“Chaplin changes! Can you?” – posters heralded all over the world in 1947 before Chaplin’s latest film, Monsieur Verdoux was released. His change was quite a drastic one and it soon turned out that the public wasn’t ready to see their favourite Little Tramp turn into a sarcastic French serial killer.
Monsieur Henri Verdoux’s profession is rather unusual – it consists of marrying and killing wealthy old ladies in order to inherit their money. After being fired from his position as a bank clerk, this is his only way to support his handicapped wife and little boy who are waiting for his visits from “work” every month. Verdoux doesn’t realize what a horrible human being he has turned into until he meets a young prostitute who changes his perspective.
This extraordinary character, so out of place in a Chaplin movie, is slightly based on a real French murderer, Henri Landru, and the idea of making a film on his life was first recommended to Chaplin by Orson Welles in 1941. Chaplin remembered their conversation like this in his autobiography:
Orson Welles came to the house with a proposition, explaining that he thought of doing a series of documentaries, stories of real life, one to be on the celebrated French murderer, Bluebeard Landru, which he thought would be a wonderful dramatic part for me. ‘I’m not interested,’ I said, and the matter ended there. But a day or so later it struck me that the idea of Landru would make a wonderful comedy. So I telephoned Welles. ‘Look, your proposed documentary about Landru has given me an idea for a comedy. It has nothing to do with Landru, but to clear everything I am willing to pay you five thousand dollars, only because your proposition made me think of it.
This was the beginning of Chaplin’s engagement in a project that took him almost four years to finish. During this period he entered one of the darkest chapters in his life. As McCarthyism started to spread all over America, he was labeled as a communist and the authorities were trying hard to destroy his career. They were doing their job successfully and Chaplin was soon entangled in a paternity suit that ruined his reputation for a very long time.
It’s no wonder that the optimistic view of the early Chaplin movies and the Little Tramp’s faith in the power of smile is gone. Years before, Chaplin started The Kid with the intertitle: “A picture with a smile and perhaps, a tear.” Monsieur Verdoux opens with a simpler description: “Comedy of murders”. However, this film is hardly a comedy. It is more like a bitter criticism on society, with Chaplin’s comedic instinct forcing its way from time to time.
On the whole Monsieur Verdoux might not look like a villain at all. He’s the perfect French gentleman – well-dressed, neatly shaved and well-mannered. It’s his relation to crime that shows his evil self, as the way he carries out his murders reveals nothing but accuracy and calmness. He doesn’t seem the least affected; his rigid way of counting the income seems like the everyday routine of an occupied businessman. Though he looks like a man who can’t make a mistake Chaplin occasionally makes him ridiculous. Yet, these rare moments of laughter don’t weaken the power of Monsieur Verdoux which lies in his coolness under all circumstances.
To sum it up, Monsieur Verdoux’s character is far from straightforward. Even though the body of his latest victim is burning in the boiler he avoids stepping on a worm in his well-kept garden. Later when he sees his son torturing a cat, he tells him with disapproval “There’s a cruel streak in you. I wonder where you get it.” These scenes show Chaplin’s intention to make Verdoux be unaware of the weight of his crimes. He merely considers them a job to be done. The speech he delivers at the end of his trial reassures the viewer that Verdoux thinks he’s not guiltier than most mass killers celebrated all around the world.
For thirty-five years I used my brains honestly. After that, nobody wanted them. So I was forced to go into business for myself. As for being a mass killer, does not the world encourage it? Is it not building weapons of destruction for the sole purpose of mass killing? Has it not blown unsuspecting women and little children to pieces? And done it very scientifically? As a mass killer, I am an amateur by comparison. However, I do not wish to lose my temper, because very shortly, I shall lose my head. Nevertheless, upon leaving this spark of earthly existence, I have this to say: I shall see you all… very soon… very soon.
After the speech was criticized by the Breen Censorship Office, Chaplin described it this way in a letter to Mr. Breen, the head of the censors.
The question is a philosophical and not a moral one. I doubt that anyone, including the devisers of the Production Code, can determine what exactly is right or wrong. The dialogues of Plato have struggled with that theme. Verdoux’s enunciation of his crime, what he does, and what he says, are legitimately within the realms of characterization. They do not connote the message of the story, which is the story of a weak character with latent criminal tendencies, aggravated by the conditions of the times. Depression, wars, economic insecurity and frustration bring out these criminal tendencies, and set him on a path of crime.
Nevertheless, Mr. Breen almost banned the film as a whole. Eventually he allowed Chaplin to start filming after he sent him a long list of points that were to be corrected, including references to a man and his wife sharing the same bed and prostitution. Chaplin obeyed willingly because he was still sure that “a good comedy would solve all my troubles”.
Unfortunately his prediction proved to be wrong. Monsieur Verdoux was a commercial failure and also the target of the press, receiving mostly negative reviews. After having a terrible night at the opening, Chaplin chose to fight against his offenders instead of sinking into disappointment. He was determined to prove that Monsieur Verdoux was an exceptional movie and that its message was worth being listened to. He insisted on its special quality even as late as 1964 when he was penning his autobiography. He wrote: “I believe Monsieur Verdoux is the cleverest and most brilliant film I have yet made”. Only years later had he the courage to admit that the movie had its faults. As he described, he failed to consider the public’s expectations.
There was no identification for the audience. That was a mistake. Now as time goes on, I like it less. I’m terrifically influenced by the public. Unconsciously they were aggravated, and I have a profound respect for that. They don’t know why. It’s our business to know why.
Monsieur Verdoux is certainly not a perfect movie, just as its main character is far from perfect. Verdoux is the victim of the wars and crises that strike the world every day. So was Chaplin in the days he made this film in an attempt to reveal the dark side of our society.
My regular Chaplin sources: David Robinson: Chaplin – His Life and Art; Paul Duncan: The Charlie Chaplin Archives; Chaplin: My Autobiography; Sources of pictures: photo.charliechaplin; ensalada-de-lengua-de-parajitos; doman.pl