Monsieur Verdoux: Sympathy for the Devil

On Film / Essays — Mar 26, 2013

If there is any sympathy for Verdoux, it is to understand crime and the nature of crime. I’d sooner understand it and the nature of it than condemn it.
—Charles Chaplin,
Monsieur Verdoux press conference, April 12, 1947

Swindler, remorseless serial killer, bigamist, committed vegetarian, humanist, devoted husband, misogynist, egoist, cynic, amateur chemist, ersatz philosopher, rube—is there a more paradoxical (or fascinating) character in film history than Henri Verdoux?

The protagonist of Charles Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux (1947) seduces lonely middle-aged women with bad poetry. He marries them, fleeces them, murders them, and disposes of their bodies. Eventually, he surrenders to the cops, and then proceeds to blame everyone but himself. He should be repulsive, but he isn’t. In fact, Verdoux is likable. His bitterness is easy to identify with, and his crimes are so haphazardly executed, every failed murder attempt an extended physical gag, that you can’t help but root for the guy.

But though the film encourages pity and even compassion for Verdoux, it never absolves the little murderer. He is a moral test case; lacking an ethical filter, Verdoux becomes both a truth-telling antihero and an unflattering reflection of the world around him.

He is a criminal conduit, as deluded and amoral as the society he exists in, and yet he always acts of his own free will. He is, in a certain sense, a victim—but he is also undeniably a culprit, accountable for his crimes.

In short, Monsieur Verdoux’s relationship to its title character is complicated. The sharpest and funniest of Chaplin’s audacious late films, it is also the most complex: a comic attack on the middle-class values of success and respectability that crosses from gallows humor into moral inquiry, a film that exposes its protagonist even as it encourages its audience to laugh with him. This intricacy, however, doesn’t mean that Monsieur Verdoux is difficult to follow. It’s structured episodically and tells a straightforward story, beginning with a woman’s disappearance and ending with her murderer walking to the guillotine. Nonessential action—including all but one of the murders and much of the police investigation—is kept offscreen; title cards, montages, and shots of newspaper headlines keep the chronology clear. Visual style is stripped down to elegant essentials; the camera’s pans and glides are unshowy yet perfectly timed, matching Chaplin’s movements beat for beat.

Yes, it’s true that Monsieur Verdoux features something like half a dozen different manglings of the word monsieur and countless clashing accents, and no, the pronunciation of the main character’s first name—is it “Henri” or “Henry”?—isn’t consistent. Yet these eccentricities never register as shortcomings; they’re part of the verbal texture of the film. Many of the sets look artificial, though in a way that heightens the performances instead of undercutting them. When the con man Verdoux stares out at a perfectly circular moon, on what is obviously a painted backdrop, the resulting image—a charlatan against a false sky—packs a poetic punch that would have been impossible had Chaplin chosen to use a real window looking out onto a real cityscape.

Monsieur Verdoux is chock-full of these kinds of junctures, where style and character couple to make a single whole: the dancelike panning of the camera around the kitchen as Verdoux prepares breakfast for two, before remembering that he has already killed his companion; the camera pulling away from a thick wad of francs held in the hands of a mark, followed by a shot that pulls in on Verdoux as he calmly plays the piano; the dollying back from Verdoux’s face as he watches Annabella (Martha Raye) drink what he believes is a glass of poison; the static shot of Verdoux as he waits for the police to recognize him but is instead pushed into a crowd; his dignified final walk to the guillotine, framed from behind in a way that echoes the closing shot of Chaplin’s own Modern Times (1936).

And yet it would be a mistake to confuse Monsieur Verdoux’s perspective with Verdoux’s. Take, for example, the character’s motive. Verdoux, thirty years a bank clerk, invests his ill-gotten money; what doesn’t get eaten up in the stock market he spends on the pleasant country home where his “real” wife and son live. He is, in his own eyes, just a man making ends meet, by any means necessary. But Monsieur Verdoux makes it clear from the first scene at the Verdoux household that the money he kills for is unneeded; his wheelchair-bound wife, Mona, hints that she was just as happy when they were poor, and suggests that if she could choose between wealth and having him around, she’d choose the latter.

In essence, Mona and little Peter are important to Verdoux only because they offer him a false sense of normalcy and a justification for his crimes. He doesn’t kill to make them happy; he kills to assuage his own unhappiness. Mona, who knows as little about Verdoux’s life as his other spouses do, is just another of his victims. The seminal French critic André Bazin, one of Monsieur Verdoux’s most vocal early champions, even went so far as to suggest that Verdoux murders his wife and son. It’s a credible theory, considering that the language with which Verdoux describes their offscreen deaths late in the film is eerily similar to the way in which he talks about poison in earlier scenes—and that, since Verdoux, fearing discovery, has by this point given up the bluebeard trade, they are of no more use to him than the women whose savings he steals.

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The film that became Monsieur Verdoux began as an Orson Welles project, a black comedy based on the life of the French serial killer Henri Landru (1869–1922). Welles wanted Chaplin, who had just released The Great Dictator (1940), to play Landru; Chaplin refused to be directed by anyone but himself and instead bought the rights to the idea from Welles (Chaplin’s interest in the character may have predated this, however; he had been in Paris during Landru’s much-publicized trial in 1921). Chaplin spent the next several years turning this idea into a screenplay, transforming the brutish career criminal Henri Landru into the dapper ex–bank clerk Henri Verdoux.

Chaplin wasn’t the most acrobatic comedian of his era, but he had the best sense of body language. Just look at the Tramp: his costume—bowler, baggy trousers, bamboo cane—may be iconic, but it’s his walk, shrug, and smile that define him; you couldn’t reasonably do a Buster Keaton impression (people would just assume that you were in a bad mood), but all you need for a good Tramp is to point your feet out and shuffle forward. The same talent for pantomime that helped create the Tramp went into inventing Verdoux, who is every bit as physically distinctive as Chaplin’s most famous creation: the way he turns and bows without ever bending his back; how his aristocratic, affected walk gives way to an undignified lunge at moments of desperation; the delicate grip—pinkie fingers pointed out—with which he handles flowers and poison; the unthinking speed and precision with which he counts money.

But unlike the Tramp, Verdoux talks—and he talks a lot. Chaplin’s voice was a beautiful instrument, delicate but rich, with diction so crisp that you could hear the punctuation marks. He never used it to better effect; Verdoux’s pretentious flattery, misunderstood asides, and ad-libbed deceptions play like comic music. This voice finds its complementary opposite in the big, brassy tones of Martha Raye, whose Annabella Bonheur is the vulgar, oblivious foil to Verdoux’s devious fop. Both vaudeville veterans, Chaplin and Raye achieve a rich comic rhythm in their scenes together. They have the dynamic of a great comic duo: he tries to restrain himself, she’s obnoxious; he’s cynical, she’s gullible; he detests her, she seems to genuinely like him.

Monsieur Verdoux boasts what’s arguably the finest supporting cast ever assembled for a Chaplin film—from Margaret Hoffman’s pitch-perfect performance as the stingy Lydia Floray to Isobel Elsom’s turn as the levelheaded prospective wife Marie Grosnay, all the way down to bit players like Millard Sherwood (what a name!), who plays the well-meaning old coot who enjoys showing up at weddings and funerals. What all of these characters have in common is delusion: from the past-their-prime ladies who fall for Verdoux’s come-ons to the overconfident detective poisoned by his own celebratory glass of wine, nearly everyone in the film—Verdoux included—has a habit of comically overestimating themselves.

Landru, the real-life bluebeard who inspired Monsieur Verdoux, committed his crimes between 1914 and 1918; Chaplin moved the setting two decades forward, to the 1930s. Verdoux’s crimes play out against the rise of fascism in Europe; his surrender appears to occur on April 27, 1937, the day after the bombing of Guernica. Though he doesn’t live to see it, Verdoux is inextricably linked to World War II. His final remarks to the court bring to mind the speech at the end of The Great Dictator—except that, whereas the Jewish barber pleaded for “a world where science and progress will lead to all men’s happiness,” Verdoux describes one where women and children are killed “very scientifically.” The Great Dictator envisioned a world where all people could unite for peace; Monsieur Verdoux presents one where everyone is culpable in the coming war.

At first glance, the one true innocent in this world seems to be the nameless Girl (Marilyn Nash), whom Verdoux intends to murder but instead spares. She turns out to be not all that innocent, however. She’s Verdoux’s double; he lets her go not out of pity but because he sees in her an idealized version of himself—the philosophizing romantic who would kill for love. When they meet a second time at the end of the film, he catches a glimpse of his true self in her—a bemused cynic ready to make a franc off of the world’s cruelty and violence. When she leaves, he surrenders to the cops; without a reason to kill, he has no reason to live.

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When Monsieur Verdoux was released in 1947, one publicity campaign declared: “Chaplin changes! Can you?” The audience had indeed changed—though not in Chaplin’s favor. In the seven years between the completion of The Great Dictator and that of Monsieur Verdoux, Chaplin’s reputation with the American press and public had declined drastically; he was characterized as a philanderer (which was accurate) and accused of being anti-American and having Communist sympathies (which wasn’t). Politicians regularly invoked Chaplin’s name as an example of subversive foreign influence; a bill was even introduced in the Senate with the express purpose of deporting him. Monsieur Verdoux’s press conference was a disaster, quickly devolving into questions about Chaplin’s citizenship and tax status. The film—which Chaplin had considered his best to date—flopped. (Five years later, Chaplin was effectively exiled from the United States when J. Edgar Hoover personally interceded to have his reentry visa revoked.)

Nowadays, with Monsieur Verdoux widely acknowledged as a caustic masterpiece, it’s easy to dismiss much of the film’s negative reception as the result of a Chaplin backlash. But in a way, attributing Monsieur Verdoux’s commercial failure entirely to political hysteria undervalues just how audacious it is—as a comedy, a personal statement, and a work of art.

The film’s final scenes are its most daring. Verdoux, previously defined by his anxiety and frustration, turns serene and sagelike. He smiles enigmatically and speaks in witty truisms. He no longer mentions his family. In his bare cell, he lies with hands folded on his chest, one leg bent at the knee—an ascetic in contemplation. A reporter enters. He’s angling for a final interview: “Give me a break—a story with a moral to it!”

There is a moral to the story of Henri Verdoux, albeit one that the reporter probably doesn’t want to hear. In spite of his clumsiness, Monsieur Verdoux’s paradoxical protagonist is the perfect criminal, in that he represents the very nature of crime. He is a frustrated man who justifies killing first by invoking the needs of others and then through logic—and is then logically put to death “for the protection of society.” Crime, Chaplin suggests, is all about proportion: Verdoux’s transgressions are just a miniature version of the horrors of the world (after all, doesn’t he also aspire, with his poisons, to kill women “very scientifically”?), and only because they are miniature can they be prosecuted. Chaplin juxtaposes this deluded killer with a culture of delusion and violence. Seen “to scale,” Verdoux seems pitifully small—you might even feel sorry for him.