Henri Verdoux (Charles Chaplin) is an odd little man, a former bank clerk who loses his job in the Depression and opts for a new career in “liquidating members of the opposite sex.” Verdoux stockpiles wives whenever he can, maintaining a diversified portfolio scattered across 1930s France, periodically tending to his investments until he determines it is time to cash them in for maximum value. Verdoux is a self-made venture capitalist who knows what to look for in a new business proposition: women in their fifties with a bit off the bloom off the rose and perhaps one husband in the grave yield the best returns.
In a 2003 documentary included on Criterion’s Blu-ray release of “Monsieur Verdoux” (1947), French director Claude Chabrol describes Verdoux’s victims and potential victims as “awful” and “unbearable” women, but with all due respect to the late, great filmmaker, Chabrol is completely off his rocker. A great part of the success of Chaplin’s unlikely “comedy of murders” is that the film breathes so much life into the serial killer’s prey.
Take poor Lydia (Margaret Hoffman) for instance. With her crow’s feet and pinched lips, she seems fated to be an officious librarian at best, and is perhaps only a prosthetic nose away from cackling, “And your little dog too!” But when Verdoux (under one of his many aliases) returns home unannounced to his darling Lydia after several months abroad “on business,” her skepticism and obvious intelligence make her instantly sympathetic. She knows darned well that her smooth-talking absentee husband is lying through his Lothario teeth; she is certainly far more aware of Verdoux’s transparency than he could ever be. When he convinces her to withdraw her money from the bank at the last minute, she sits at a table clutching her life’s fortune and states in no uncertain terms that she has just made a terrible mistake. But as Verdoux continues his bombardment of sweet nothings, she runs another calculation in her mind. What’s riskier, the prospect of a lonely dotage, or bankruptcy (and worse) at the hands of a flim-flam artist who, whatever else he may be lacking, is compliant to the command “get to bed”?
Though Chabrol apparently disagrees, it makes it all the more painful to watch Lydia march into the slaughterhouse knowing that her eyes are wide open the whole time. She’s not the only one. Verdoux’s newest target smells a rat from the get go. At their first meeting, he all but assaults the widowed Marie Grosnay (Isobel Elsom) while masquerading as an intoxicated, impetuous lover. Her first, second, and third instincts are to run like hell, but he is persistent and has a keen nose for even the faintest whiff of desperation. Verdoux grows more attractive to Marie when he is present only in a blitzkrieg of flowers and pithy cards, and she finally gives in against her infinitely superior judgment. We can only imagine how many other bright, self-possessed women have yielded under similar circumstances. Awful? Unbearable? How about human?
And we haven’t even talked about Annabella (Martha Raye) yet. Younger than Verdoux’s other investments, Annabella is a real humdinger of a dilly of a lulu. She is blessed with preternatural luck, but her lottery winnings can’t cover up her total lack of couth, and she couldn’t care less. Annabella is the snorting rhino in a china shop, the ugly American rampaging through French country society, and she enjoys every minute of it, especially her time spent in the arms of The Captain (Verdoux, in yet another disguise). She is a hopeless rube with a jackhammer laugh, but she has enough chutzpah to fuel a thousand fleets, and, most endearing of all, is guilelessly comfortable in her skin. Raye’s off-pitch-perfect turn makes her a truly rare treasure, a worthy comic foil to Charlie Chaplin.
Chabrol claims that the audience is rooting for Verdoux to kill Annabella. I should also note at this point that Chabrol is constantly huffing on a pipe during this interview, and I have to wonder what in the holy hell he was smoking. I couldn’t even bear the thought of seeing Annabella snuff it at the hands of the oily weasel Verdoux. So she ain’t got class and she lumbers about so heedlessly she might knock over the Eiffel Tower someday. Did Monsieur Chabrol not shed any tears for poor Godzilla when that magnificent creature got obliterated for humanity’s sins? Root for Annabella to get killed? I root for her to have her own spinoff.
Any way you slice it, there’s more there there for most of Verdoux’s women than for the title character. Like a good sociopath, Monsieur Verdoux is an empty shell covered with a superficially seductive skin. But if Verdoux is all surface, don’t assume that Chaplin’s performance is a shallow one. The great silent film hold-out captures the perfect lilting tone for his psychotic creation, and turns his Hallmark poetry into a pseudo-philosophical sales pitch that relies on quantity over quality. Fling enough half-baked aphorisms and literary allusions against the wall and something will stick.
The film was marketed with the tagline “Chaplin Changes” and what a shock it must have been to see The Tramp, semi-retired in “The Great Dictator” (1940), turned stone killer. Of course, Chaplin, one of the most famous men in the world, had already seen his public persona undergo a seismic shift: accusations of communist sympathies and controversy surrounding his personal life had made him reliable gossip fodder for years and a convenient HUAC target. In some quarters his name was mud by 1947, and with the creation of Verdoux he seems to embrace his fall from grace with defiant glee.
The American public wasn’t quite ready for the changed Chaplin, though they really never got a chance as the movie was pulled quickly from theaters, partially due to red-baiting pressure. The film was more successful in Europe, but the movie’s greatness, and I believe it is Chaplin’s best though there are many contenders for the title, has only become manifest over the years.
I don’t fully buy into Chaplin’s broadside comparison of the penny-ante evil of Verdoux to more ambitious sociopathic ventures like capitalism and war (“One murder makes a villain; a million, a hero. Numbers sanctify.”), but his icy-sweet performance, which renders Chaplin entirely likeable while granting no such kindness to the monstrous Verdoux, is indelible and the film’s cynical vision is as lucid as it is unrelenting. The only character who appears to be granted a superficially happy ending is a homeless woman (Marilyn Nash) who spins rags into riches by shacking up with the right man. He is a munitions manufacturer, and he has experienced a recent uptick in business. There’s always a winner somewhere. Demand in Verdoux’s line of business remains eternally steady, even if he has to hand off the reins to the next eager entrepreneur.
The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. “Verdoux” was previously released by Warner Brothers on SD in 2004 in a pretty solid transfer. This 2K resolution transfer from the same “original 35 mm camera negative at L’Immagine Ritrovata in Bologna, Italy” represents the expected high-def upgrade. It’s not a startling improvement, but the 1080p image is sharp with only the most minor signs of damage from the source. There are a few skipped frames, but that can’t be helped.
The linear PCM Mono audio track is free of any noticeable distortion. It sounds a bit flat throughout, but that also can’t be helped. All dialogue is clearly mixed and the musical composition (by Chaplin, of course) have enough depth to impress. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.
Duplicated from the 2004 Warner Brothers SD is the documentary “Chaplin Today: Monsieur Verdoux” (2003, 27 min.) directed by Bernard Eisenschitz. This is where Chabrol makes his ridiculous claims about the women in “Verdoux” while also offering plenty of insight in his appreciation of the film. Actor Norman Lloyd is also interviewed.
“Charlie Chaplin and the American Press” (2012, 25 min.) is a new feature mixing interviews with Kate Guyonvarch, director of the Chaplin company Roy Export, and Charles Maland, author of “Chaplin and American Culture.” The two experts provide an overview of about six decades worth of press coverage of Charlie Chaplin, from early fawning accounts to the savage attacks that were becoming the standard at the time of the release of “Monsieur Verdoux.”
We also get an audio interview with actress Marilyn Nash (1997, 8 min.), eight Radio Ads (6 min. total) and three Trailers (French, German, and U.S. – 8 min. total).
The beefy 36-page insert booklet includes an essay by critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, a short 1947 article Chaplin published about “My New Film,” and an excerpt from Andre Bazin’s lengthy, perceptive and appreciative review of the film originally published in the January 1948 issue of “Revue du cinema.”
“Monsieur Verdoux” was based on an idea by Orson Welles which itself was inspired by the real-life story of wife-murderer Henri Landru. I suspect Monsieur Verdoux is substantially more charismatic than Monsieur Landru, and we don’t have to feel so guilty about heaping praise on the fictional version. Criterion’s Blu-ray release isn’t as packed with new features as we might hope, but the high-def transfer is strong. You may or may not agree with the growing legions who embrace “Verdoux” as Chaplin’s ultimate masterpiece, but you certainly can’t begin to evaluate his career without seeing it.