Reserved. 

“As for being a mass killer, does not the world encourage it? Is it not building weapons of destruction for the sole purpose of mass killing? Has it not blown unsuspecting women and little children to pieces? And done it very scientifically? As a mass killer, I am an amateur by comparison. However, I do not wish to lose my temper, because very shortly, I shall lose my head.”

Verdoux is right, but of course, he’s also a murderer. And the film makes it clear that he murders for sport and money while convincing himself that he is doing it for his wife and child. In the one scene in which he visits them, his wife remarks that she likes the house he has purchased her but would rather be able to see her husband more. But the hardened and cynical Verdoux cannot appreciate the simple love offered him by his family, even while he uses his wife and child as his raison d’être for murdering and investing. It is implied that he murders them sometime after he loses his fortune (during the recession of 1937) and before he finally surrenders to the police, finally eradicating the last connection to the world Verdoux sought to make for himself before the misery of the Depression.

Ultimately, then, the film does not take Verdoux’s side: Chaplin seems to encourage the audience to see Verdoux as a cautionary tale. Yes, Verdoux is right, of course, but Chaplin hopes the world will see that there is time to prevent Verdoux from being right. He gets this across through the character of the Girl, who is eternally optimistic, especially when Verdoux first encounters her. Looking to test a new poison on her, Verdoux invites her up to his apartment where they start to discuss their world views. They discuss Schopenhauer and his essay “On Suicide,” discussing the terrors of life and death. Verdoux posits that it “is the approach of death that terrifies.” The Girl counters that, “If the unborn knew of the approach of life, they’d be just as terrified.”

Verdoux decides to spare the Girl's life after discussing Schopenhauer and their shared cynicism. © 1947 - Warner Bros. All Rights Reserved.
Verdoux decides to spare the Girl’s life after discussing suicide. © 1947 – Warner Bros. All Rights Reserved.

Both are hardened cynics who have chosen life over death, even though both understand that death is probably better than life (even though it’s scary, of course). To the Girl, “life is wonderful”; she lists seemingly trite but simple pleasures as evidence: “a spring morning, a summer’s night, music, art, love.” Verdoux seems to agree and gives her money to help her out. He must see in her a similar soul or at least what his soul once was: cynical but able to appreciate the experience of life, an existential viewpoint challenged by the evils of the world around him. Later in the film, she is a success story. She is being chauffered around and has apparently taken advantage of the hostilities of the world—just like Verdoux had. This is finally too much for him, for she is his mirror. She shares his cynicism but only uses it to create her own gain, again, just as he had. His initial act of kindness has only made the world worse, or so he seems to think. She offers a sense of optimism still, telling him that the world is “very sad,” though “kindness can make it beautiful.” However, after they share a nice night out, he turns himself in, to face his critics. The terror of death has finally become smaller than the terror of living in the world he has helped to make worse.

All of this sounds so bleak,  but the film still left me feeling optimistic and happy. Where does this come from? Aside from the underlying humor, it mostly comes from the ending.  At the end of the film, awaiting death, Verdoux is as unfeeling as he is throughout the film, much like Meursault in Albert Camus’s The Stranger, who hopes only to be greeted by a crowd of haters on the morning of execution. In his cell, Verdoux waxes about good and evil, telling a reporter that “too much of either will destroy us all.” On his way out of his cell, he is offered rum, which he first declines, then accepts because he’s “never tasted rum” before that moment. It will be his last new experience in the world (aside from death, of course), and he indulges, perhaps remembering the Girl’s views of what life can be: an experience made easy by acts of kindness (such as help from a stranger, or a new sensation). Thus, even at his most cynical, Verdoux is still celebrating life. That’s how I like to read it at least.

Compare it to another film that ends with a protagonist’s execution: A Place in the Sun. The films share thematic and compositional similarities, though they are entirely different tonally (black comedy versus the most melodramatic of melodramas). In A Place in the Sun, Montgomery Clift’s character must kill his would-be bride (and a would-be mother) to gain entry into the land of the wealthy, and he even kills her on a rowboat. (In Monsieur Verdoux, Chaplin’s character attempts to kill Bonheur on a rowboat to comic effect.) Both films end with the convicted murderer being led to meet the executioner.

Verdoux is led to his death in what seems triumphant. We do not cry for Verdoux in his final moments. © 1947 - Warner Bros. All Rights Reserved.
Verdoux’s final moments do not induce tears but feelings of triumph, for he is the good guy (in white, no less), dying for the world. © 1947 – Warner Bros. All Rights Reserved.

But while the camera in A Place in the Sun zooms in on Clift’s face as he is led to his death and encourages tears at the tragedy of poor George Eastman (Clift), in Verdoux the camera stays wide, and we see Chaplin led out heroically under an archway, dying a hero’s death for the sins of our society. Chaplin even walks in a little shuffle step similar to that employed by the Tramp, perhaps to suggest that the logical end of the Tramp is the cynicism of Henri Verdoux, unless the world can change. And the tone of the film suggests that Chaplin at least kind of sort of believes it can… Or at least, it suggests that the world can be pleasurable even if it can’t improve.

Should I Have DVRed This on TCM: Yes, I absolutely should have, and it is absolutely worth DVRing next time it’s on TCM! This is Chaplin at his best, still using the physical gifts that made him such a wonderful comedic actor but using his oft silent voice to great comedic and dramatic effect. And the rest of the cast is superb. I did not address the acting in my analysis, but the cast perfectly plays off of Chaplin, especially Martha Raye and William Frawley (FRED MERTZ!) in his brief scene. And though I always prefer Paulette Goddard as Chaplin’s “girl,” Marilyn Nash plays the role with aplomb. My analysis probably made this film sound like a real bummer, but it’s actually quite a delightful and entertaining film, even though it has the heaviest of themes.

Still, I was left wondering what this film would’ve looked like as an Orson Welles movie. It probably would’ve been great, but it’s hard to imagine it being much greater than the film Chaplin created—a rich masterpiece of comic drama and social criticism.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s