In My Autobiography, Charles Chaplin writes that the idea of making Monsieur Verdoux was given to him by the filmmaker Orson Welles. The 1947 film was inspired by the French serial killer Henri Landru. While Welles was thinking of a docu-fiction series starring Chaplin as Landru, Chaplin preferred to make the film himself, and as a comedy.
Welles later claimed that financial constraints made him sign the rights away to Chaplin. But Chaplin had his own version of events. That was a minor controversy compared to Chaplin’s other travails at the time – he was facing a paternity suit, the American government was investigating him for “Communist sympathies” and the American public and press that had been so supportive of his Tramp character had turned against him. Did some of this vilification influence Monsieur Verdoux, which reimagines Chaplin as a righteous serial killer of vulnerable women?
The film, which is available on MUBI, carries faint traces of Chaplin’s crowd-winning antics from the silent era. Chaplin’s script is dipped in misogyny, misanthropy and self-loathing. Monsieur Verdoux is nevertheless a very funny movie that imagines another destiny for the Tramp, one in which his tattered clothes and shoes have been replaced by well-tailored suits and the sang-froid of the gentleman.
Chaplin’s Verdoux is a victim of the Depression of the 1930s. Out of work and with a family to support, Verdoux takes on different identities and proceeds to marry several women, whom he murders as he sees fit.
This polygamist commits his crimes without breaking a sweat and with a familiar impish smile. Verdoux looks directly into the camera ever so often, sucking his viewers into his remorseless mission to earn back the respect he believes he has lost because of unemployment.
Verdoux’s only moment of humanity is when he meets a young woman whom the Tramp might have romanced not so long ago.
Chaplin’s bold re-reworking of his screen persona shocked the American censors, who demanded all kinds of cuts and changes. Audiences were hostile too. Chaplin writes in My Autobiography that at the premiere, “instead of the eager anticipation and the happy stir of the past that had greeted my films, there was nervous applause scattered with a few hisses”.
Despite its relatively poor box-office performance, Chaplin believed that Monsieur Verdoux was the “cleverest and most brilliant film” he had made up until then. The movie has certainly held up well, both as a pitiless comedy led by a charmingly monstrous antagonist and as an example of a filmmaker taking a sledgehammer to his legacy.