Charles Chaplin has become a misunderstood figure in Hollywood history. He is remembered as the Little Tramp character the he played in several silent films, a character whose physical comedy high jinks are often still delightful and reveal Chaplin’s incredible performance skills. However, he was not just a circus performer. He was much more.
Those who learn more about Hollywood history will probably first encounter Chaplin as a legend who was a victim of the Red Scare of the ’40s and ’50s. He was a man who had been a Hollywood legend but then was exiled from the United States and his latter-day masterpiece Limelight (USA 1952) banned from distribution on the basis of his supposed political views.
However, even that picture is missing some parts. Chaplin wasn’t a circus performer. He wrote, directed, and starred in those films, and he exuded a level of control over every aspect of his films that perhaps no other director ever has, evincing a true talent in seemingly every area from writing to performance to music to costume design and everywhere in between. And the period that eventually led to his exile was filled with a number of fascinating political comedies that showed that he wasn’t just a jokester. He was someone who knew how to make films that made a point (even if his political points were often rather facile).
The most famous films from this period are the aforementioned Limelight and the Hitler spoof (Yes, that’s what it is.) The Great Dictator (USA 1940). The most forgotten is probably the most controversial from the time: Monsieur Verdoux. And when you consider the extreme anti-communist sentiments of the time, it’s pretty clear why this film was such a controversy.
Monsieur Verdoux tells the story of Henri Verdoux, a banker who loses his job in a financial crisis and turns exactly where we would all turn to support our families in such a situation: marrying rich older ladies, robbing them, and then killing them. It’s a film about how capitalism dehumanizes humans, pushing them to perform evil in the name of profit, whether in the form of munitions manufacture, soldiering, or the bluebeard murders of Verdoux. In the atmosphere of 1947, it’s easy to see how this film would be seen as pro-Communist. Add in that Chaplin credits Orson Welles, a proud Socialist who was never free of speculation about Communist sympathies himself, with the story, and it’s a pretty clear political powder-keg. But probably the biggest sin the film committed is that it actually made its point well. A poorer filmmaker would have been able to get away with this much more than did Chaplin, but Chaplin made the point come across.
The story is an obvious enough allegory that it would seem to make the point on its own, but Chaplin further loads the script with small jabs about munitions manufacturing and mentions of wars and soldiers to make it clear what he’s saying: greedy capitalism causes murder. And then, in typical Chaplin fashion, just to make sure you understood, he ends the film with a big, emotional, corny speech encapsulating everything he wants to say. It’s the same trick as The Great Dictator, though it feels more natural in that film. And that’s the biggest problem throughout the script–its contrivances. There is a rather funny sequence where Verdoux believes he ends up poisoning himself but it is also so contrived as to be laughable in unintended ways, and it’s hardly alone in the film. Still, it generally does its job well.
Chaplin was famously rigid about his filming techniques in the silent age, and those techniques were designed not to further the films themselves so much as to provide the best possible view of the performance(s). The public image of Chaplin as essentially a filmed circus performer does come from something–he treated himself like one for years. However, when synchronized sound came along, Chaplin abruptly shifted. His filmmaking matured almost overnight to match the industry standards. He never became one of the most visually interesting filmmakers in the world, but he became a perfectly capable visual filmmaker.
And that’s where Monsieur Verdoux lies. Chaplin and his longtime cinematographer Roland Totheroh don’t do much with lighting, angles, lenses, etc. to make the film work. However, in this film it appears to be a conscious decision, to emphasize the everyday-ness of what Verdoux is doing. It’s not a film about a freak. It’s a film about the society that forces him to act this way.
Most of the acting is pretty limited. The supporting roles get little screen time and little ability to reveal any depth. A few still come across as stagy and silly (Robert Lewis is the biggest offender here), but they generally don’t stand out one way or the other. The exception, of course, is Chaplin, who plays Verdoux himself as well as anyone could. Chaplin plays Verdoux with a great mix of charm, wit, goofiness, and underlying sadness that few actors in history could match. It’s a deep, nuanced performance, with almost every scene revealing something more to Verdoux’s character, even if the dialogue doesn’t get there, just from Chaplin’s performance. There are a few times that he’s mugging for laughs a bit more than he probably should be, but those times are few and far between, so they’re an understandable mistake.
All told, Monsieur Verdoux is a very good film that makes its facile political point very well. It’s filled with strong performance and some clever comedic moments mixed with some excellent dramatic sweeps. It sometimes is a little too silly for its own good and the speech at the end is rather self-important for making such a facile point, but it generally works. And it makes one wonder what Chaplin may have been capable of if he’d really been able to work in Hollywood as a mature filmmaker.