Few films seem to draw as sharply divided a reaction from viewers as black comedies, and this offering into the genre from Charlie Chaplin in 1947 is no exception. Watching it again, I was reminded just what a profoundly depressing film it is in many ways. Most black comedies "cop out" at the last minute by suggesting that it's only a movie, or some other device to provide an upbeat ending.
Not so with "Monsieur Verdoux".
Subtitled "a comedy of murders" and based on an idea by Orson Welles, who had suggested to Chaplin the possibility of doing a black comedy about Landru, the bluebeard serial killer, "Verdoux" was an extension of the ideas that Chaplin had explored in "The Great Dictator". The difference is that his 1940 satire on fascism was still recognizably a comedy, for all intents and purposes, despite some serious moments and a heavy-handed speech at the end. To make the subject more palatable, Chaplin wisely kept out the most gruesome aspects of the events he was dealing with (and to be fair, Chaplin later admitted to not being fully aware of the horrors taking place in concentration camps at the time).
With "Monsieur Verdoux", he explores everything from the Depression, to the rise of Nazism and fascism in Europe, and-as if this wasn't enough-hints at future Cold War conflicts! The film is Chaplin's most biting social indictment, and especially in its second half, is a relentlessly depressing and harrowing look at a man who has lost everything, including perhaps his sanity.
The film was attacked mercilessly by critics when it was released in 1947, but in the coming years came to be seen as something of a masterpiece. I would argue that it remains the one true masterpiece of Chaplin's sound period. (Bosley Crowther famously flip-flopped on his opinion of the film, dismissing it out of hand in 1947 but hailing it as one of the finest films ever made by the time it was re-released in 1964, and it included it in his book of the fifty great films in 1967).
Interestingly, despite its subject matter, the film is quite Chaplinesque. He gets to engage in playing many different identities, the kind of charade he engaged in since the Keystone days in films like "Caught in a Cabaret". The many moments of social critique can be traced to threads running throughout Chaplin's work at least going back to the comedy of class difference in "His Musical Career", and more explicitly in his 1917 Mutual comedy "The Immigrant", with its famous shot of immigrants being roped off like cattle.
One of the most brilliant aspects of the film is in the casting, especially Martha Raye as the blissfully ignorant Annabella Bonheur. At this stage of his filmmaking career, Chaplin had a knack for taking popular comics and giving them roles they could really sink their teeth into. In "The Great Dictator", for instance, Chaplin notably shared the screen with Jack Oakie, who had the role of his career as dictator Benzino Napaloni. In "Verdoux", Martha Raye is given the role she was born to play, and does so to perfection. There are those who claim that Chaplin was so concerned with his own image as a performer that he preferred to play opposite less experienced players who wouldn't upstage him. In this case, Raye proves a marvelous comic foil, and remains one of the most memorable aspects of the film.
Coming in 1947, "Monsieur Verdoux" must have seemed an absolutely terrifying film to audiences. After more than 15 years of Depression and war, audiences surely wanted to hope that it was all over, but Chaplin ends the film by almost implying that "you ain't seen nothing yet". It's no wonder the film was poorly received on initial release, especially considering the additional baggage of the Joan Barry scandal that Chaplin had just come out of. Such a bleak and cynical film would hardly be a big box office draw in any case, especially in 1940s Hollywood, but that just makes one appreciate all the more what a bold and masterful film it is.
It is one of Chaplin's most perfectly timed comedies, though, and some of the sequences are still hilarious despite their dark context. The wedding party scene, for instance, is an expertly timed piece of comedy, and all the players work in perfect rhythm with Chaplin's performance. As mentioned above, the scenes with Martha Raye are absolutely brilliant, particularly the one in which Chaplin attempts to murder her while out fishing on a boat. Watching Chaplin play Verdoux and his various aliases so perfectly, one realizes he truly was the most versatile of the "big three" silent clowns.
It is interesting to note that, this time around, Chaplin avoided using any of his old, "familiar" stock company-guys like Chester Conklin, or Hank Mann, or Henry Bergman (whom Chaplin had considered casting, but decided against because of the actor's poor health. Bergman died before the film was completed, but reportedly predicted it would be a failure). Chaplin's half-brother Wheeler Dryden turns up as a salesman, trying to sell Raye on the idea of investing in an apparatus that turns salt water into gasoline. And supposedly, among the wedding guests, is Tom Wilson, whose career with Chaplin went back to 1918, but I've never been able to spot him. (There is also a persistent rumor that Edna Purviance appears in the wedding scene as an extra, having been turned down for the role of Madame Grosnay which ended up going to Isabel Elsom, but there is no concrete evidence as to whether or not she appears in the scene).
If "Monsieur Verdoux" is a masterpiece, it's not always an easy film for viewers to accept. Aside from the difficulty of watching Chaplin play such a dark character, its bitter and depressing tone can be difficult to take. It is, however, a supreme example of black comedy, and one of the few such films that really goes all the way.
Added 1/10/15: This really is Chaplin's most accomplished talkie, even if there is a drastic shift in tone during the final moments. I found myself deeply moved by the scenes between Chaplin and Marilyn Nash, especially when he invites her to his home as a test case for his traceless poison and has a change of heart after hearing about her devotion to her dead husband. There is a quiet tenderness to this scene that ranks among the best moments in any of Chaplin's films.