When one thinks of Charles Chaplin, one usually thinks of silent, black and white classics such as The Kid (1921), and Gold Rush (1925)—made popular by Chaplin’s loveable and mischievous tramp character. Yet, as the film industry continued to evolve with sound and colour, Chaplin’s films also began to take on a new level of complexity. Chaplin’s 1947 Monsieur Verdoux is such a film, a black comedy “talkie” which illustrates Chaplin’s full range of talent as actor, director and scriptwriter.
Chaplin plays the film’s title character, Henri Verdoux, a father, a husband and polygamist, first marrying wealthy women, exploiting them financially, then doing away with them. Literally.
The film begins with the family of Verdoux’s latest victim receiving a returned letter. They complain amongst themselves at how their sibling, Theresa, had met a man, and how she had withdrawn all of her savings, running off with him to Paris to get married. The returned letter is the last trace of her existence. The scene ends with the introduction of Verdoux as he merrily tends to his rose garden in Paris, while in the background a long tentacle of black smoke rises from his incinerator. A neighbour remarks, “I wonder how long he’s going to keep that incinerator going?” The other neighbor replies, “I know, I haven’t had a chance to put my washing out!” This is the beginning of film stacked sky-high in bodies as well as humour.
But where one would normally look upon Verdoux with repugnance, such as the protagonist in Hitchcock’s Pyscho (1960), instead one looks upon Verdoux with a mixture of pity and admiration. The character of Verdoux is a curious one as it is not even apparent as to why he continues his life of crime when clearly he does not need the money he bilks from his female victims. When at home with his young son and disabled wife, she states that she would be “just as happy as when they were poor.” So here we have unconditional love being offered to Verdoux, by virtue of his “real” wife and son, but it is almost as if he simply cannot accept nor understand it. In a particularly poignant scene with a nameless girl (Marilyn Nash), he spares her life purely out of admiration as she speaks of her love for her now deceased husband, how she would have “killed for him.” Throughout the film we have a feeling that Verdoux will simply never kill enough to satisfy his wants or his needs, nor will he ever love enough to satisfy those same desires.
In spite of Monsieur Verdoux’s apparent moral vacuum, Chaplin’s film does manage to amuse us, scene after scene. The chemistry is rich between Chaplin and Martha Ray who plays one of Verdoux’s many wives, Annabella Bonheur, as he tries in vain to end her life while canoeing, in a scene that is as funny as any slapstick from his earlier films. In fact this is the only glimpse we are allowed of the old Chaplin, the shy, cunning, but loveable huckster, if only for a moment.
Yes, it is all fun and games until the film’s end when Verdoux is tried by a jury of his peers. Like in the monologue reminiscent of Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1941) there is the sullen realization that although entertaining, all along Mr. Chaplin has been using the film to explore his own views. He is making a statement, not unlike many of his earlier films where there is a strong social commentary (Modern Times, 1936), yet in Monsieur Verdoux the commentary is plainly more philosophical than social. The references to Schopenhauer are plentiful and unabashed, and when Verdoux lays in his prison cell, sentenced to death, it reminds one of Camus’s character, Meursault, in the final pages of L’ Étranger. Both characters are simply unrepentant. And why shouldn’t they be? They moved through life as detached entities living by their own morals, rather than that of society’s. At last one can’t help but feel we’ve arrived at the theme of Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux—the discussion and challenge of right and wrong. Good and evil. In the final minutes of Monsieur Verdoux there is the long awaited unveiling, the letting down of the proverbial mask. The priest enters Verdoux’s jail cell announcing, “I’ve come to ask you to make your peace with God.” Verdoux smiles and pleasantly responds, “I am at peace with God…my conflict is with man.”
Monsieur Verdoux is merely one gem in a vast treasure trove of over 70 films in which Chaplin starred in and directed. Chaplin speaks in a voice that is dark, ironic, but nonetheless rich.