Monsieur Verdoux (1947)
Monsieur Verdoux (1947)

Genre: Crime Comedy Running Time: 2 hrs. 4 min.

Release Date: April 11th, 1947 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: Charles Chaplin Actors: Charles Chaplin, Mady Correll, Allison Roddan, Robert Lewis, Audrey Betz, Martha Raye, Ada-May, Isobel Elsom, Marjorie Bennett, Helene Heigh

 


 

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onsieur Verdoux, having lived from 1880-1937, regales the audience with his tale of life, death, and murder. Starting off as an honest bank clerk for 35 years, until the depression of 1930 put him out of work, Henri Verdoux (Charles Chaplin) becomes engaged in the business enterprise of liquidating the opposite sex. His undaunted optimism allows him to embark on such a morbid adventure, though he claims it was certainly not as profitable as it should have been.

The Couvais family, wine merchants somewhere in the North of France, wonder about their daughter Thelma, who has wandered off with recent husband Verdoux after having known him for only two weeks. Supposedly honeymooning, she’s withdrawn all of her money from the bank and refused to journey back to her former home. At a small villa in the South of France, Verdoux stays in isolation under the alias Varnay, save for a recently hired maid; he’s attempting to sell the house after the death of his wife due to a heart attack. The authorities, led by Detective Morrow (Charles Evans) have been tracking the disappearances of numerous women, seemingly all having been recently married to the same mystery man before vanishing permanently. As financial woes catch up to him, Henri revisits previously abandoned women to claim their savings and dispose of their bodies. His first wife, of 10 years, Mona (Mady Correll), a wheelchair-bound woman with whom he has a son, Peter (Allison Roddan), is his primary cover, who remains completely in the dark about his extracurricular hobbies and lack of a real job.

“You must have made a killing!” exclaims a former employer, chatting with Verdoux about his endeavors in the Paris stock exchange. The dialogue is clever and sinister, marking this sound film as Chaplin’s blackest comedy. It’s actually rarely funny, until Verdoux’s scheming is repeatedly, accidentally spoiled late in the film as he deals with his most annoying wife, Annabella Bonheur (Martha Raye), with her bellowing laugh. Sporting a suit and tie instead of his usual unkempt tramp fashion (though he still brandishes a hat and cane), he’s an exquisite antihero, managing to remain absorbing despite his evilly murderous activities. It’s unlike any of Chaplin’s other projects, telling a story that doesn’t play on emotions or exhibit pathos or sentiment as much as simply following a standard plot – of deviousness as a way of life for an opportunistic criminal.

Based on an idea by Orson Welles, Charlie Chaplin’s “Monsieur Verdoux” is an eccentric, airier take on Bluebeard, with the titular character assuming multiple identities to eliminate his spouses in a string of mass killings. Here, he does so remorselessly for meager profits that are quickly exhausted – and never exhibits a beard in the process. He’s a boat captain, a furniture salesman, an international geographical society explorer, a chemist, a philanthropist, and a charmer, deepening in intentions and motives when, in the film’s greatest moment, he’s beguiled by a poor girl (Marilyn Nash) on the streets, whom he plots to kill – only to be truly moved by her genuine belief in love and hope.

It’s a surprising twist on what could have been an ordinary chronicling of a doomed fugitive desperate to evade justice for as long as possible. The finale takes another turn, morphing into a hilariously nerve-wracking cat-and-mouse game as Verdoux struggles fiercely to avoid running into one of his wives at his wedding to yet another. It’s quite a conundrum: a Chaplin comedy-drama that only resembles one after halfway into the plot, starting slowly but eventually embracing its identity as a project of creativity, intelligence, and wit, befitting of the artist’s body of work. The conclusion, borrowing adapted lines from “The Great Dictator,” is a little disappointing, however, failing to match the power of his previous efforts – though every scene with Nash momentarily transports “Monsieur Verdoux” back into the same arena as Chaplin’s silent classics.

– Mike Massie

  • 7/10