Charlie Chaplin in MONSIEUR VERDOUX (1947) – Way too lovable of a killer

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The following is my entry in the “Contrary to Popular Opinion Blogathon” being held at the blog Sister Celluloid on Jan. 17 and 18. The blogathon’s purpose is to laud some critically un-acclaimed movies, as well as take some long-regarded-as-classic movies down a notch or two. Click on the image above to visit the blogathon, and watch (or read) the fur fly!

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Am I the only one who thinks Monsieur Verdoux is overblown and overrated? When it was first released in 1947, there was no way it could be fairly judged critically; Chaplin’s reputation as a supposed philanderer and Communist gave him and his movie no chance in the public court. Then the movie was re-released in 1964 and 1972, and a world that had had to suffer through the scare of The Bomb and the relentlessness of the Vietnam War was all too eager to embrace its black comedy.

Yet the primary problem with Verdoux is that everyone salutes its intentions rather than its execution. We are told that Verdoux (played, of course, by Chaplin) was a bank clerk who lost his job in the Great Depression. Then, in order to support his invalid wife and young son, Verdoux began a double life, wooing and marrying rich women, murdering them, covering his tracks, and snatching their fortunes.

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And that’s the problem: Throughout most of the movie, we’re told everything rather than having it shown to us. The movie begins with a shot of Verdoux’s tombstone, followed by Verdoux’s off-screen voice hurriedly starting his narration of the story, as if Chaplin had such a whopper of a tale on his hands that he couldn’t wait to get started. (For all of the movie’s ballyhooed black comedy, Chaplin doesn’t even have the wit to use his beyond-the-grave narration as a gag, as director Billy Wilder would do with William Holden in Sunset Boulevard [1950]).

Then we get a real lulu of an exposition: a few loud minutes of the Couvais family, whom we’re told are vintners but bicker like the cast of a white-trash reality TV show. It seems that a member of their family was taken in by Verdoux’s winning ways, and why did she clean out her bank account and then suddenly disappear?

The answer lies in Verdoux’s outdoor incinerator, which annoys his female neighbors because the smoke won’t allow them to hang out their laundry, but they’re too charmed by Verdoux to complain. And there’s Verdoux tending his garden, nearly stepping on a caterpillar and then moving it to a safe place. He cares for the life of a small creature but not a human being. Ah, the irony!

And therein lies the other main problem with the movie: In a story where woman after woman is being knocked off, it’s all about how Verdoux feels. Upon his first meeting with Madame Grosnay (Isobel Elsom), Verdoux falls all over himself (literally – and her as well) trying to convince us what a mesmerizing lover he is, and it gets to be pretty embarrassing to watch.

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When Verdoux wants to try out a new poison, he picks up a lonely woman (Marilyn Nash) off the street. At Verdoux’s apartment, they have an endlessly dreary philosophical conversation that, nevertheless, charms Verdoux so much that he decides not to poison her (the old softie!).Nash, by the way, is beautiful but wooden, and the latter adjective applies to most of the cast.

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In fact, the only time the movie brightens up and is about something other than Verdoux and his wonderfulness is when Martha Raye blasts onto the screen. As Annabelle, Verdoux’s erstwhile murder victim who never realizes how lucky she really is, Raye cuts through the movie’s pretentiousness and gives it the black-comedy liveliness it aimed for all along. (Apparently, Raye was just as brash in real life, referring to Chaplin on the set as “Chuck” and miraculously getting away with it.) Other than Raye and a dryly humorous scene between Chaplin and William Frawley (four years before he attained TV immortality in “I Love Lucy”), the rest of the cast is dull as dishwater.

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Finally, there’s the movie’s infamous wrap-up, in which Chaplin/Verdoux scores points off every nearby target. At his court sentencing, Verdoux gives an eye-rolling speech in which he compares his own killings with those of wars and declares himself “an amateur” by comparison. (But if he really believes he’s an amateur, why bring up the point at all?) Verdoux continues his smugness right to the end, trading barbs with a reporter (Herb Vigran, later a very recognizable TV character actor) and even the priest who has come to perform Verdoux’s last rites. Chaplin presents Verdoux as completely sound and rational, even as he has the last word over God.

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Over the years, many critics and moviegoers have criticized this movie for its antiquated cinematic “vocabulary” (the constant shot of train wheels to symbolize scene changes, etc.). None of that would matter if the story and characters were more compelling. Even more than its follow-up Limelight, Monsieur Verdoux is Chaplin at his most verbose and smugly superior – even when he’s portraying a sociopathic murderer.

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12 responses to “Charlie Chaplin in MONSIEUR VERDOUX (1947) – Way too lovable of a killer

  1. Pingback: The “Contrary to Popular Opinion” Blogathon Is Here! | Sister Celluloid

  2. You either love Chaplin or hate him. Especially this film. It did not do well at the box office and even critics were left cold. Still for my money, I think it is one of his best films. You can imagine the outcry after the war, when thousands of love ones, who had lost members of their family, see Chaplin preach to them that they all died for a lie. Many didn’t get it, many still don’t. It is a satire, a denouncement of all wars. It is one of the greatest antiwar films of all time. Is it crude at times, especially from such a meticulous craftsman, perhaps? It is never dull and the wit is acid to say the least, but it’s also heartfelt too. The late Chaplin films, the ones after this, fell into sentimentality. The silent films after the first World War saw him at his height the greatest film-maker of his generation. Films like, Modern Times, The Goldrush, and City Lights, will always be regarded as his masterpieces, but I think Verdoux belongs to be put up there with his best.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. This is one I’ve been reluctant to revisit for a long time, because I love Chaplin and dislike sitting through his disappointing movies; I remember not loving this one but always wanted to go back (You know the phenomenon: “It wasn’t that bad, was it…?”) and give it another shot.

    Interesting you mention the narration, too; for me, when he re-did “The Gold Rush” with narration it absolutely destroyed what is a great silent movie. The changeover to sound really did throw him–though I will say he did very well by it with “The Great Dictator.”

    Liked by 1 person

  4. “Yet the primary problem with Verdoux is that everyone salutes its intentions rather than its execution.” Here, you have hit the nail on the head. I first saw the movie when I was a pre-teen and I do thank it (Chaplin) for surprising me by making me realize I could laugh at murder. It opened my mind to other true cinematic delights (Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Ladykillers), but even at a young age I found the ending unbearably uncomfortable.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Yes, exactly—intentions do not a great (or even good) film make. I want to like it, I love Chaplin, but I’m with you that it’s rather a mess. If we’re supposed to feel sympathetic to Verdoux, we have to have contempt for his victims. If we’re not supposed to feel positive toward Verdoux, well, no, we’re supposed to be with him.

    Martha Raye does bring the only breath of anarchic comedy and joy into the proceedings. She’s just too vital to die.

    Making a less-than-great movie doesn’t diminish the greatness of the director, and this film doesn’t cast a shadow over any of Chaplin’s masterpieces. Most directors’ work declines as they get older; not sure why unless it’s that directing is so taxing that you need enormous physical energy to do it well.

    I first saw it on its 1972 rerelease, as a teenager, and was just perplexed. Have seen it a couple of times since and it still doesn’t work for me.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Certainly a movie that comes with so much ‘weight’ (both Chaplin’s name and the historical contexts) that you feel obliged to like it. Certainly I watched and didn’t really question, but your post has certainly made me think about it afresh.
    The point you make about telling rather than showing is also a problem I have with Citizen Kane (which I personally dislike!), but my biggest issue is they way that I, as a viewer, am manipulated into pitying and felling compassion towards Chaplin’s character.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. You are correct, we totally disagreed on this film! I think that’s what makes what we do so interesting, everyone has their own unique relationship with a film, films resonate differently with each viewer. Thanks for directing me to your post, I enjoyed reading it, BUT I STILL LOVE THIS MOVIE! 🙂

    -Summer

    Liked by 2 people

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