As a Chaplin film, it is interesting to note that within the first minute of Monsieur Verdoux the screen tells you that the film is “based on an idea by Orson Welles”. Who would have thought!Charlie Chaplin and Orson Welles together! It seems fleeting at best, because it is very-much a Chaplin-film with some technicial ‘hints’ of Welles. Like The Great Dictator and Modern Times, this film is socially-aware and politically-challenging. Which might be why it got such mixed reviews on its initial release. But then again, so did Citizen Kane. Another ‘idea’ from Orson Welles.
The Depression As An Excuse
Monsieur Verdoux (Charles Chaplin) worked within a bank as a teller for 30 years before he was made redundant during the depression. He decides to go into the ‘business’ of becoming a ‘bluebeard’ – whereby he marries wealthy women and takes all their money. Due to the censors, any scenes which implied characters were sharing any beds or involved in prostitution were taken out, whilst the clear motives for murder and, indeed, setting up the murder was kept in. Sex is bad. Murder is okay! We almost sympathise with the character as he justifies how his small business-motive of murder may be deserving of the death penalty but, hypocritically, senior politicians send soldiers to their death and are not held accountable.
In a similar manner to The Silence of the Lambs, whereby the murderer was based upon Ed Gein, Monsiur Verdoux is influenced on an actual serial killer in France, Henri Désiré Landru. Both Monsieur Verdoux and Landru killed multiple women – 14 for Verdoux, 11 for Landru – and both were sentenced to the guillotine after conviction.
But this is not a film which is rooted in horror or thriller characteristics. Instead, Chaplin manages to portray Verdoux as a character who is likeable. Often, we feel the same desire to kill – desperately waiting for Verdoux to kill off the annoying wives he has ‘collected’. The lottery-winner Annabella Bonheur (Martha Raye) whose shrill voice and whiney attitude is set-up to be despised by the audience. Lydia Floray (Margaret Hoffman), the dull and depressed wife who moans about her lonely existence. The social-surroundings of the depression and, towards the final act, World War II, ensures an engaging context. Monsieur Verdoux plays on the women’s fear of the depression as an excuse to worry and panic – and trust Verdoux. It brings to mind the recent recession the UK has fallen into again … and how this inevitably will bring in its own share of cuts and increases: “Well, we are in a recession, so we need the money” says David Cameron. Like the women Verdoux marries, we feel there is no choice – and we must put up with the ‘cost’ of the political climate.
As a film, it brings together the strong skills of Hitchcock, Welles and, to some extent, Powell and Pressberger. The story regarding Verdoux and the balance between comedy and thriller feels as if it is from the stories directed by Hitchcock. Consider Suspicion, in 1941, whereby Cary Grant is set-up throughout the film as attempting to kill his own wife, only in the final act to appear as innocent (Not Hitchcock’s original intention but the studios claimed that Cary Grant can never portray a murderer!). In a similar manner to Suspicion, there is an ambiguity for a considerable amount of the film whereby you question whether he is murdering these women. Compare the evening meal Monsieur Verdoux has with ‘The Girl’ (Marilyn Nash), as he contemplates trying to kill her with a poisoned challice of wine -and Cary Grant, walking up the stairs with a glass of milk in Suspicion. In comparison, I think I would prefer Chaplin’s Verdoux offering me red-wine to Cary Grants ‘Johnnie’ offering me a glass of milk.
Kind Hearts and Coronets, two years after Monsieur Verdoux, cast Alec Guinness in multiple roles of an affluent family. In the opening credits, Chaplin is due to “play”four characters – and I hoped it would be Chaplin in different characters – but alas, he is the same character, going under a different name. The film highlights the ‘multiple’ characters of Verdoux, and this intrigues the viewer – could Robert Hamer have thought the same thing and took it one step further? Casting Alec Guinness in physically different roles, portraying different characters?
Of course, Orson Welles’ connection to the film is not exclusively linked to the story. I would argue the nature of the opening shot of Monsieur Verdoux, whereby we see his grave whilst he narrates on the soundtrack how he ‘became a bluebeard’ seems to raise lots of questions regarding the film from the very-first shot – who killed him? how did he die? etc. Now consider the opening of Citizen Kane, and the first shot opens: No Trespassing. Again, from the very first shot, we are asking questions. Effectively, by starting the film with his grave, the narrative is also non-linear – much like Citizen Kane happily darting from one perspective to another throughout. And finally, both Kane and Verdoux feature in films that use their name in the title as they are both charismatic and carry a certain conflict with regard to their morals – Verdoux a murderer who justifies his acts in comparison to the Government, Kane as a capitalist, political figurehead who builds up and destroys his empire … only to desperately seek his childhood.
At no point are you expected to agree with Verdoux. I think with Kane, we could all poetntially relate to how he slowly lost his grip on humanity as he became more powerful, isolating himself from the world in the final act. Verdoux is likeable and never isolated. He constantly speaks to others – even from beyond the grave, he tells us his story.
In fact, this type of commentary is nothing new: The Immigrant is critical, and so is Modern Times. Monsieur Verdoux is very critical of the government and consequently forced the US to comment further on Chaplins communist sympathies. American critics specifially looked at Chalpin in a new way – commenting on his citizenship and his tax-affairs. The bigger picture is not commended this time and, as noted in the documentary Chaplin Today: Monsieur Verdoux, this was the “start of a very unhappy period” leading to some heavy criticism of Chaplin himself. But one crucial factor highlights his Verdouxs true character: as the film ends, he has the option to escape with ‘The Girl’, but chooses not to. Instead, he gives himself up and accepts his fate. Only five-years later, the US decided to refuse Chaplins return to the US. In both cases, the punishment doesn’t feel like it fits the crime.
This was completely a ‘talkie’ (opposed to The Great Dictator and Modern Times – which used sound to complement the silent-comedy style); Chaplin comments on society and shortly after, he is silenced. The final shots even hint at the idea that Monsieur Verdoux walks to the guillotine in the same way as The Tramp wanders off at the end of his films. Maybe the happiness that The Tramp achieved in Modern Times was short-lived, wiped out by the depression and war, before The Tramp re-emerged as a bluebeard – assuming the name of Monsieur Verdoux and foolishly deeming the murder of wives as a ‘legitimate business’; taking his inspiration from the ‘business’ of politics and government. The joke may be here – in the contradictions and hypocrisies of authority.