Monday, 27 February 2017


Shortly after his roaring success with The Great Dictator, in 1941 Charlie Chaplin was approached with an intriguing offer by Orson Welles. He had an idea for a dramatized documentary about the notorious French wife-murdering Bluebeard Henri Désiré Landru, who preyed on wealthy widows between 1914-1919, killing ten plus one of their sons and burning their bodies in his oven before being convicted and guillotined in 1921. Chaplin paid Welles $5000 for his idea, though Welles later claimed insubstantially he had written a script for the film. Nevertheless, as agreed, the resulting film carried the credit ‘Based on an idea by Orson Welles’. It took a further four years for Chaplin to write the screenplay. The central character bore a strong resemblance to Landru as a suave furniture dealer almost succeeding in managing a secure idyllic home life whilst juggling numerous other wives and prospective rich partners unbeknownst to his wife. His ultimate capture following the active suspicion of one of the victim’s families was also used in his fictional downfall.

Partly the delay in writing Monsieur Verdoux was due to Chaplin grappling with the real-life distasteful details of a paternity suit brought against him by ingénue actress Joan Barry, but in these years he also found his happiest marriage of all with Oona O’Neill, daughter of the celebrated playwright Eugene O’Neill.

Further damaging controversy would dog Chaplin though from the submission of his script through till the final film’s reception. Joseph Breen’s Production Code office received the screenplay in March 1946 and initially refused it outright as “it impugns the present-day social structure”, an unfair position as the film takes between between WWI and WWII. In the end, the board relented yet still took their pound of flesh by prudishly demanding the removal of any reference to the screen couples sleeping together or any suggestion that Marilyn Nash as The Girl would succumb to prostitution. 

Whilst Chaplin negotiated with the Breen Office, there were storm clouds gathering that brought America into the war and brooded over a gradual industry shift toward paranoid levels of patriotism that targeted anyone whose work was critical of the war effort. Monsieur Verdoux and his creator would soon come under the spotlight for his sympathy toward Communism to ruinous effect.
At least Chaplin’s actual filming became his fastest and least troublesome of all of his features. The previously elephantine schedules he had enjoyed as financier of his own films had to be disciplined due to war austerity and the high cost of film stock that had once allowed him the luxury of experimenting on film. Now for the first time he was obliged to come to set with a finished script and precise storyboards of camera angles to avoid unnecessary wastage. To aid him in the design of authentic French sets, Chaplin brought in Robert Frankenstein Florey, whom we last saw directing The Face Behind the Mask (see my review of 16/1/2017). Principal shooting wrapped in just three months.

Subtitled ‘A comedy of murders’ Monsieur Verdoux is a curiosity and not always easy to define. For example. the elegant French gent he plays is an effete, somewhat camp individual and yet most definitely and fatally a ladies man. Narrating after his death from a tombstone opening shot, he declares in clipped tones that as far as being a Bluebeard goes, “liquidating members of the opposite sex”, such business is so ultimately unrewarding that ““only a person of undaunted optimism would embark on such an adventure”. The story that unfolds though is a combination of lightness of morality from its hero and a black-humoured, despondent gloom that permeates almost every character.

We are introduced to the family of one of Verdoux’s wealthy, vanished victims who suspect she has disappeared at the hands of her strange new beau. The Police Judiciare have spotted the connection between twelve preyed-on females and what could be one culprit but there is no enough evidence for Detective Morrow (an imposing Charles Evans) to make an arrest.

We then get to see the Monsieur himself in action as he shows Isobel Elsom’s Marie Grosnay around the house he intends to sell her. Meanwhile, he quickly establishes with overwhelming ardour that he is on the menu as well, to the point where she leaves in decided uncomfortability. Chaplin’s characterisation is a graceful dance partner of seduction, albeit a little too much for this prospective conquest. He gushes with praise and fulsome attention, practically skipping around his target like a maiden around the maypole. Clothed in exquisite finery, often sporting a smoking jacket with cravat, he is a dapper dude of refinery from his fingertips to the almost Dali-esque moustache (the first time he had ever actually grown one for a part).
“You must have made a killing”, observes an old employee friend from the bank where Verdoux once clerked before being fired. He presents a meticulous image of prosperity, one that Chaplin has also been careful to construct as funded by ill-gotten gains that were morally acceptable in supporting a family – but potentially which one?

It is easy to see how so many ladies have fallen for Verdoux’s charm, especially those who are widowed and vulnerable. Money gives no succour – and yet sucker it seems is the approach on Chaplin’s mind when he sketches out his females in the film. Most of them are drawn to represent unattractive and gullible marks to be exploited while his machinations are drawn with maximum sympathy in mind. His battle-axe wife Lydia Floray (a vivid Margaret Hoffman) is shrewd enough to spit venom at him when he shows up after a long absence, and yet he easily cons her out of her last 70,000 Francs with panic-mongering about a bank collapse without any proof. His murder of her is undertaken with admirable restraint though after he waxes lyrical to the moon outside her door: “How beautiful, this pale Endymion hour”. It is a beautifully composed shot, lingering before he enters the bedroom with off-screen homicide in mind. Floray’s mood-puncturing response: “Forget about him and get to bed” was one of those resulting from the censorship (the line should have been ‘and come to bed’).

Any dislike we may have of Verdoux’s duplicity is cunningly managed by supplying him with a lovely and devoted wife Mona (Mady Corell) - disabled as well – and a charming son Peter (Allison Roddan) for whom he works so secretively. “What a relief to get away from the jungle fight”, he affects as he slumps in affected tiredness into a homely armchair. Whilst preserving his family arguably gives him motive – “It’s not easy for a man of my age to make a living” - there is a flip-side of conned innocence in her that could incur a debatable charge of misogyny in the writing.
This subtext potentially gains more traction when we see that even Mme Grosnay, the house-hunter of the tingling spider-sense, has her suspicions erased by a few deliveries of flowers. She is soon also won over, as is the florist in a subtle moment when Verdoux multi-tasks his wooing by dictating an accompanying note for Grosnay and looking at her at the same time.

The other wife victim painted in less than wholly sympathetic terms is famous comedienne Martha Raye’s marvellously brassy dame Annabella Bonheur. A former big band vocalist with a celebrated mouth to match, Raye is perfectly cast as a coarse energetic vulgarian but with the street smarts to protect her own business. Through her, we fittingly get one of the film’s most physical comedy scenes when there is a mix-up of Hydrogen Peroxide bottles between he and the maid that scuppers his latest wife poisoning and backfires into convincing him he has become the victim. He gasps out loud for his wife, Annabella not realising he doesn’t mean her.

The one female in the cast who is shown as a match for Verdoux is the aforementioned Marilyn Nash. She is a pivotal character in that when he takes her in off the street from an artfully-disguised hint of prostitution (the Production Code again), she does not accept his hard-bitten view of women or the world as a whole. Somehow with her Verdoux’s veneer of success and charm cracks and we, through her, are allowed into his overt misogyny and cynicism:

“I love women, but I don’t admire them. Women are of the earth, realistic, dominated by physical facts. Once a woman betrays a man, she despises him - in spite of his goodness and position, she will give him up for someone inferior. That someone is more, shall we say, attractive…”

The Girl (she has no script name) gently disagrees, citing love for its sacrificial value, giving the example of a mother’s selfless love for a child. This would seem lame were it not for the fact that much later she will meet him again when their circumstances are reversed and she can repay his nourishing kindness a little.

Raye gets another chance to lighten the doom-laden tone when she and Verdoux take a boat out together. As he attempts in vain to lasso Annabella with a rope-tied stone to drown her, Chaplin hilariously recalls his Little Tramp’s desperate bid for the telephone, unseen by the glowering Eric Campbell, in Easy Street (1917). Alas, she is unsinkable.

The final act has one more relatively upbeat farce sequence during Verdoux’s wedding day with Mme Grosnay. The chickens almost come home to roost when Annabella shows up as a guest, yet Verdoux pretends a bout of cramps to dodge being recognised by her.
Ultimately crime must not pay; the stock market crash wipes him out, and after a montage of stock footage indicating the rise of Hitler, Mussolini and advancing age, our Monsieur’s race is run. The loss of his wife and child after the Depression has pierced his survivalist’s armour, and the reunion with the Girl has restored some humanity to him: “Everyone needs love” he admits to her.

Inevitably Verdoux must face his life’s consequences and he is tried and sentenced for his murders. There is an indomitable quality in the final statement to his peers in the court-room where he still clings to the life philosophy that has justified him to the mirror every day since he embarked on the mass-murderers’ path. He invokes the hypocrisy of governments who sanction killing under the guise of war: “As a mass killer, I’m an amateur by comparison” before leaving them a defiant parting shot: “I shall see you all very soon”.

This unapologetic commentary is expanded in Verdoux’s cell to a reporter before his execution in the most quoted dialogue of the film: “One murder makes a villain. Millions a hero. Numbers sanctify, my good fellow”. As a companion piece to The Great Dictator, the dark spin he puts on society’s own moral justifications is fascinating. Whereas in the previous film he was, in a sense, an innocent appealing to the corrupted to change their ways and his fellows to defy those who would pervert us, now he was of the dark side and unrepentantly claiming “You made me this way. Don’t judge me for my response. You are far worse”. For good measure, he even challenges the priest that he would have no role if there were no sins to absolve. And with that, Monsieur Verdoux exits the cell in a pristine white shirt reminiscent of Charles I’s dignity at all costs, and takes his logic to the guillotine.

Believed in its maker’s characteristic self-confidence to be:“the cleverest and most brilliant film of my career”, Monsieur Verdoux’s release was very successful in Europe. However, the American reception was overshadowed by a press conference during which journalists ignored the film and instead used the platform to interrogate about his taxes, political affiliations and why he had never sought American citizenship. Demonstrations attacking him were organised outside cinemas; one newspaper reported that he had ‘offended the Independent Theatre Owners of Ohio. The group, owners of 325 movie houses, urged all other U.S. theatre owners to boycott Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux’

The year of the film's release also saw the first hearings of the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee that would tear apart the fabric of Hollywood, turning many creative artists against each other and devastating the livelihoods in a dubiously motivated search for Communist sympathisers.

His controversial private life and victimhood of American political intolerance forced Chaplin into self-imposed exile in Switzerland in 1952 till he himself was re-assessed as the genius he was and was awarded by a forgiving industry in 1972 with an Honorary Academy Award. Despite initial misgivings, Chaplin returned to America for the first time in twenty years to accept it in a spirit of forgiveness.

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