“These are desperate days,” confides mass-murdering dandy Henri Verdoux to a companion at one point in Charlie Chaplin’s darkest, loneliest and possibly funniest film. Verdoux quietly demands to be taken at his word when making such a grand pronouncement; as a man who marries rich women just to kill them for their money (in an effort to support an invalid wife and young child), he knows of what he speaks. Stranded somewhere slightly above the tide line of Chaplin’s other works, Monsieur Verdoux maintains a constant faith in an uncertainty and despair that is only deepened by its director’s comic inventiveness. If many of Chaplin’s films rely on evoking, in one way or another, a certain narrative bleakness and humorous savagery, in Verdoux one finds these tendencies developing into a blackly poetic philosophy.
Released in 1947 to a mostly miscomprehending public, it’s easy to imagine that the film’s less than optimistic opinion of human nature and its grim, persistent laughter in the face of the view that “it’s a blundering world and a sad one,” was alienating to audiences prepared to celebrate following the end of the second World War. Though set a decade earlier in the ruinous wake of the world-wide depression of the 1930s, Verdoux uses its memory of the recent war to cast a precognitive shadow over its pre-conflict narrative, glancing back at a continent weighed down by history. The film is not only an account of the moral slippage of one man but the record of a far larger, seemingly uncontrollable escalation, a greater moral confusion, with Chaplin sending his graceful assassin scurrying across the landscape of a Europe teetering on a knife’s edge.
This is the haunting presence of the film, felt at every turn. “What follows is history,” Verdoux tells the viewer during the opening sequence, and it is an opening steeped in death; the first shot is of a cemetery over which we hear him speaking to us cheekily from beyond the grave. He tells the viewer that it was after being fired following 35 years of loyal service as a bank official that he became “occupied liquidating members of the opposite sex.” For him, murder is a business; his job is to do away with “dumb animals,” bourgeois women whose money would be better spent providing for his own family. A scathing satire of capitalist drives and consumerist values, and an indictment of the indulgences of the upper class on par with Renoir’s Rules of the Game, Monsieur Verdoux imagines a man who is at once a victim and an aggressor, the metaphoric cog in the system so aptly envisioned by Chaplin himself years earlier during the “slide into the machine” scene in Modern Times and the angel of death sent to prepare the way for the end of the world.
The brilliance of the repeated sight gag of Verdoux rapidly counting the money of his deceased wives is due to its being both an act of efficient, trained rationality and an expression of a certain giddy enthusiasm—this is Verdoux’s version of post-coital bliss. The film is filled with fascinating conflations—Verdoux the aesthete who quotes poetry, “how beautiful this pale Endimion hour,” as he stares up at the rising moon, preparing to kill the miserly old Lydia Florey, Verdoux the businessman who is in constant touch with his stock brokers as he fondles the money of dead women, Verdoux the loving husband and father who discusses the uses of poisons to painlessly kill mindless things while sharing tea with his wife and neighbors, and Verdoux the gardener, pruning his rose bushes while a chimney churns out black smoke in the distance, rendering the remains of his latest victim into ashes. Chaplin positions Verdoux to align with viewer’s sympathies but insistently complicates such identification. While a charmingly poised and clever man, there is a certain glacial intellectuality to Verdoux that is distancing, if satirically poignant.
Through Verdoux, Chaplin can take swipes at the hypocrisies of a crumbling infrastructure of aristocracy, finance and, as Verdoux puts it, a “monoxide world of speed and confusion,” but one is continually reminded that Verdoux himself relies on the chaos in the world, the disconnection between people. There is Chaplin’s repeated use of a shot of frantically whirling train wheels, symbolic of the systems of modernity that Verdoux must manipulate to carry out his schemes—a parallel to the idyllic scene in the rose garden interrupted by the shot of the chimney pouring out evidence of his terrible industry—and there is the director’s daringly immediate introduction of the kinds of familial relationships one can expect in such a world, as seen in the opening sequence featuring the squabbling family of one of Verdoux’s victims. This scene is reminiscent of W. C. Fields’s caustic view of family life as seen in the opening of The Bank Dick—so much so that one wonders if Chaplin took inspiration from Fields’s film—and it is easy to find oneself identifying with the one figure who expresses a certain style and withering wit in a sea of boorish louts like such a collection of bitter, resentful halfwits as found in the family or Martha Ray’s loud-mouthed, uncouth and un-killable Annabella Bonheur.
Yet however much Chaplin may highlight Verdoux’s perspective as the viewer’s own, when Verdoux walks toward the gallows at the end, the director does not allow the viewer to travel with the doomed man, freezing the camera in place and leaving the viewer to watch discreetly at a distance (and from behind) as Verdoux is led out into the yard of execution. When he dies, Verdoux is alone, though one may well suspect that he prefers it that way, having rejected what to him are the dubious comforts of both the promise of lasting fame by way of a reporter or the promise of salvation by a priest.
While the descriptive phrase “ahead of its time” is all too often dragged out and tacked on to one marginalized film work after another, in the case of Monsieur Verdoux it is perhaps quite appropriate, given not only the film’s lackluster reception in its day, but its surprising formal subtleties. The film’s quite hilarious sense of humor, one part slapstick, one part steely wit, works in fluid conjunction with Chaplin’s bleaker ruminations, and both are still quite contemporary and relevant even while being bound within very specific contexts. Monsieur Verdoux still matters, and it’s still an urgent work of necessary art, and perhaps that is what is most important when calling something an essential film.