If all you know about Charlie Chaplin is his Little Tramp character and silent movies containing sight gags involving eating shoes, prepare to be shocked by Monsieur Verdoux. For those already well-versed in all things Chaplin, The Criterion Collection’s newly restored edition of his controversial 1947 film (also available on Blu-ray) will likely be a welcome sight.
Verdoux was the first film in which Chaplin dropped his famous Tramp persona. He plays the title character, a so-called “bluebeard” who moves from one wife to the next, murdering each and using their money to support his actual wife and child. Verdoux was a bank teller for some 30 years before losing his job and turning to this shady practice. It’s a dark premise, one that audiences did not easily warm to in ’47. It wasn’t until years later that its fan base began to grow during revivals in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
The concept was by none other than Orson Welles, based on the real life of French serial killer Henri Désiré Landru. Welles first conceived Monsieur Verdoux as a project he would direct. He offered the lead role to Chaplin, who wasn’t interested in being directed by anyone other than himself. Chaplin purchased the story from Welles and accounts vary regarding how much of Welles original screenplay wound up in the finished film. At any rate, Chaplin is credited with the screenplay (and received an Academy Award nomination for it), while Welles is credited with the “idea.”
Long resistance to the sound era, Verdoux was Chaplin’s second talkie after 1940’s The Great Dictator. He makes the most of the medium here, with witty dialogue that’s consistently well-delivered not only by Chaplin himself but by the skilled supporting cast. Verdoux is a misanthropic monster, a remorseless killer who justifies his actions by claiming they represent a microcosm of society in general. Yet somehow, Chaplin makes Verdoux wickedly irresistible, drawing laughs simply by imbuing his every line with a devilish charm. We see exactly why his future victims, middle-aged widows who are generally well beyond their sell-by date, are so easily wooed by this rose-tending dandy with impeccable taste.
Verdoux’s political themes sparked controversy in ‘47 and continue to be worth debating. Personally, I feel that Chaplin’s apparent equating of a sociopath’s self-serving, cold-blooded murders with the capitalist system in general is a bit overheated. Luckily the film’s many pleasures can be enjoyed without spending too much time thinking about the tacked-on philosophizing. At 124 minutes, the film is overlong, with a few comic set pieces (including a particularly painful fishing scene with Verdoux and one of his brides) that could’ve been trimmed or cut. But overall, Monsieur Verdoux is a lively black comedy that remains dark even 60-plus years later.
Criterion’s supplements convey something of the complex political problems Chaplin was embroiled in concurrent with Verdoux’s release. “Charlie Chaplin and the American Press” is a new, 25-minute long piece that explores the deeply troubled relationship Chaplin had not only with the press but the U.S. government in general. Viewed as a Communist sympathizer, Chaplin had run afoul with the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Being as openly critical of capitalism as he was in Monsieur Verdoux did not help the situation.
Chaplin and the U.S. government continued to clash and by 1952 he was barred from entering the country. “Chaplin Today: Monsieur Verdoux” is a 2003 piece that explores the production of the film and also provides insight into the controversy surrounding the film. Audio interview excerpts with Verdoux co-star Marilyn Nash run about eight minutes and are set to a slide show of related images. Trailers and radio spots round out the extras.
Monsieur Verdoux has survived over the decades as a fascinating black comedy that is easily recommendable, even to general audiences. Those interested in digging a little deeper into its history will find a rich chapter in the life of one of cinema’s most legendary artists. The Criterion Collection’s 37-page booklet is loaded with essays containing additional insights into this Chaplin classic.