Chaplin and Crime: Planting the Seeds for Monsieur Verdoux
By Lisa Stein Haven
In 1947, Charlie Chaplin made the film Monsieur Verdoux; the film’s title character, played by Chaplin, is a serial seducer and killer of wealthy women. Critics have long found irresistible the idea that the film was a reaction by Chaplin to his frequent difficulties with members of the female sex—and in particular to his recent experiences in the American legal system with the actor Joan Barry, who claimed he was the father of her child, leading to two court cases and several years of stress and character assassination for him. But the fact is that Chaplin had a lifelong fascination with crime stories and prisons, dating all the way back to his childhood in turn-of-the-twentieth-century London, a city still reeling from the Jack the Ripper murders and where “penny dreadfuls” (cheaply produced books containing suspenseful tales of murder and mayhem) were a readily available form of entertainment. And the character of Verdoux was inspired by the real-life murderer Henri Landru, whose story Chaplin had some connections to and may have been interested in for years. Coming at a point in his career when the filmmakerhad achieved many of his creative goals, Monsieur Verdoux was an expression of a lifelong passion, an opportunity not to wreak revenge on womankind but to bring a murder mystery to film.