Charlie is an expert bricklayer. He has lots of fun and work and enjoys himself greatly while at the saloon. As he leaves work his wife takes the pay he has hidden in his hat. But he steals... See full summary »
A prissy bank clerk is made redundant during the Depression and turns to courting and murdering spinsters and widows for their money.
Apparently, Orson Welles suggested the idea of this film to Chaplin, and may even have outlined the story. The screenplay is Chaplin's own, and contains his characteristic shortcomings. He also directed the film and composed the music, quite apart from starring in it. His achievement is considerable, but the film's weaknesses are also very much attributable to him.
A preliminary point needs to be made. Chaplin is irredeemably old-fashioned. This film was made in 1947, the year of modern-spirited films like "Brighton Rock" and "Germania Anno Zero". Yet here is Chaplin in what is essentially a silent movie with sound. Caption cards say things like "A small villa, somewhere in the south of France". The settings are very stagey and static, being a succession of boxy theatrical sets, linked by establishing shots (sometimes poor-quality archive film). Chaplin ventures out on location only once - in the boating scene near the end. The humour belongs back in the silent era too - as when Verdoux's piano-playing is interrupted by the knocking of Louise the maid on the window, or Verdoux swats an imaginary bee and falls through the window.
The film is outmoded, not just in the way it's put together, but in its 'feel'. The blocking of the actors is stodgy and static, and the acting is hammy. Chaplin plays Verdoux as a stereotype Frenchman, with beret, imperiale moustache and artist's smock. He even says "Oh la la". Chaplin worked in Paris during the bel epoque, and in "Monsieur Verdoux" he is psychologically fixed in that earlier era.
The plot creaks dreadfully. We start with the Couvais family railing against the absent Verdoux. They lay down plot points in the crudest fashion, saying things like "Look what he's done already," and enumerating Verdoux's ploys. Verdoux's intentions regarding Mme. Grosnay are tediously predictable and horribly longwinded. On a cafe terrace in Paris, Verdoux meets a former banking colleague, then takes his leave immediately. This clumsily contrived scene happens so that the banker can tell another man (and therefore the viewer) about Verdoux's past. Verdoux gives the viewer information about his plans via the unsubtle device of thinking aloud. There are enough ludicrously convenient coincidences to make even ardent Chaplin fans cringe. His neighbour in the country just happens to be a talkative pharmacist who has been conducting experiments into an untraceable poison. The Belgian girl (a pretty but wooden Marilyn Nash) is released from prison on the exact same day as Verdoux needs a rootless "derelict" on whom to test his poison. The jailbird just happens to have with her a copy of Schopenhauer, leading to a discussion of his treatise on suicide. She just happens to have an invalid husband, the only thing that could soften Verdoux's heart, because he, too just happens to have a disabled spouse. Annabella is saved from murder by the arrival of a ridiculous band of (unseen) yodellers at the boating lake. And when Verdoux finally arranges a wedding with Mme Grosnay, Annabella just happens to be a wedding guest.
The film is annoying in other ways. Chaplin insists on giving Verdoux the behavioural tic of pursing his lips effeminately. This wears thin after a few seconds, but we have to endure it for two hours (which is about twice as long as this movie needed to be). When Verdoux strolls along Parisian boulevards, people are sporting the fashions of 1947, even though Verdoux was guilloutined ten years before this. Chaplin cannot resist a cliche can-can scene, and stages it badly, with the girls performing at the same time as the customers are dancing with one another. Once he has prepared his poison wine, Verdoux suddenly and inexplicably speaks directly to the camera - "And now for the experiment!" This is a flagrant breach of the film's conventions, to no good effect. On the second meeting with the Belgian girl, Verdoux is cold towards her for no discernible reason. The sidestep which allows Verdoux to lock his pursuers in the broom closet is plain silly. The avoidance of Annabella at the wedding is an example of Chaplin's tendency to stretch a weak joke to maddening lengths of obviousness. And of course, Chaplin just has to fulminate against Hitler and Mussolini, even though the Second World War had finished two years earlier.
Chaplin didn't know what he wanted to do with Verdoux. The black comedy elements are never strong, and Chaplin being Chaplin, he cannot resist big 'dramatic' scenes like the death of Lydia and the walk to the scaffold. The final proposition - that Verdoux is a nice guy compared to the Nazis - is an insult to the viewer. Verdoux is an ogre, but Chaplin is pulled, as always, towards maudlin sentimentality.
In his final speech from the dock, Verdoux opines that "... to be successful in anything, one must be well-organised". It is a shame that Chaplin didn't heed his own advice. The film is subtitled, "A Comedy Of Murders". Perhaps it should have read, "The Murder Of Comedy".
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