CineMaven has assembled a collection of blog posts all dealing with films that address the eternal predicament and inconvenience of an unwanted spouse, and the multitude of changes one can ring on this theme.
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Monsieur Verdoux, or I Can Get It for You Wholesale!
Charlie Chaplin’s “Monsieur Verdoux” is an interesting entry in the catalog of films dealing with the enduring (and endearing!) story of one (or both!) spouse(s) trying to murder the other. In this film, the anti-hero loses his job in the financial crash of the 1920s and is driven to provide for his wife and family by marrying and murdering a series of relatively well-off women: thus, the “I can get it for you wholesale” version of the “’Till death us do part” genre.
Using a variation of the Bluebeard theme as a pattern, the movie weaves threads of sly characterization, romantic comedy, slapstick, dark poetry, and political and social justice commentary into a complicated tapestry that will engage any fan of 1940s movies, especially those who are also fans of Chaplin. However, while the overall effect is close to the gay but dark comedic romp promised in the promotional posters, the nature of Monsier Verdoux himself remains, we think, enigmatic, and this gives depth to a story that otherwise might be written off as merely an entertainment.
In the beginning of the film, Henri Verdoux is shown in his ascendancy. He is selling off the assets of his last victim, and furiously pursuing a fortuitous candidate for his next wife. While it is apparent that he is acting a part to ensnare his new target, his elegance and refinement are presented as at least somewhat sincere, as seen in the episode with a caterpillar that Verdoux rescues from his garden path. These mixed impressions continue in the episode where he pauses on his way to murder another of his wives, and declaims a poetic monolog to the Moon and Endymion. Then it is morning, and Verdoux is briskly counting his late wife’s life’s savings, cold-bloodedly pocketing part of it and wiring the rest to his broker to cover a margin call. Time and space pass, as indicated by scenes with the spinning wheels of a locomotive, and we at last meet the REAL Madame Verdoux. Here Henri Verdoux shows sincere affection for his wheelchair-bound wife and his little son. He even defends the family pet from rough handling by his son, chiding his son by asking him how he would feel if he was treated in that way. (This empathy is of course conspicuously missing from his dealings with his other wives.) The motivation for his crimes is now clear: he murders his innocent “spouses” for the true love of his family. Later, we see Monsieur Verdoux about to dispatch a young stranger he meets on the street, merely to test out a poisonous concoction he wants to use on his next wife. However, he spares her after listening to her talk about how she loved and cared for her late husband as he was dying.
Now these scenes could be dismissed as humorous vignettes showing the ridiculous contrasts in Verdoux’s personality. However, as they build in intensity, we think they are also designed to throw the viewer off balance as to Verdoux’s character, and to prepare us for the last part of the film.
A few years have passed, and we meet Verdoux at the end of his rope. Another collapse has wiped him out, his family is gone, and he is about to be apprehended by the authorities for his crimes. These catastrophes seem to have given him a new wisdom: he looks back on the preceding years as a dream, something unreal and horrible. He is in no frame of mind to justify his crimes, which in the end did not even satisfy his goal of caring for his wife and son.
At his trial and later in prison, Verdoux continues to wax philosophical, with a distinctly satanic air. The scene where he grins from the prisoner’s box and promises his audience that he will see them all soon is bound to send a chill down the sympathetic viewer’s spine.
But these later scenes would not work as well in the film without the contradictions depicted in Verdoux’s character earlier. We are being prepared to accept Verdoux as more than just the bungling murderer trying to drown Martha Raye. The contradictions are not just played for laughs, and they build in intensity: a caterpillar is spared; a kitty is protected; by the time Verdoux is toying with the young stranger’s life, our nerves are on edge. Listening to his speeches in court and in prison provides both an explanatory resolution for Verdoux’s crimes, and a cathartic relief to our tension. This formal structure lends strength and depth to the experience of the film.
However, the resolution is not complete. In the penultimate scene, Henri Verdoux is leaving his cell on his way to the guillotine when he first refuses and then asks for a final glass of rum, saying that he had never had any, and wonders what it tastes like. He tosses it back and is led out. What is the viewer to make of this? A final act of bravado? Verdoux the hedonist to the end, denying the comfort of religion while exalting the experience of the here-and-now? Or simply Henri Verdoux, his family gone, his desire to live gone, just curious about the taste of rum? He remains elusive to the end, the solution to the conundrum an exercise for the viewer.
The most important consequence of the development of Verdoux’s character is that it leads to the political message of the film. The collapse that results in Verdoux’s undoing is political as well as financial, and the director employs newsreel footage to emphasize the ensuing rise of fascism along with the financial panic. In his speeches in court and in prison Verdoux doesn’t deny his crimes, but insists that they are diminished to inconsequentiality by the crimes of war for which we all share responsibility. While obviously relevant to the post-WWII world into which the film was launched, it is equally relevant to our world today.
In the very last scene is another thread that may either mar or make the tapestry, depending on the viewer. As the movie ends, Verdoux is led away through the prison courtyard, his back to us. While this is dramatic in its own right, it is also a clear allusion to all the Little Tramp movies where the hero toddles on down the road as the final scene fades. Throughout “Monsieur Verdoux” there are allusions to Chaplin’s earlier work (the scene in the rowboat with Martha Raye is another great example). While this is bound to titillate Chaplin’s fans, others may find it self-serving and jarring.
There is a lot more in this film that is worthy of attention. Its place in the history of film, in Chaplin’s oeuvre, in the cultural history of the time, are all significant.
And the film all by itself is the work of a master and an enjoyable way to spend two hours!