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A Second Look: 'Monsieur Verdoux' was Charlie Chaplin's undoing

The 1947 film in which the star directed and played as a serial killer was almost universally panned upon its release, then re-released in the 1960s to a different response.

March 30, 2013|By Dennis Lim
  • Charles Chaplin in "Monsiuer Verdoux."
Charles Chaplin in "Monsiuer Verdoux." (Handout )

With his 1947 provocation "Monsieur Verdoux," Charlie Chaplin completed a remarkable transformation from the universally beloved Little Tramp to a vilified monster both on-screen and off.

In the most polarizing film of his career, just issued on DVD by the Criterion Collection, Chaplin plays the title character, a bank clerk who loses his job and finds a new business in murder — "liquidating members of the opposite sex," as he puts it.

Loosely modeled on the French Bluebeard and tabloid sensation Henri Landru, Verdoux is an unlikely Don Juan, a dapper polygamist and serial killer with a young son and handicapped wife whom he supports by marrying — and dispatching — a series of wealthy, gullible matrons.

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An icy, elegant black comedy, the film builds to a lengthy philosophical indictment of the sins of modern capitalism. Captured and bound for the guillotine, Verdoux is persuaded by a reporter to deliver a death-row valediction, "a story with a moral." In the ensuing monologue, he declares his own crimes trivial within the context of a murderous society: "As a mass killer I'm an amateur by comparison."

The Landru project originated with Orson Welles, who approached Chaplin to star in it. Chaplin, who wanted to direct himself, bought the rights from Welles. While the real-life case transpired in the 1910s, Chaplin — who had satirized Hitler in his previous film, "The Great Dictator" (1940) — updated the story to the 1930s in the aftermath of the stock market crash and against the ominous backdrop of the rise of fascism.

The macabre bleakness of "Monsieur Verdoux" was stubbornly out of step with the popular mood in America, barely two years after a victorious end to World War II. The conditions were also ripe for a Chaplin backlash. In the years since "The Great Dictator," Chaplin had become the subject of a scandalous paternity suit (eventually decided in his favor) and a Red-baiting smear campaign that would only intensify as the Cold War got underway.

At a press conference before the release of "Monsieur Verdoux," Chaplin faced questions about his patriotism (despite being a longtime U.S. resident, he retained British citizenship) and his supposed communist sympathies. What followed were the worst reviews of his career and even calls to boycott the film.

When "Monsieur Verdoux" was re-released in New York in 1964, Chaplin was living in exile in Switzerland, and the film had acquired the aura of a cult classic. In the cultural climate of the '60s — the same year as "Dr. Strangelove," no less — its pitch-black humor and political stance seemed much less jarring. The film's intent to "understand crime and the nature of crime," in Chaplin's words, was one shared by many of the young filmmakers who defined the period, not least from the French and the Japanese New Waves.

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Amid the initial wave of hostility and incomprehension, however, there were perceptive, impassioned reviews from two enormously influential early champions, who paved the way for the '60s revisionists.

"Monsieur Verdoux" became nothing less than a cause for James Agee, who wrote a favorable notice in Time and mounted a systematic three-part defense in the Nation, denouncing the movie's detractors for their conservatism and ignorance. Agee, a fine interpreter of comic acting, saw in "Verdoux" a brilliantly fine-tuned physical performance and a genuinely tragic figure who "respects the standards of the world he despises."

In France the most ardent support came from the critic and theorist Andre Bazin (who would go on to be a founding editor of Cahiers du Cinema). In a long essay, "The Myth of Monsieur Verdoux," excerpted in Criterion's liner notes, Bazin examines the film within the Chaplin mythology and points to its brilliance as an inversion of the entire Chaplin universe.

Where the Charlie persona was socially unadapted, Verdoux was "superadapted" as well as a madman. The supremely socialized Verdoux's criminal behavior was a product of his society — and a reflection of it. As such, his mere existence is a j'accuse, an incrimination of society.

The film's subversiveness is most obvious in the final scene, with Verdoux marched off to his death. In what Bazin calls "the gag that resolves the film," the signature gait of the Little Tramp creeps in. With the realization that "society killed Charlie," as Bazin put it, comes the queasy epiphany that Verdoux is Charlie's opposite, but he was Charlie all along.

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