Monsieur Verdoux is a 1947 black comedy film directed by and starring Charlie Chaplin, who plays a bigamist wife killer inspired by serial killer Henri Désiré Landru. The supporting cast includes Martha Raye, William Frawley, and Marilyn Nash.
Theatrical release poster (1947)
|Directed by||Charlie Chaplin|
|Produced by||Charlie Chaplin|
|Screenplay by||Charlie Chaplin|
|Story by||Orson Welles|
|Music by||Charlie Chaplin|
Curt Courant (uncredited)
|Edited by||Willard Nico|
|Distributed by||United Artists (1947 release)|
Columbia Pictures (1972 re-release)
|Box office||$323,000 (US)|
$1.5 million (international)
Henri Verdoux had been a bank teller for thirty years before being laid off. To support his wheelchair-bound wife and child, he turns to the business of marrying and murdering wealthy widows. The Couvais family becomes suspicious when Thelma Couvais withdraws all her money and disappears two weeks after marrying a man named "Varnay", whom they only know through a photograph.
As Verdoux (Chaplin) prepares to sell Thelma Couvais's home, the widowed Marie Grosnay (Isobel Elsom) visits. Verdoux sees her as another "business" opportunity and attempts to charm her, but she refuses. Over the following weeks, Verdoux has a flower girl (Barbara Slater) repeatedly send Grosnay flowers. In need of money to invest, Verdoux, as M. Floray, visits Lydia Floray (Margaret Hoffman) and convinces her he is her absent husband. She complains that his engineering job has kept him away too long. That night, Verdoux murders her for her money.
At a dinner party with his real wife and their friend the local chemist, Verdoux asks the chemist about the drug he developed to exterminate animals painlessly. The chemist explains the formula and that he had to stop working on it after the local pharmaceutical board banned it. Verdoux says he could test the drug by using it on a tramp off the street, then laughs it off as a morbid joke. Later at his furniture office he attempts to recreate the drug.
Shortly thereafter, Verdoux finds The Girl (Marilyn Nash) taking shelter from the rain in a doorway and takes her in. When he finds she was just released from prison and has nowhere to go, he prepares dinner for her with wine laced with his newly developed poison. Before drinking the wine, she thanks him for his kindness, and starts to talk about her husband who died while she was in jail. After she says her husband was a helpless invalid and that made her all the more devoted to him, Verdoux says he thinks there's cork in her wine and replaces it with a glass of unpoisoned wine. She leaves without knowing of his cynical intentions.
Verdoux makes several attempts to murder Annabella Bonheur (Martha Raye), who believes Verdoux to be Bonheur, a sea captain who is frequently away, including by strangulation while boating, and by poisoned wine, but she is impervious, repeatedly escaping death without even realizing while, at the same time, putting Verdoux himself in danger or near death. Meanwhile, Grosnay eventually softens and relents from the continual flowers from Verdoux and invites him to her residence. He convinces her to marry him, and Grosnay's friends hold a large public wedding to Verdoux's disapproval. Unexpectedly, Bonheur shows up to the wedding. Panicking, Verdoux fakes a cramp to avoid being seen and eventually deserts the wedding.
In the years leading up to Second World War, European markets collapse, with the subsequent bank failures causing Verdoux to go bankrupt. The economic crisis leads to rise of fascism across Europe. A few years later, in 1937, with the Spanish Civil War underway, The Girl, now well-dressed and chic, once again finds Verdoux on a street corner in Paris. She invites him to an elegant dinner at a high-end restaurant as a gesture of gratitude for his actions earlier. The girl has married a wealthy munitions executive she doesn't love to be well-off. Verdoux reveals that he has lost his family. At the restaurant, members of the Couvais family recognize Verdoux and attempt a pursuit. Verdoux delays them long enough to bid the unnamed girl farewell before letting himself be captured by the investigators.
Verdoux is exposed and convicted of murder. When he is sentenced in the courtroom, rather than expressing remorse he takes the opportunity to say that the world encourages mass killers, and that compared to the makers of modern weapons he is but an amateur. Later, before being led from his cell to the guillotine, a journalist asks him for a story with a moral, but he answers evasively, dismissing his killing of a few, for which he has been condemned, as not worse than the killing of many in war, for which others are honored, "Wars, conflict - it's all business. One murder makes a villain; millions, a hero. Numbers sanctify, my good fellow!" His last visitor before being taken to be executed is a priest (Fritz Leiber). When guards come to take him to the guillotine he is offered a cigarette, which he refuses, and a glass of rum, which he also refuses before changing his mind. He says "I've never tasted rum", downs the glass, and the priest begins reciting a prayer in Latin as the guards lead him away and the film ends.
Fellow American actor-writer-director Orson Welles received a 'story by' credit in the film. Chaplin and Welles disagree on the exact circumstances that led to the film's production, although both men agree that Welles initially approached Chaplin with the idea of having Chaplin star in a film as either a character based on Landru or Landru himself. However, from there, both men's stories diverge considerably.
Welles claims that he was developing a film of his own and was inspired to cast Chaplin as a character based on Landru. Chaplin initially agreed, but he later backed out at the last minute, not wanting to act for another director. However, Chaplin later offered to buy the script from him, and as Welles was in desperate need of money, he signed away all rights to Chaplin. According to Welles, Chaplin then rewrote several major sections, including the ending; the only specific scene to which Welles lays claim is the opening. Welles acknowledges that Chaplin claims to have no memory of receiving a script from Welles, and believes Chaplin is telling the truth when he says this.
Chaplin claims that Welles came to his house with the idea of doing a "series of documentaries, one to be on the celebrated French murderer, Bluebeard Landru," which he thought would be a wonderful dramatic part for Chaplin. Chaplin was initially interested, as it would provide him with an opportunity for a more dramatic role, as well as saving him the trouble of having to write the film himself. However, Chaplin claims that Welles then explained that the script had not yet been written and he wanted Chaplin's help to do so. As a result, Chaplin dropped out of Welles' project. Very shortly thereafter, the idea struck Chaplin that Landru's story would make a good comedy. Chaplin then telephoned Welles and told him that while his new idea had nothing to do with Welles' proposed documentary or with Landru, he was willing to pay Welles five thousand dollars in order to "clear everything." After negotiations, Welles accepted on the terms that he would receive a "story by" screen credit. Chaplin later stated that he would have insisted on no screen credit at all had he known that Welles would eventually try to take credit for the idea.
This was the first feature film in which Chaplin's character bore no resemblance to his famous "Tramp" character (The Great Dictator did not feature the Tramp, but his "Jewish barber" bore some similarity). While immediately after the end of World War II on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean appeared a spate of films, including in 1946 It's a Wonderful Life and A Matter of Life and Death, which drew on so many people's experience of loss of loved ones and offered a kind of consolation, on the contrary Monsieur Verdoux reproposed the dark themes emerged from the war conflict. Consequently, it was poorly received in America when it first premiered. Moreover, Chaplin's popularity and public image had been irrevocably damaged by many scandals and political controversies before its release. However, the film was more successful in Europe.
Chaplin was subjected to unusually hostile treatment by the press while promoting the opening of the film, and some boycotts took place during its short run. In New Jersey, the film was picketed by members of the Catholic War Veterans, who carried placards calling for Chaplin to be deported. In Denver, similar protests against the film by the American Legion managed to prevent it being shown. A censorship board in Memphis, Tennessee, banned Monsieur Verdoux outright. At one press conference to promote the film, Chaplin made his speech, then invited questions from the press with the words "Proceed with the butchering". Richard Coe in the Washington Post lauded Monsieur Verdoux, calling it "a bold, brilliant and bitterly amusing film."  James Agee praised Monsieur Verdoux, calling the film "a great poem" and "one of the few indispensable works of our time". Evelyn Waugh praised Monsieur Verdoux as "a startling and mature work of art", although Waugh also added that he thought "there is a 'message' and I think, a deplorable one" in the film.
The film was popular in France, where it had admissions of 2,605,679.
Despite its poor critical and commercial performance, the film was nominated for the 1947 Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. In the decades since its release, Monsieur Verdoux has become more highly regarded.
- Variety Staff (October 14, 2011). "Actress Marilyn Nash dies. Starred with Chaplin in 'Monsieur Verdoux'". Variety. Archived from the original on January 20, 2012. Retrieved November 7, 2018.
- Balio, Tino. United Artists: The Company That Changed the Film Industry, University of Wisconsin Press, 1987 pg. 54
- Balio, Tino (2009). United Artists: The Company Built by the Stars. University of Wisconsin Press. p. 214. ISBN 978-0-299-23004-3.
- Bogdanovich, Peter and Orson Welles, This is Orson Welles, HarperPerennial 1992, ISBN 0-06-092439-X
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- Peary, Danny (2014). "Monsieur Verdoux". Cult Crime Movies. Discover the 35 Best Dark, Dangerous, Thrilling, and Noir Cinema Classics. New York City: Workman Publishing. ISBN 978-0-76118433-1.
- Caute, David, The Great Fear: The Anti-Communist Purge Under Truman & Eisenhower. New York; Simon & Schuster, 1978. ISBN 0-671-22682-7 (p. 516)
- New York Times, June 11, 1947, p.33
- Flores Alvarez, Olivia (October 9, 2008). "Monsieur Verdoux: Charlie Chaplin's post-WWII film is a comedy of murders". Houston Press. Retrieved December 8, 2012.
- Maland,Charles J. Chaplin and American Culture: The Evolution of a Star Image. Princeton University Press, 1991. ISBN 9780691028606 (p.247)
- Agee, James, Film Writing and Selected Journalism. Library of America, ISBN 9781931082822, 2005. (pg. 293-303)
- Davis, Robert Murray, Evelyn Waugh, writer. Pilgrim Books, 1981. ISBN 0937664006 (p.213)
- French box office of 1948, BoxOfficeStory.com; accessed November 17, 2017.
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