Charlie Chaplin’s work in the film industry always acted as a social mirror. The film, “Monsieur Verdoux” is no different, and may in fact be the most reflective of society and culture as he perceived it. This is quite the feat, since “Modern Times” was practically a social liturgy on the way society treats the impoverished. It is a film about a family man who resorts to a life of knocking off old ladies for their money, all to support his wife and child. When released in 1947, it carried the tagline, “Chaplin changes! Can you?” This was an allusion to the fact that the film was drastically different than anything he had ever done before.
It can accurately be described as shocking, inspirational, hilarious, disconcerting, and preachy, all at once. The conflicting opinions that still circulate today about this film signify that it succeeded in its purpose of being a meaningful movie. Movies with a very clear message tend to be very derisive when it comes to criticism. It’s a love it, or hate it type of film. That signifies artistic growth on the part of Chaplin. He was at a place where he was ready to make a film that was blatantly about life, death, and war. Instead of the gentle fables featuring the lovable tramp character, “Monsieur Verdoux” is a very direct and in your face lecture.
The character of “Monsieur Verdoux” is very much a type A personality. Chaplin plays him as a very good businessman, and it’s almost an afterthought to his character that he is in the business of killing. A fact demonstrated by a simple short line in the movie, “That’s business.” He succeeds so well in playing a serial killer as a normal person, that I found that it was also almost an afterthought to me as well. “Monsieur Verdoux” plays almost as a more dignified version of the Michael Douglas film, “Falling Down”. Clearly, Chaplin is playing a man who has undoubtedly suffered some kind of psychotic break or mid-life crisis due to being fired. But he breaks down as only a true gentleman with a family to support would.
I find it remarkable that such subject matter could be so successfully mixed with broad slapstick comedy. “Monsier Verdoux” is filled with Chaplin’s trademark humor and hilarious slapstick. Even as I’ve thought about this movie for a week now, I still can’t quite figure out how he pulled that off. A hilarious and sensible serial killer…really. But he certainly did, and one thing is for sure that I learned from this movie, spit takes are always funny. And so is Chaplin, no matter what the subject matter. It’s still relatable, every man humor.
In this dark comedy film, the duality of the main character is treated almost as populism. It’s something that serves for scenes that come across as though they are straight out of a Marx Brothers movie, and Chaplin is Groucho. Wacky mix-ups happen, hilarity ensues. Whereas in modern films about people who kill, that subject matter is usually treated as horrific, as in “Mr. Brooks” or even “Sweeney Todd”. Even the Disney-esque film score in this movie made for a light hearted take on the subject matter, until the grim ending.
“Monsieur Verdoux” himself is a very lucky man, to be pulling the scam he is and not getting caught. In fact, he is almost as lucky as Martha Rae’s annoying lottery winner. This, I think, communicates one of the main points in this movie. Simply put, that life isn’t fair.
But unlike many modern films about murder, this movie goes all the way to a conclusion that showcases consequences. In fact, I was surprised that this film came to the conclusion that it did, and you will be too. It reminded me of one of those 50’s reels, the kind that acted as a warning toward social ills. (The kind I am speaking of have been parodied in “Reefer Madness” and featured in “Mystery Science Theater 3000: Shorts.)
Also, unlike populism, the main character never changes his opinion about life, or himself. He is not transformed by his journey. He takes his consequences the way he ran his business, with dignity and efficiency. And he never really apologizes about it, simply citing that it is the world’s fault. It will be up to you to decide if that means his character was a sociopath, or if the harsh reality of a cruel world is responsible for his action.
I think that this movie is about the grey areas of life, and poses questions to viewers about justice and injustice. There has been a lot of discussion over a character in the movie known as the Lady Tramp. Many people believe that this woman in the film is a touchstone for the character of Monsieur Verdoux, a kind of social thermometer that drives him to ultimately surrender to the fact that the world is unjust.
But I personally feel like she is his clarity, almost acting as a moral compass. This is in direct conflict with Verdoux’s theory that you have to make your own way all the time. “Shoot or be shot”, so to speak. She had the strength to last through her poverty, and even demonstrates her compassion clearly in front of Chaplin’s cynical character. Despite the fact that life dealt her a terrible hand, she stayed kind and vulnerable. I believe he felt ashamed of himself when he learned that she kept her integrity through her misfortune.
I really enjoyed this movie, and I always appreciate a film that is direct about why it was made. I think its genius, and hysterical, and modern film could take a lesson from “Monsieur Verdoux” about the fact that movies can be made without being watered down. They’ll just have to deal with the consequences that not everyone will like a movie that is so direct and purposeful. It’s most definitely worth viewing if a person is a fan of Chaplin, older films in general, or modern independent cinema.