Has there ever been a comedy as sophisticated as Monsieur Verdoux? Charles Chaplin, of course, made a career of locating pathos within even the most broadly comic ventures, from the silent revelation in the final moments of City Lights to the iconic irised stroll that closes Modern Times, but with Monsieur Verdoux, his masterpiece, the sad clown finally saw poignancy and laughter cohere. The film follows the titular Verdoux, played with almost screwball loquacity by Chaplin himself, as he gleefully “liquidates members of the opposite sex,” offing a host of wealthy dowagers before summarily usurping their fortunes. But Chaplin elides the violence, excising suggestions of pain, and, in a most audacious gesture, presents his murderous philanderer as a man we’re to ostensibly admire. Or at least a man whose company through the proceedings we’re only happy to relish and enjoy: Though his actions betray ruthlessness and ever-malicious intent, and while his capacity to deceive makes him impossible to trust, his overall manner—the effortless charm of his flirtation, the near-miss clumsiness of his ploys, and especially the philosophical resignation with which he accepts his defeat—nevertheless endears him to us, earning sympathy when we ought to feel contempt.
If one senses a certain hypocrisy at play here, one wouldn’t be mistaken; part of what makes Monsieur Verdoux such a smart and incisive comedy is the way it incites contradictory thoughts and feelings. Because while it’s rather easy to find Verdoux likeable in the moment, it’s considerably more difficult to reconcile oneself to him in the final estimation. This feeling of internal conflict, the friction found between like and self-doubt, ultimately poses the film’s central question: What constitutes morally acceptable behavior in a world where injustice is universal? The point of Verdoux’s conspicuously charming personality isn’t so much to make him appealing as it is to engage critically with that kind of appeal, to question the basis of an audience’s attraction to a character and, even more importantly, to suggest the degree to which that audience will embrace immorality. From scene to scene, Verdoux is depicted as little more than a loose web of sight gags and zany antics, of amusing pratfalls and one-liners delivered with poise; it’s no surprise that such clowning, as eminently performed, seems quite so compelling. But we’re acutely aware throughout that Verdoux is simply playing the part of the cartoon libertine, his on-screen inveigling tactics always foreplay before a fade to black signals death. Murder by ellipsis, with Verdoux duly exonerated.
By the time he’s caught, or rather, by the time he allows himself to be caught, practically giving himself in, Verdoux has long-since exhausted his most reliable (and relatable) social excuse, chiefly that his struggle is one of providing for a family need. And so he suitably broadens the scope of his philosophical justification. “As for being a mass killer,” he testifies on trial, “does not the world encourage it? Is it not building weapons of destruction for the sole purpose of mass killing? Has it not blown women and children to pieces?” As grounds for acquittal, even if only morally, it’s a clever inversion; the point isn’t so much that Verdoux is innocent by comparison, but that, indeed, the world is guilty on the same terms. The state is capable only of enforcing the law as it applies to single cases, and in order to justify its continued usefulness, it’s necessary that a single murderer be punished; that the murderer’s actions are a microcosm for greater murders coded as socially acceptable doesn’t reduce the significance of either. “As a mass killer,” Verdoux notes dryly, “I am an amateur by comparison.” Quite so, but an amateur whose capacity to self-justify is reflected at large as much as the violent acts. “Numbers sanctify” isn’t a declaration of relative innocence, but a condemnation of everything else; the important takeaway is that if we can be charmed by one corrupt man, we can surely be charmed by many. And for what we let slide we should feel contempt.
Monsieur Verdoux arrives on home video in high definition courtesy of Criterion's new 1080p transfer, and the 65-year-old-plus film has never looked better. The effect of the film's sumptuous black-and-white photography is considerably heightened by striking contrast and immense clarity, and with the exception of a few negligible instances of print damage, the image is crystalline, and the black levels are rich and inky throughout, never more evident than in the impeccably tailored tuxedo jackets in which Chaplin's Verdoux is perpetually clad. This monaural linear PCM mix is similarly impressive, boasting great clarity and balance.
The amount of supplemental content licensed by the Chaplin estate for the home-video market makes the Tramp rival only Tupac for most-ever posthumous releases, so it's no surprise that, much like Criterion's releases of Modern Times and The Great Dictator, Monsieur Verdoux arrives on Blu-ray with a bevy of informative special features. First up is a half-hour documentary about Chaplin's struggle with McCarthyism and the Hollywood blacklist entitled "Chaplin Today," which surveys the history of the period in a cursory, but nevertheless illuminating manner. Likewise, "Chaplin and the American Press" explores the narrative arc of Chaplin's reputation in the news from the beginning of his career until his exile from the U.S., examining every profile and press clipping ever published and drawing compelling conclusions from the lot of it. An audio interview with Marilyn Nash is a nice, inessential addition, and a handful of period radio spots are of value as historical curiosities more than as standalone entertainments. A supremely well-written essay by critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky rounds out the set.
Though long considered a minor late film, it's now clear that Monsieur Verdoux is Chaplin's masterpiece, a lark both charming and subtly complex.