Monsieur Verdoux

Monsieur Verdoux (1947) Director: Charlie Chaplin

“Wars, conflict – it’s all business. One murder makes a villain; millions, a hero. Numbers sanctify, my good fellow!”

★★★★☆

Charlie Chaplin was a man of immense contradiction –he was one of the richest men of his generation who nevertheless arose from the direst of impoverished circumstances, and yet he spent a great deal of time critiquing and deconstructing the very middle-class mores of Western capitalism which launched him to stardom (while still battling tax collectors to maintain his own private wealth all along the way). This great immense contradiction of character is captured in Chaplin’s controversial and odd character of Henri Verdoux, a self-proclaimed “liquidator” of women who lives a lavish Parisian life. Monsieur Verdoux represents Chaplin’s transformation from beloved “Little Tramp” to villainous social monster in a not-so-subtle critique of upper-class society. Mr. Verdoux (or any number of his aliases “Varnay” or “Bonheur” or “Floray”) is an organized, ruthless criminal who travels the world seducing wealthy women in order to rob and murder them, all the while maintaining the facade of perfect gentlemanliness. As he continues his travels, so do we see the wheels of a train chugging along (perhaps a nod to Abel Gance’s The Wheel) yet curiously Verdoux does it all for his invalid wife and daughter. Whereas the Tramp character was eternally optimistic yet possessing of nothing, Verdoux is married with stolen riches and he has a dark, cynical view of the world. In the end, Monsieur Verdoux is brought to justice as he is led away to the guillotine.

The idea for Monsieur Verdoux was actually brought to Chaplin by Orson Welles (though the exact story of the suggestion was always told differently whether by Chaplin or Welles). The character is loosely based on Henry “Bluebeard” Landru, the notorious French murderer. Chaplin later professed his intent with the film was to “understand crime and the nature of crime.” Upon release, defenses of Monsieur Verdoux came primarily from corners of the American left as well as in France (Andre Bazin made careful note of the film’s complete inversion of Chaplin’s prior work), however amidst scurrilous tabloid reports and a growing rumor that Chaplin was a secret communist, Monsier Verdoux was widely panned in America, and even boycotted in some cases though I found this film was brilliant.

At the time of the film’s release, J. Edgar Hoover was trailing Chaplin with a public smear campaign for possible ties to communism (thanks to George Orwell secretly naming Chaplin as a sympathizer), and Chaplin was hit with a paternity lawsuit from another young and erratic actress named Joan Barry (at the time of their affair Chaplin was 52 and she was 22 years-old) and to top it all off two weeks after the lawsuit Chaplin got married for the fourth and final time, this time to the teenaged daughter of Eugene O’Neill, Oona O’Neill (they celebrated their nuptials about one month after she turned 18, and the 36-year age gap between Chaplin and O’Neill caused quite a scandal).

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