Genius comedian-director Charlie Chaplin subtitled Monsieur Verdoux, one of his last efforts, as a çomedy of manners and murders.”
But the tale is much more than just a funny comedy, due to its shifting (intentionally and unintentionally) tone.
It’s Orson Welles who reportedly suggested the idea to Chaplin, opting for a screen credit instead of money. Chaplin later regretted that move.
With “Monsieur Verdoux,” Chaplin made his final, definitive break with the Little Tramp, his iconic character that had brought him fame and fortune, hailing back to the silent era.
When the saga begins, Verdoux is a decent family man living in pre-war France, but in actuality, he’s an original, finding novel, unconventional ways to support his loved ones. Assuming alias, while out of town, he marries a foolish, wealthy older woman, then murders her for the insurance money.
He does this thirteen times with success, but wife number 14, played by the aggressive and resilient Martha Raye, proves impossible to kill.
Chaplin the writer must have realized that he needed additional ideas to enrich the saga. Thus, a subplot develops when Verdoux, planning to test a new poison, chooses the streetwalker Marilyn Nash for his experiment, but when she tells him her sad life story, he gives her money and leaves. Years later, the widowed meets again Nash, now the mistress of a munitions magnate, and new opportunities arise.
Verdoux, finally arrested for his crimes and on trial for his life, argues in his own defense that he is an “amateur” by comparison to those profiteers who build destructive war weapons, claiming: “It’s all business.” “Sentenced to death, Verdoux remains calmly philosophical to the bitter end. The priest prays for God to have mercy on Verdoux’s soul. “Why not?” replies Verdoux cynically. “It belongs to him.”
Chaplin was sure that he could get away with the audacious character of a cold-blood murderer by presenting him as a sympathetic, lovable figure. He changes identities smoothly and skillfully, playing, among others, Henri Verdoux, Varney, Bonheur, Foray, as well as the narrator who links among the episodes.
“Monsieur Verdoux” was released at a time when Chaplin was under political suspicions for his allegedly Communistic ideology and due to the fact that he had never applied for American citizenship. It didn’t help that he movie came out after a much-publicized paternity suit involving Chaplin and Joan Barry.
At the time, the controversial “Monsieur Verdoux” became Chaplin’s first commercial flop. But history has vindicated Chaplin: A new generation of critics reevaluated the picture in the 1960s and 1970s, and subsequently, its status has been elevated as a bold and significant work, well ahead of its time.
Oscar Nominations: 1
Original Screenplay: Charlie Chaplin
Oscar Awards: None
The winner of the Original Screenplay Oscar was Sidney Shelfdon for the Cary Grany comedy, “The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer.”
Black and white
Running time: 125 Minutes
Directed by Charles Chaplin
Screenplay: Orson Welles and Chaplin