Monsieur Verdoux Reviews
A gem of black comedy, in which Chaplin showed a little wickedness, without abandoning his social commentary nor his sentimentality.
He easily proves why murder can be also a laughing matter.
Monsieur Verdoux, which sprang from a falling-out Chaplin had with Orson Welles (more on that in a few), was Chaplin's favorite of his films. It was his first in seven years, the longest period to date between Chaplin films (and the second-longest ever), it landed him one of his surprisingly few Oscar nominations (for Best Original Screenplay; he lost to Sidney Sheldon, of all people, for The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer, and the three other films nominated that year you've never even heard of), etc. For all that, it was a monumental flop at the box office, the post-WW2 equivalent of Heaven's Gate. Like that film, Monsieur Verdoux is a good deal better than you may have heard it is. On the other hand, don't go into it expecting another Modern Times, or for that matter another Heaven's Gate (a movie every critic outside the US finally seems to have given its due as one of the great American movies).
The plot of the film is based loosely on the life of Henri Désiré Landru, the Bluebeard Killer (the first of, to date, four movies based on Landru's life), who started off scamming wealthy widows he met through the lonelyhearts pages, then progressed to marrying them, getting their wills changed, and bumping them off. Before his four-year spree ended, Landru had killed eleven widows. As we open, Henri Verdoux (Chaplin), a banker who'd been laid off from his job thanks to the economic crash, has just killed one of his victims, tossed her body in the incinerator, and then gone back to happily trimming his rose bushes, avoiding stepping on a caterpillar on the way back to the house. A lovely man indeed. Once her fortune is collected (and subsequently invested; Verdoux plans to support his legitimate family through the stock market), Verdoux puts the house on the market, and we see how he interacts with other human beings. (He's not as nice to them as he is to caterpillars.) The movie is concerned with Verdoux's cycle of marrying-and-murdering, naturally, and he gets himself hitched to some real shrews for comic relief, but the real meat of the story comes when Verdoux meets the nameless woman (as so many of his female leads are) known in the credits only as The Girl (Marilyn Nash, in one of only two of her big-screen roles, the other in a forgettable sci-fi film), whom he lures back to his Paris apartment in order to experiment with a new poison he's concocting, only to let her go. (This becomes important later, for reasons that are spoilerific, but lead to a great deal of the movie's comedy.)
It's not a bad film by any means, and if you're a Chaplin fan you'll enjoy it a great deal simply because it's Chaplin (and, according to Robert Lewis, the Chaplin film over which he had the most control: he not only directed, starred, produced, casted, and composed, but supervised every other aspect, from costume design to "crawl[ing] around on the floor with a knfe, scraping up bits of old chewing gum stuck to the floor"). But the story behind the Welles/Chaplin rivalry that birthed the film in its present form is in many ways more interesting than the movie itself. Welles originally wrote the script and approached Chaplin with it; Welles was to direct, Chaplin to star. Now remember, this was still the forties, when everything Orson Welles touched turned to gold; he'd just come off Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, and what Orson wanted, Orson got. Except Chaplin, that is. After reconsidering, Chaplin is reported to have told Welles that "no one else has ever directed me, and I'm not going to change that now". We do know that Chaplin bought the script from Welles (who would later say he parted with it because it was "one of my minor works", which may well have been sour grapes) for five thousand bucks, rewrote some of it, and made it into Monsieur Verdoux. How different would this movie have been had Welles directed it? There's no way we can ever get an answer to that question, of course, but Welles was capable of getting such greatness out of even our most iconic actors (Charlton Heston in Touch of Evil, Edward G. Robinson in The Stranger, and Anthony Perkins in The Trial are only three obvious examples) that one can only salivate while imagining what he would have done with someone as brilliant as Chaplin.
As with most black comedies, note that some of the laughs are bound to sound more like uncomfortable chuckles, especially in the first half; the second is more reminiscent of the little tramp and his slapstick days (the chase scene in the dance-hall could have been filmed in 1920, save the sound). But in the end, it's still Charlie Chaplin, and you'll still like it. ***
This, too, is on a Films I Should See Before I Die list, as was yesterday's [i]La Femme Nikita[/i]. In fact, it is on all three. This is doubtless because it is a post-war, sound Charles Chaplin movie with a story by Orson Welles. (Welles was originally supposed to direct, but Chaplin couldn't stand the idea of having someone else direct him.) They also all three agree on [i]The Great Dictator[/i], though of course they can't all agree on [i]The Gold Rush[/i], as the [i]New York Times[/i] list has no silent movies. I have long maintained that, while one need not actually find Charlie Chaplin films funny, one must acknowledge the influence he had on film. This, indeed, is another film which is important at least as much for what happened offscreen. The film's chances were ruined by Chaplin's personal politics. There was much ado about how buying tickets for this movie might mean giving money toward Chaplin's suspect, possibly Communist, causes. The film itself is entertaining but not essential.
Henri Verdoux (Chaplin) was for thirty years a perfectly honest bank clerk, supporting a wife (Mady Correll) and son (Allison Roddan). And then comes the Panic of 1930. He is fired, and he must find another method of acquiring income. And so he marries rich women, takes all their money, and murders them. Often they are undesirable in some way; we spend the most time on Ugly American Annabella Bonheur (Martha Raye), whom he has of course married under the name of Monsieur Bonheur. He tells her that he is a ship's captain, which explains his lengthy and frequent absences. She is still alive because she has not given him control of her money. Almost more so than the cold Lydia Floray (Margaret Hoffman), she offends his every aesthetic sense. She dresses badly, is extremely unintelligent, and has a braying voice. (That last, of course, was accomplished by casting Martha Raye.) You know this won't end the way he hopes it will, but you can see why he thinks it might; these are not women who will meet anyone's sympathy.
I have read several reviews talking about whether or not you have any sympathy for Verdoux, and I think they rather miss the point. At bare minimum, you can understand why the man did what he did, even though it's a horrible idea. Chaplin gives himself a little speech at the end about how it's only shocking because he's an individual, not a country, and because he clearly didn't kill enough people. When you kill people in their millions, well, fortunes of war and all that. I think it detracts from the story. I think it would be better if Verdoux merely stuck to the truth--he's killing these women because he wants their money and doesn't think they deserve to stand in the way of his own comfort. That is a horrible truth, and perhaps Chaplin didn't want to play a character possessed of it, but it is why Verdoux does what he does. Doubtless Annabella's greatest crime was preventing him from marrying another victim.
Of note is that the wife and child disappear. He tells The Girl (Marilyn Nash, who died last month) that he lost them earlier, but it's never quite clear how. There is speculation on the internet that he killed them, which would also explain why he is so calm about going to the guillotine at the end of the picture. He is not atoning for the wealthy victims, as he feels no remorse at their deaths. But if he killed his wife and son so they would not have to live in poverty, that would be something for which he would feel regret. Some people comment with surprise that he doesn't kill The Girl, but why would he? He kills because he can get something out of it. There is nothing to be gained from killing The Girl at any point at which he meets her. But it is still possible that his wife and child might be spared from suffering, and it is possible that he is the one who did it. In a new way, since the supply of rich victims dried up at an inopportune moment.
Possibly the real reason this made all three lists is that it is the movie with which Chaplin was hoping to escape the Tramp. An advertising slogan which pops up frequently in the bonus materials for the DVD (and any DVD designer should have enough good sense to always have an indicator for what you're about to select somewhere) is "Chaplin Changed--Can You?" Even [i]The Great Dictator[/i] had a Tramp-like character, if not the Tramp himself, and this film doesn't. Verdoux is suave, debonair, and amoral. Early in the story, he is tending his roses while what we can only assume is one of his victims burns in the incinerator behind him; he assures Inspector Morrow (Charles Evans) that the bodies will never be found. (And makes the same [i]corpus delicti[/i] error that everyone else does, alas.) Not the Tramp at all. And it's entirely possible that that absence, more than the possible presence of dirty, dirty Commies, is what destroyed this film at the box office. In fact, it wouldn't surprise me at all.