Out of the Past: Monsieur Verdoux

[Originally published in slightly different form in Movietone News 55, September 1977]

I can’t recall ever being so disappointed by a film.

I was surprised. After all, the black, cruel jokes Chaplin is so fond of tend to appeal to me more than the pathos; the true story of Henri Landru is a fascinating one; comedies of murder have often beguiled me, from Robert Hamer’s Kind Hearts and Coronets to Jack Smight’s No Way to Treat a Lady; and, of course, quite simply, Verdoux has an immense reputation. My appetite for it was whetted as far back as 1964, when I was a schoolboy and when Douglas McVay eulogized it in the November films & filming. A couple of years later, I read James Agee’s famous series of articles about the film and they impressed me as some of the finest criticism of any kind that I’d ever read, and I still feel that way. So my optimism, when BBC-TV gave the film its first-ever showing on British television in February of 1977, couldn’t have been higher.

I was left wishing James Agee had written and directed Monsieur Verdoux instead. Horrid as it is for a grown-up film buff to discover himself agreeing with Dwight Macdonald, I find Chaplin’s film a drab and essentially false achievement. Its philosophical ideas are not carried through with anything like sufficient rigour, and certainly not with the trenchant satire that might have made them work. The Sadean justification of murder (“Numbers sanctify…”) is, frankly, juvenile (since when did two wrongs make a right?), and is made more so by the insistence on what Chaplin would no doubt feel was “good taste.” It’s hard to feel the sting of death in this movie, partly because no one in it seems very much alive apart from the Martha Raye character, and partly because we are not given the horror of murder. The meaning of slaughter is far clearer in, say, Frenzy, where Hitchcock reverses the Bonnie and Clyde laugh-and-then-gasp trick, so that our revulsion for killer Bob Rusk turns, horribly but truthfully, into a kind of complicity. Our guilty mirth at Rusk’s struggles amidst the potatoes is a kind of fellow-feeling, and if we can recognize a little bit of ourselves in a murderous madman, then we might just possibly understand the darker side of human nature a little bit better. But with Monsieur Verdoux, we are denied ambiguities. Would we have any sympathy for Verdoux if we had actually seen him polishing off his unprepossessing spouses? I doubt it; and that is, I suspect, the main reason for Chaplin’s circumspection, whether consciously or not. He denies himself the hard part, skirts round the really tricky questions. Monsieur Verdoux becomes a figurehead for fuzzy ideas about morality and stops being a real human being. I didn’t sympathise with him a bit.

How horrible are the Mesdames Verdoux! Murder is “funny” if the victim is nasty enough; the jokes are easier to make. But Kind Hearts and Coronets is still funny when its hero is despatching a casual bystander, a foolish but harmless old man, a friend, an elderly female liberal, or an employer who has shown him kindness; Dennis Price’s radical speech of loathing towards the end as he blasts his last victim to oblivion is often taken as his moral justification, but it isn’t—his condemnation of an immoral class-system is diminished if we remember that his sole aim, in practical terms, has been to become part of that system. Robert Hamer places his enormities in proper perspective; he doesn’t lose that cold eye for complexities of truth and feeling that any moralist must have. Hitchcock, in Shadow of a Doubt, turns the universe inside-out; if, as Uncle Charlie says, “the world is a foul sty”, that’s certainly true of picturesque, “nice” Santa Rosa, the apparently Edenic setting. The only actually congenial (rather than merely respectable) spot in that town seems to be the ‘Til Two Bar, a proletarian establishment shunned with horror by our prim heroine but accepted by her debonair, aristocratic uncle with as much alacrity as the poolroom from which he telephones his telegram, or the shabby rented room in which we first see him. Murderous Uncle Charlie seems to accept working-class surroundings and the poverty that goes with them far more easily than his infinitely respectable niece.

But Chaplin, who knew poverty firsthand (and had earlier made great films about it), never achieves this level of moral broadmindedness. The nearest he gets is the famous but null set-piece where Chaplin’s Verdoux spares the life of Marilyn Nash’s soulful tart. But why couldn’t she be more realistically of the streets? Would the famous Chaplinesque “humanity” be applied to an older and less pretty lady—someone more like one of his wives-of-convenience? And what of the bizarre sequences involving the actual Mme. Verdoux (Mady Correll) and her little child? Is this really Chaplin’s ideal? Again, one feels the wife is crippled only to ensure our sympathy. Realistic connubial bliss seems unimaginable with any of the wives; and we must wonder, why did they marry him? The attempted seduction, at the start of the film, of Isobel Elsom’s Mme. Grosnay is grotesque—Verdoux, having disposed of twelve wives already, might be reasonably assumed to be practised in wooing, but he makes such a mess of things, you wonder how he ever got to the altar-rail. The stone-faced and ancient Lydia Floray (Margaret Hoffman) seems to despise him, whilst Annabella, the Raye character, is so wholly his opposite that one wonders where her attraction to him lay; if she was after improving her station and/or her manners by marrying the dapper “Captain,” how come she’s still so unabashedly vulgar, without the slightest concession to her beloved’s genteel fastidiousness? Come to that, Verdoux is such a prissy prune in comparison that one is baffled as to how she can still like him so much—except that this simply suits purposes of plot (and misogyny).

If the society whose hypocrisy Verdoux protests is so rotten, why is he so conspicuously a part of it? Given that he’s so smart, how did he stay so lowly so long? Why did it take the Depression of 1930 and not, say, World War I, to set him on the path of the bluebeard? If one has doubts about the logicality of the scenario, the mise-en-scène makes one shudder. I’m not sure why it is that the relentlessly American accents jar; after all, I don’t much mind them in Paths of Glory, which has more direct need of realism. I even suspect that Kubrick’s film would have been sorely impaired had Kirk Douglas, Timothy Carey, Ralph Meeker, Wayne Morris et al. tried to make their voices more European. But here, my teeth were on edge almost at once—maybe it’s because the “Gallic atmosphere” of Monsieur Verdoux, on which Chaplin is so insistent, is so false and corny. We get stock shots of the Eiffel Tower, a café or two with tables outside, a question being answered with “Oui, monsieur” (the rest is in English, of course) and a succession of odd names ending with ay sounds. Certainly there’s no excuse for the incredibly crass pronunciation: M. Verdoux calls himself “Henri” in the proper manner, but everyone else calls him “Henry” (because they’re all so inferior?); when Annabella calls her buddy “Jack” instead of “Jacques,” it therefore isn’t simply an index of her coarseness, any more than calling Verdoux’s erstwhile in-law Jean Couvais “Gene” is a sign of the Couvais family’s feral stupidity. A few critics have tried to excuse this (and all the pasteboard sets and cheap backdrops) as “Brechtian alienation,” always a suspect phrase, but it isn’t. One gets the same sort of thing in such resolutely un-Brechtian Chaplin films as A Countess from Hong Kong or Limelight. It’s just a lack of proper aesthetic fastidiousness, mixed in with that notorious Chaplin penny-pinching. (The spelling of Detective Morrow’s surname in the American manner, not as “Moreau,” is a further indication of sloppiness.)

In fact, the thing that comes over most strongly in Monsieur Verdoux is the impression of a slum kid showing off. One gets the same thing in Chaplin’s autobiography, a stuffy, humourless, egocentric work. Kenneth Tynan remarked of that book that it seemed the work of someone who had pored over a thesaurus for long words. Listening to the dialogue in Verdoux, one gets the same feeling. The lengthy chatting-up of Mme. Grosnay is arch without being funny, sexy or romantic. Chaplin himself seems astonishingly ill at ease. The most obvious skill of the director has always been, of course, the projection of himself. No objections there, normally; but here, stardom is confused with a kind of nervous narcissism. It’s as if Chaplin knew somehow that the Little Fellow, thrown over for the first time in this film, couldn’t ever quite pass himself off as a gent. We get lots of pseudo-aristocratic stuff; but whether snip-snip-snipping away at the roses, murmuring about wine or engaging in a lot of stock-market jargon, Chaplin never convinces, he’s always the East Ender posing as a toff, and the pose this time chokes his creativity—his eschewing of that anarchic, life-force quality from the Tramp films kills off Verdoux, we keep waiting for one of those typical Chaplin jokes, bitter but tonic, where he’ll find himself reverting to proletarian ways whilst posing as posh, and the moment never comes. The only working-class characters in the film are all hideous, whether the humourless, indeed hateful, Couvais types or the endlessly jolly, but excruciating, Annabella. Ms. Nash’s tart can’t be included in this group; she belongs to that élite echelon of screen prostitutes who never go to bed with anyone but reward self-congratulatory film directors with orgasms of pomposity whilst spouting the script’s pretentious and flabby pearls of wisdom. She’s the worst example in the film of Chaplin’s sentimentality (as opposed to sentiment), a figure created in a self-protecting aura of condescension.

The street boy who wants to be a great artist—that’s the Chaplin of this film, and it’s not just sad, it’s also annoying as hell. Sad because Chaplin created better work when he didn’t worry about it so much; annoying because, in the midst of fulsome platitudes about war and life and love and death and happiness and the wicked world we have to live in, he loses sight of—even seems to be trying to deny—his own origins, the core of what makes the best of his work great. It is no pleasure to attack an artist of Chaplin’s standing—even if one might not be amongst his acolytes, his importance cannot be denied. But one must say it—Monsieur Verdoux is mostly dreadful. The sequence on the lake, with Raye cheerfully deflecting murder attempts without ever noticing them, is fairly funny—not all that funny—and apart from that, there are literally only moments: the little twitch of a smile from Chaplin when someone says, à propos his financial dealings, “You must have made a killing,” or the surrealistically belching stove amidst the rosebushes. I mentioned Kind Hearts And Coronets and No Way to Treat a Lady at the outset; Monsieur Verdoux seems to me less clever or moral than either, and I even like it less than so trivial a piece of gruesome fluff as Robert Fuest’s The Abominable Dr. Phibes. Really.

MONSIEUR VERDOUX
Screenplay and direction: Charles Chaplin. Cinematography: Rollie Totheroh. Associate directors: Wheeler Dryden, Robert Florey. Music: Charles Chaplin. Art direction: John Beckman. Editor: Willard Nico. Production: Chaplin.
The players: Charles Chaplin, Martha Raye, Marilyn Nash, Mady Correll, Robert Lewis, Margaret Hoffman, Isobel Elsom, Charles Evans, William Frawley, Fritz Leiber, Edwin Mills.

© 1977 Pierre Greenfield.

2011 Afterword: As an immediate response to a complex endeavour, the above may still hold some interest, even if I am embarrassed beyond words by my now-incomprehensible endorsement of the feeble Dr. Phibes movie. I was expecting Verdoux to be a masterpiece, and I instead found a film I couldn’t even just like. But my dislike did nag away at me, and I did think the least I could do was to look at it again. It was some years before I could do so, but then—videotape is wonderful—I could do so several times, even once watching it with my copy of Agee On Film open by my elbow. My views changed quite a lot, even though I still think the film is, finally, a failure and that several of the points raised above are valid. But it’s a failure by a genius, and it really is true that the failures of the great are usually more interesting than the successes of the mediocre. I don’t think Chaplin can be exonerated from the charge of narcissism, and he does take the easy option constantly in the film—the police are smug and incompetent, the priest cannot argue with Verdoux, the offscreen deaths of the real Mme. Verdoux and her child go undiscussed.  This tendency even spoils the famous joke where Chaplin somersaults over a sofa without losing his teacup—it was, I suppose, impossible to pour the tea, do the tumble and keep the teacup from spilling all in one shot, but it really is rather obvious that the cup is both empty and stuck to the saucer, and even then Chaplin has to tell us he “didn’t spill a drop” instead of letting us spot that for ourselves. All damned annoying, and self-important, too. But the bitter tone, and the rage at a world enclosed by madness, have considerable force. One doesn’t forget the film, whatever one’s regrets about it. To echo Manny Farber’s famous comment, was James Agee praising the film he wanted to see, rather than the one that was actually in front of him? Maybe. But we should all want to see films like that.

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.


One Comments

  • Twocities

    September 7, 2011

    Monsieur Verdoux remains a brilliant comedy, with some great acting from Chaplin, although it can be argued that Chaplin has maybe not made the most of what the storyline allowed. The film has its faults, but let’s be fair and remember that it is a comedy above all.

    The character of Verdoux is not intended to be moral, and Chaplin plays on this ambiguity, for the sake of black comedy. Remember the scene when Verdoux admonishes his child for annoying the cat: “Violence begets violence”. Or Verdoux, meeting the girl again after she has become wealthy by marrying a munition manufacturer: “Ha, that’s the business I should have been into. It will be paying big dividends soon.” In the same way, “Numbers sanctify” is not really intended to be a justification by Chaplin of Verdoux’s crimes. Clearly, Chaplin is not Verdoux in the same way as he was the Tramp, and Verdoux is a contradiction.

    Verdoux can be understood as a symbol of his times. There is something in him of the survivalist, trying to find a way around a system that crushes the poor and the weak. There is also something in him of the ruthless capitalist, who ranks money above people, and destroys human life out of greed and personal interest.

    Only in the scene of Verdoux’ trial does Chaplin take the mask off: “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? As a mass killer, I am an amateur by comparison.”

    It is not true that Chaplin would have been justified in showing the murders, in order to make a stronger point. I also disagree that the film is misogynistic. I agree more with your later view. I only saw the film recently and did not mind Chaplin’s narcissism in that film, which so much bothered you, as the quality of this work remains far superior to today’s comedies.

    I came across this webpage while looking for an online transcript of the screenplay. Couldn’t find any. Thank you for sharing these views.

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