Director Charles Chaplin had some big balls, no doubt about it. He followed up his silent-film career as a lovable tramp by playing the lovable tramp as a stand-in for Hitler (The Great Dictator). Then he abandoned the Tramp altogether to play a bigamist wife-killer in this deranged film, Monsieur Verdoux, now out on Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection. It’s as if the world’s most-beloved movie star was constantly taunting his audience to not like him.
Chaplin plays Henri Verdoux, a likable enough chap who loses his job as a bank clerk—and then starts killing older women for their money. Chaplin, quite controversially, portrays Verdoux as a sympathetic victim, with his murders and attempted murders being darkly humorous. It’s a film that confounded audiences upon its initial release, but has gone on to stand proudly alongside other classic films in Chaplin’s canon.
The film was originally set to be directed by Orson Welles and to star Chaplin, but Chaplin pulled out and bought the story rights from Welles. He then wrote the Academy Award-nominated screenplay, and directed and starred in the picture, giving Welles a small credit.
There are some genuinely chilling moments, but the murders are mostly played for comedy. Chaplin deliberately made the victims and potential victims far uglier than he was, including a cranked-up Martha Raye. At his core, Verdoux is a cold-blooded killer, but that doesn’t stop Chaplin from throwing in some of his trademark physical slapstick comedy. (There’s a backflip out a window that is quite amazing.)
Chaplin was into grand political statements, and this film was no exception. It came at a time when he was under fire from the U.S. government for his alleged communist leanings (for which he was eventually exiled). Making Verdoux sympathetic—and even virtuous at times—was in bad taste, but Chaplin had a tendency to be able to pull off things like this.
Watch this knowing that you are seeing one of the most-uneven films from one of cinema’s greatest and smartest directors. That said, it is still a great movie, and a testament to just how good of a filmmaker Chaplin was.
Special Features: This is not as rich and full as past Chaplin discs from Criterion, but it still has a couple of decent documentaries about him. You also get a nice collector’s booklet, including an essay from Chaplin himself.