[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.