Monsieur Verdoux is a bluebeard, he marries women and kills them after the marriage to get the money he needs for his family. But with two ladies he has bad luck.
Charles Chaplin ... Henri Verdoux
Mady Correll ... Mona Verdoux
Allison Roddan ... Peter Verdoux
Robert Lewis ... Maurice Bottello
Audrey Betz ... Martha Bottello
Martha Raye ... Annabella Bonheur
Ada May ... Annette, Annabella's maid (as Ada-May)
Isobel Elsom ... Marie Grosnay
Marjorie Bennett ... Marie's Maid
Helene Heigh ... Yvonne La Salle, Marie's friend
Margaret Hoffman ... Lydia Floray
Marilyn Nash ... The Girl
Irving Bacon ... Pierre Couvais
Edwin Mills ... Jean Couvais
Virginia Brissac ... Carlotta Couvais
In his autobiography Charles Chaplin called this film his "cleverest and most brilliant" comedy, yet very few people at the time the movie was released shared this view. It was the first Chaplin US failure both with critics and audiences (though in Europe the film did quite well).
Here Chaplin plays Henri Verdoux, a serial killer who makes his living by marrying and murdering lonely reach women. Chaplin softened his character by making him a lifelong bank clerk who was laid off at the age when it was already too late to start life anew, meanwhile he has a family to support (a small son and an invalid wife). He's caught and put to trial where he accuses a hypocritical society of sanctioned mass murders and describes himself as an amateur in the field. Originally the idea belonged to Orson Welles who wanted to make a movie based on the story of a notorious murderer Henri Landru, a Frenchman who was executed in 1922 for murdering 8 women. Welles asked Chaplin to star in his film but the latter refused as he thought it was too late for him to play in a movie directed by someone else. But he bought the original idea from Welles and made what could have been a detective story or a thriller into a black comedy. It was certainly provocative and its sarcastic and ironic gravity was astonishing for the time. There is a scene, for instance, when Verdoux while waiting for the execution, talks to a journalist and pronounces the words that still fill me with horror (as they are as true nowadays as they had been fifty years ago):"Wars, conflicts - it's all business. One murder makes a villain; millions a hero. Numbers sanctify." Yet "Monsieur Verdoux" which is generally known as the most pessimistic of Chaplin films is not devoided of humour. On the contrary, at some moments it's extraordinary funny: take for instance the famous scenes with his "wives" (Annabella or Lydia)or those with madam Grosnay (my favourite bit is when Verdoux is talking to her from a flower shop, the look at the flower girl's face is wonderful!). I believe the film is one of the best I've ever seen and I highly recommend it to everyone.
Verdoux --brilliantly played by Chaplin and clearly a parody of the infamous French "lady killer" Landru-- was originally an honest citizen employed in a bank office, until the Depression arrived, resulting a highly difficult economic situation for many a soul and forcing the apparent gentleman, so incredibly charming in his appearance, to make conclusions which might seem monstrous to us. His conclusions are monstrous, no doubt about that, but to him they are the natural results of a catastrophe; which they very possibly are as well.
While it remains unclear how many women Verdoux actually manages to marry and, more significantly, succeeds in murdering, we get quite a few glimpses of several of his victims, resulting some hilarious moments in the film. Yes, despite its dark atmosphere and depressing plot, what one expects from a Chaplin-movie is what Charlie Chaplin is famous for: making people laugh, and MONSIEUR VERDOUX confirms his talents as a master comedian once again, although on a very unusual basis. I could mention a number of scenes, but funniest and most memorable are, I believe, the scenes with Martha Raye. Raye undeniably delivers her best performance throughout her career as one of Verdoux's dumb, illegal wives whom the lady killer has convinced he actually loves, and whom he consequently fails in murdering. Perhaps her lack of intelligence is exactly what saves her from a terrible fate. I laughed so hard that my cheek-bones hurt when Verdoux spoke so gently about life and its fruits and beauty, while he, in fact, just sought a next opportunity to commit manslaughter.
Still, MONSIEUR VERDOUX's serious tone should not be overlooked, as I after all believe that's what makes it such a gem. At this point in Chaplin's career, the comedian had become nearly as famous for his criticism of our society through his comedy as the comedy itself, and he surely doesn't disappoint us on these terms, either. I must admit that The Tramp --the little fellow who had made Chaplin famous and who did his last appearance in his previous effort THE GREAT DICTATOR-- got my empathy far easier, but that's perhaps exactly why MONSIEUR VERDOUX remains such an extraordinary piece of work; we feel sorry for The Tramp because he is a poor fellow, a nobody from nowhere. Everybody feels sorry for such a guy. Monsieur Verdoux, on the other hand, receives our empathy through mightier complexity. When the "cruel and cynical monster," as the court later describes him as, gives his son a warm hug, and when he changes his mind after having planned to poison a prostitute whose mind was far more sophisticated than expected, it seems obvious to us that that Verdoux actually is quite human; still, it's hard to understand how such a character could possibly deserve pity from anyone, his inhuman actions taken into consideration. However, I've come to what I consider a valid conclusion.
Apart from the fact that Monsieur Verdoux makes us laugh during the cheerful moments in the film, our feelings towards him stand out as sympathetic because his "inhuman actions" in the end are quite human. Unlike The Tramp, Monsieur Verdoux was a secured man with a respected position and a lovely family. Under certain circumstances, conditions can bring out the worst in men; the conditions which Verdoux suffered were the result of his society's suffering. In this desperate situation, he felt he was forced to choose his own way, and the way chose lead to further suffering for others. It's ugly, but it's a part of our nature, and to understand the nature of humanity one has to understand the nature of crime—not only condemn it. You and I are not so remarkably different from Verdoux, although we seldom admit it. In fact, one thing I realized while watching MONSIEUR VERDOUX is that the film reasonably could be entitled The Dark Version of MODERN TIMES. Both movies covered the difficulties during the Depression; MODERN TIMES through the eyes of a Little Tramp, MONSIEUR VERDOUX through the eyes of a previously successful businessman. It is hardly by chance that the poor nobody from nowhere ended up quite happy, while the businessman at the end was sentenced to death. The Tramp had struggled through his entire life, thus he survived the Depression, too; Monsieur Verdoux, on the other hand, was a happy man who couldn't tolerate to become a tramp.
The production wasn't easy for Chaplin. Made during the most problematic period of his career, MONSIEUR VERDOUX created further speculations concerning Chaplin's political views. He'd been loved by the entire world for decades, but now his work was compared with a political stance which terrorized America. It was reviewed poorly when released, and several movie theaters avoided to show it.
Although MONSIEUR VERDOUX is still considered one of Chaplin's lesser-known gems, it has eventually received a position as one of the most memorable flicks ever produced, and rightfully so. It is a brilliantly structured and at times downright hilarious comedy which, as any other of Chaplin's features, but on a very different level, influenced my philosophy and simply made me realize thoughts.
The word "Bluebeard" ("Landru" in French) has been a part of the American vernacular for some time now, synonymous with the term "wife-killer." Several variations of the infamous Parisian charmer who married then buried have been filmed over the decades - some OK, others not. John Carradine starred in a respectable but unheralded version in the mid-30s as a puppeteer-turned-perpetual strangler. A so-so French/Italian co-production in 1962 starring Charles Denner and Michele Morgan strove for dark comedy but ultimately lacked the creative spark. The worst of the lot was a wretched Richard Burton/Raquel Welch/Joey Heatherton rehash in the 70s, the nadir of Burton's screen career.
It seems most fitting then that the wry, comic genius of Charlie Chaplin, our beloved "Little Tramp," is allowed to put its delightfully macabre spin on the Bluebeard tale with 1947's "Monsieur Verdoux," winding up with perhaps the most entertaining version yet. First and foremost, it is a pleasure to hear Charlie talk. I also venture to say this is the best of his sound-era films, well-mounted and shot meticulously in black and white, in which he not only produced and directed but provided the music. Who but the loveable Chaplin, with that ever-present tinge of pathos, could play the role of a methodical, unrepentant human wife-disposal who kills purely for financial reward, and have the audience rooting for him!
Our titular hero is a charming fop of a fellow who operates his deadly deception by a precise timetable - he fastidiously charms, marries and eliminates his unsuspecting victims with keen attention paid to banker's hours! But it's Monsieur Verdoux's motive that gains the viewer's empathy. Our boy is not the mad, demented, twisted, cold-hearted monster one must think. He carries out his dastardly deeds out of selfless need. His out-of-town "business" is conducted solely in order to support and tend to his wheelchair-bound wife, a hopeless cripple and invalid, and family. His devotion, in fact, is so honorable, he succeeds in wrapping you around his little wedding finger. As much as you sympathize for the dowagers he does in, you can't help but think at least the old dears died having been graced by such a noble gentleman.
Brash loudster Martha Raye, often considered a bust in films for being intolerably larger-than-life, has one of her best roles here, grabbing her share of laughs as one of Verdoux's intended victims - a shrill, obnoxious, but verrrry wealthy dame whom nobody would really mind seeing knocked off. The problem is Charlie can't seem to off her! Every industrious attempt fails miserably. In one truly madcap scene that directly parodies Theodore Dreiser's classic novel "An American Tragedy," Charlie takes Martha, outlandishly bedecked in silver fox furs, out on a crude fishing boat excursion in the hopes of drowning the tenacious harridan. Two comic masters in vintage form.
Of course, Charlie does get his comeuppance but its all done in grand, sophisticated style. The whole movie is, in fact, so precise and polished that one must forgive him, given his controversial "subversive" leanings at the time, for tacking on an interminable, out-of-character piece of political diatribe at the finishing line. The movie's theme and bitter irony did not even pretend to disguise his great personal anguish and bitterness at America when political conservatives were breathing down his neck. Forgiven he is, for this black comedy, a sublime, eloquent retread of an old familiar creeper, comes off refreshingly original.
* Verdoux's quote "One murder makes a villain; millions a hero" is taken from the abolitionist Bishop Beilby Porteus (1731-1808).
* Before production started, approval was refused by the MPPDA (now the MPAA) under the Production Code (Hays Code), labeling the scenario, still called "A Comedy Of Murders", in their words "unacceptable". They continued, "In his indictment of the 'system' and the 'social structure', the filmmaker offered a 'rationale' of Verdoux's crimes, in terms of their moral work." Worst of all the board also considered Verdoux's attitude toward god "blasphemous". In a letter of response, scene by scene, Charles Chaplin upheld his screenplay again the charge of subversion, but only giving in on details. For example, when one of Verdoux's wives invites him to "come to bed" the line had to be replaced with "get to bed". Chaplin had no trouble getting around such proscriptions, as he did with Verdoux's morning-after "humming" with briskly engaging music. The production board complied and gave this film a seal of approval.
* The tune that Verdoux plays on the piano as Lydia sits by after she withdrew the 70,000 francs is the opening and closing theme to Chaplin's film _Woman of Paris, A (1923)_, which he used in 1976 when he re-scored the picture.
* The producers of the film were sued in 1948 by Parisian bank employee Henri Verdoux.
* The film was originally meant to be directed by Orson Welles and starring Charles Chaplin, but Chaplin backed out at the last moment, saying that he had never had anyone direct him before and didn't want to start. Instead, he bought the screenplay off Welles and re-wrote parts of it, crediting Welles with only the "idea". Welles said that, despite most of the script being his, he didn't mind as it was one of his lesser works.
* Based on real-life French murderer Desire Landru, who was guillotined in 1922.
* Charles Chaplin hired famed press agent Russell Birdwell to publicize this film. Just prior to the premiere, Birdwell wrote columnist Hedda Hopper a note saying: "I contend that Charlie Chaplin's 'Monsieur Verdoux' is the greatest and most controversial picture that has ever come from the Hollywood mills. If I lose I will publicly eat the negative of the film in front of the Chaplin studios. Sincerely, Bird." After she'd seen the film, Hopper wired back: "DEAR BIRD: START EATING. HOPPER."
* The film was a colossal box-office flop on its 1947 release, despite being ardently championed by writer-critic James Agee, who considered Charles Chaplin's acting performance the greatest male performance he had ever seen in films.
* Filmed in 1947, but not approved for release in the US until 1964, due mainly to the US government's distaste for Charles Chaplin's politics.
* Chaplin bought the idea for the film off Orson Welles for $5,000. Welles had been contemplating making a dramatized documentary of the real story of French serial killer, Henri Landru.
* Chaplin regarded the film as "the cleverest and most brilliant film of my career".