Charles Chaplin chose exactly the wrong time to re-invent himself, at least as far as the American moviegoing public was concerned. After being hailed for the boldness of his Hitler-bashing 1940 comedy The Great Dictator—a movie just ahead of the curve in its anti-Nazi sentiment—Chaplin found himself the subject of unwanted scrutiny after World War II, blasted by the press for his libertine sexual affairs and his public defense of the Soviet Union. When Chaplin finally returned to filmmaking with 1947’s Monsieur Verdoux, he left behind his beloved “Little Tramp” character once and for all, instead playing a dapper French ladies’ man who makes his living marrying rich dames and bumping them off. The protagonist of Monsieur Verdoux isn’t simply immoral; he justifies his crimes by putting them in a larger social context. To Chaplin’s critics, it sounded like he was answering them with a fat, juicy raspberry. Which he was, sort of. But as is the case with Chaplin’s personal life and political beliefs, the meaning of Monsieur Verdoux isn’t easily reducible.
An assured combination of suspense and pitch-black comedy, Monsieur Verdoux proceeds as a series of sketches, mixing light slapstick with snappier dialogue than anything Chaplin had attempted before. Both the humor and the tension stem from Chaplin’s attempts to convince his victims to empty their bank accounts before he snuffs them, and the women’s attempts to get their dreamboat to be more like a regular husband who stays home and helps around the house. Chaplin’s antihero is a sweet-talker, adopting multiple personas to explain to his ladies why he’s only around for a few days every month. Monsieur Verdoux emphasizes both his diligence—he counts francs rapidly, like the banker he used to be before the economy tanked—and how hard it is for even the most confident, careful person to commit murder. The comedic core of the movie lies in the scenes between Chaplin and Martha Raye, who plays a quick-tempered, overly affectionate lottery winner, described by a friend as so lucky that, “If you slipped on a banana peel with your neck out of joint, the fall would straighten it.” She’s the unkillable object in the path of Chaplin’s ruthless rogue, and his elaborate, ill-fated schemes to end her life are where Chaplin the silent star shows his still-formidable flair for building visual gags within a still frame.
The Raye scenes are the philosophical core of Monsieur Verdoux, too, in that Chaplin persuades the audience to root for him to off her, and then asks that same audience to consider why. Like The Great Dictator, Monsieur Verdoux ends with a big speech from Chaplin expressing the theme of the film, as his character faces a judge and jury and compares his relatively minor crimes to the wave of war and genocide that swept across Europe in the ’30s and ’40s. And like nearly all of Chaplin’s films, Monsieur Verdoux has its sentimental elements, arriving in the form of the protagonist’s real family—stashed in the country, where he can take care of them with his blood money—and in the form of a desperate waif played by Marilyn Nash, whom Chaplin both pities and mentors. Many critics at the time read the speech and the sentiment as the most unconscionable kind of moral relativism, and Monsieur Verdoux faced resistance initially from newspaper columnists and local censors. It also prompted a stirring defense from James Agee, who used three consecutive weekly columns in The Nation to unpack Monsieur Verdoux, and to chide a culture that could drop atomic bombs but couldn’t trust sensible adults to watch a Charlie Chaplin comedy without turning into serial killers (or worse, Communists).
Over time, Agee’s perspective was validated, as both Chaplin and Monsieur Verdoux saw their reputation in the U.S. improve. That’s because away from the fever of World War II and the chill of the ensuing Cold War, it’s clearer that Monsieur Verdoux isn’t really about one man—be it Chaplin or his character—excusing his worst deeds. It’s more about a society that marginalizes a useful, hard-working individual while valuing the initiative of the criminal. Monsieur Verdoux shows how easy it is for anyone to get swept up in a dark wave, be it an unemployed banker just trying to put bread on the table, or a moviegoer excited by the prospect of Charlie Chaplin strangling the life out of Martha Raye.
Key features: A brief interview with Nash, an informative half-hour look back at the making of the film, and an even more fascinating half-hour documentary about Chaplin’s career-long tussles with the press.