The idea that a film could “kill” the career of one of America’s most loved stars seems a tad bit antithetical in today’s increasingly safe world, but then we don’t have many daring, singular stars like the ever fearless provocateur in a clown’s body that was Charlie Chaplin. Although the much-loved star carved out a lovable niche as a tragicomic by donning the rumpled clothing of a tramp and the heart of humanity at its simplest and most direct, he was always ready for a fight. His quasi-silent masterpiece Modern Times is one of the least hidden anti-capitalist films ever to be spooled up before an audience, damningly positing the internalization of mechanical soullessness into the human capacity for movement and survival. As if that wasn’t enough, he went on to fancy himself a Hitler-pastiche in The Great Dictator, playing with fire by targeting the most holy of subjects before it was even quiet enough for mourning.
But Charlie Chaplin never courted controversy and inspired ire like he did with his coal-black comedy Monsieur Verdoux, a work so dreary and decayed and yet so seemingly pithy about mankind’s darkest secrets he couldn’t but escape a dead man. In the film Chaplin plays a womanizer left out in the cold by society who becomes a victim turned agent when he decides his only outlet for money is to woo wealthy women and see them to an early grave. When one considers how lightly Chaplin glides through the narrative, it is almost impossible to reconcile the film’s cheekiness with the still-recovering-from-the-war world it greeted during its release year of 1947.
Indeed, Chaplin never did recover from Monsieur Verdoux, especially when HUAC ghouls rightly honed in on the film’s anti-capitalist base level and wrongly thought negatively of this fact. His fame lasted, and he died a well respected, much loved, man in 1977 after renewed interest in his work followed the radicalism of the American New Wave train into town, but he was never productive again. Today Monsieur Verdoux approaches us like a bullet from the future, stark and cavorting between deep humanism and brittle inhumanity while Chaplin’s mordant camera watches and waits.
Chaplin’s attitude toward his titular character is vexed yet textured. On one hand he’s a particularly snidely sort that couldn’t much care about human kindness if he wanted to. But in his double-takes and pained smirks Chaplin witnesses something else: Verdoux as a beaten down everyday society man who has lost hope in a moral, functioning world and has turned to embracing it in lieu of challenging it. Chaplin’s attitude isn’t excusatory, for Verdoux is a particularly vile agent of this world, but questions are left dangling. Most importantly: what does it say for a society to punish one of its own for a particularly egregious crime that is in reality but one particularly dark stroke on the painting of humanity’s self-death? At the end of the film, Monsieur Verdoux is captured, willingly, in fact, after having lost interest in his own superficial survival. He’s courted off to the gallows and utters a nasty but plaintive reminder to the world undoing him, and many have commented that here and only here does the Tramp’s signature physical wobble return to Verdoux.
What do we make of this? Certainly, Verdoux’s statement about all the state-sanctioned death occuring around him can be taken at face value, society scapegoating him for their own propensity for death and destruction. And in this final scene after Verdoux had given up on living, the lovable Tramp returns, society having destroyed Verdoux’s soul just as it had destroyed the Tramp’s. The striking gesture openly connects the two, positing the pair as victims, and daringly implying that for all we loved the Tramp, we ought to love Verdoux all the same. He, despite his actions, is a victim as well.
But Chaplin is not that single-minded. We must not forget Verdoux’s performative nature – he was after all a man who brought others to their death by playing roles. In this light, his final role seems to be the sympathetic beggar of the Great Depression, Verdoux desperately appropriating true poverty to accrue sympathy as a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Chaplin may realize what Verdoux is doing, and he isn’t ready to let him off the hook.
Still, the similarities between Verdoux and Chaplin’s previous films undeniably position this as a particularly caustic, unholy little entry in his canon, and the most nihilist. While his character in Modern Times suffers from society’s weight when he automatically and robotically turns the cogs of his machine even while on free time, he at least had the audience’s humanity with him. Here, Verdoux engages in a shockingly similar gesture almost on cue, as if winding up his batteries – he counts the money from his deathly deeds with shocking speed and mechanical proficiency. And he enjoys it, having lost himself to his actions as counting blood money takes over for any sort of marital bliss. Chaplin presents the film’s main murder with an eye for irony and the tease, filming it with Verdoux’s lover entering her room and Verdoux following suit. Chaplin knows this is the offhand, knowing way many films from his era would depict sex without actually depicting it, but context shows Verdoux has something else on the mind. He does his deed and counting the money is his way to mark his conquest. It’s a calming gesture for him in the way the endless drive for money calms people only by pushing them further into the system that causes them so much stress to begin with.
In the end, the similarity between Verdoux’s robotic actions and those of the factory worker Chaplin inhabits in Modern Times shouldn’t be written off due to the harshness of Chaplin’s character here. Verdoux is the factory worker for a darker time, given in to the system that mocks him so and accepting that the only thing for him is using this system’s immorality to his advantage. It’s a damned-near hopeless statement from the man who was once associated with cinematic hope more than any star in Hollywood. Monsieur Verdoux is one of the most defiant, apocalyptic statements from a major cinematic force ever released, all the more tragic for its seeming lack of consequence. It says nothing less than that the world is a hellhole, and no one, not even the good ol’ tramp who never meant any harm, until apparently he did, is safe.