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March 31, 2013


Monsieur VerdouxCharlie Chaplin bought and adapted the story idea for his 1947 black comedy from Orson Welles, who wanted to cast Chaplin in the title role of a serial killer based on the French “Bluebeard,” Henri Désiré Landru. Ever the master of his own artistic vision, Chaplin was never a collaborator.

Sadly, Chaplin’s reputation as one of the world’s best loved and most influential film artists had been irrevocably tarnished. Chaplin’s pattern of marrying underage women created one scandal after another and constant fodder for the tabloid and international press. His outspoken support for the alliance with the Soviet Union that defeated Nazi Germany in World War II got him painted as a communist by careerist political hacks. The huckster designers of the House on Un-American Activities Committee looked on Chaplin’s association with such leftist luminaries as Bertolt Brecht and Hanns Eisler — whose works were banned in Nazi Germany — with the same contempt as the Nazis.

For Monsieur Verdoux, Chaplin created a sophisticated ‘30s era antihero far removed from his trademark Little Tramp — a veritable Snoopy-doll of 20th century cultural iconography. Simultaneously ethical and unethical, the snappily dressed Verdoux exists as an extraordinary challenge to capitalism’s status quo during its seismic swing toward fascism.

After squandering 35 years as an “honest bank clerk,” Verdoux uses his hard-earned knowledge to invest the money he steals from noxious women he marries and murders with his preferred method: poison. He counts their cash with the same pragmatic technique he used as a clerk. Verdoux thus emulates, on a much smaller scale, capitalism’s method of doing business.

Through the butchery, he maintains a personal life. Verdoux visits his invalid wife and young son to provide for their wellbeing. He clearly loves them. They enable him to rationalize his obsessive need to overcompensate financially for the next economic depression that is sure to come. Verdoux’s addiction to ill-gotten financial gains mirrors that of his former bosses. The satire is at once transparent yet opaque.

The carefully manicured upturned mustache he wears accentuates the pursed lips that Verdoux uses to charm new conquests. Chaplin’s ever-present command of body language and vocal range is spellbinding. From his ever-present delicate hand gestures to his flawless enunciation of every word, Chaplin inhabits his character as a man of purposeful contradictions rather than a confused hypocrite.

As he did with his unforgettable theme-stating monologue in “The Great Dictator” (1940), Charlie Chaplin the dramatist brings “Monsieur Verdoux” to a crescendo with a speech that informs the audience of its author’s dramatic intentions.

The “cruel and cynical monster” explains himself before a court.

“As for being a mass killer, does not the world encourage it? Is it not building weapons of destruction for the sole purpose of mass killing? Has it not blown unsuspecting women and little children to pieces, and done it very scientifically?”

Verdoux describes himself as an “amateur” by comparison with capitalism’s ruling class. “Monsieur Verdoux” finds Charlie Chaplin deconstructing his Little Tramp into an all-in-one entertainer, murderer, and victim. A more committed idealist you will never find.

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