Monsieur Verdoux

Monsieur Verdoux (1947) dir. Charles Chaplin

Broadly, there are two types of black comedies.  One is black in topic, but has a light and happy tone.  Kind Hearts and Coronets, Death at a Funeral and Arsenic and Old Lace are examples.  You leave the film laughing and giggling at your naughtiness.  You play with the blackness, but you don’t take it seriously.  Death and destruction abound, but we are humans and we are charming, and so life is still good.  It’s a “grey” film.

Then, there are the real black comedies.  These are your Dr. Strangeloves, your Viridianas, and your Borats.  We laugh at the horrors of humanity, but don’t feel much better for it.  If Hobbes’s theory of laughter is correct — that it is our feeling of superiority to those who are the butt of the joke (or just don’t get it) — this black comedy allows us pessimists to assert our elevated position above those who see the world in a more favorable light.

The two categories can also be delineated by intent.  The first type reinforces the social order, and is primarily and entertainment vehicle.  The second type is subversive, and is meant to call attention to societal sins.

For example, take two stories from The Onion on the same subject:

Hijackers Surprised To Find Selves In Hell” Sep 26, 2001
U.S. Commemorates 9/11 By Toasting Stable Afghan Government From Top Of Freedom Tower” Sep 12, 2011

The first reassures Americans they are on the right side, and gives them a much-needed laugh.  The second criticizes American policies, and is designed to leave them depressed and cynical.

Most all of Charlie Chaplin’s work falls into the second category.  (The Great Dictator, intended for two different audiences, had a different function and different sense of humor depending on where a person lived at the time of release.)  Monsieur Verdoux is perhaps his darkest, and that’s saying something for a comedic actor whose most famous scene was inspired by the Donner Party.

The “Bluebeard” wife-murdering scheme isn’t necessarily so dark; Kind Hearts and Coronets kept a light tone on its serial killer.  Instead, it’s the Lord of the Flies outlook on life that gives Verdoux its bite.

From the very outset, we have trouble feeling empathy for any of Verdoux’s victims.  Their families are unlikeable, their faces ugly, their voices shrill, and their manner annoying.  We pretty much root for Verdoux to murder Martha Raye’s character.

Then, we learn that Verdoux is largely a victim of circumstance.  He’s a cog in the machine, essentially forced into murder by his wife’s disability and by economic turmoil.  In a conversation with a young prostitute he meets on the street, we learn that it is his very goodness and love that is causing his evil.

Marilyn Nash functions as the story’s Sonya Marmeladova.  The golden-hearted hooker forces Verdoux to recognize his feelings of guilt and gives him an opportunity to choose mercy instead.

But unlike Dostoevsky’s Christian Sonya, Nash’s reprieve from prostitution is only temporary, and she voluntarily falls back into it.  In fact, she falls into an even more insidious form, marrying an arms dealer and growing wealthy through killing on a larger scale than Verdoux.

It’s this realization that prompts both Verdoux’s confession and the stance he takes on his crimes.  Because there is no God and because Nash has failed as mediatrix, Verdoux cannot be a repentant Raskolnikov.

“Wars, conflict – it’s all business. One murder makes a villain; millions, a hero. Numbers sanctify, my good fellow!”

“As for being a mass killer, does not the world encourage it? Is it not building weapons of destruction for the sole purpose of mass killing? Has it not blown unsuspecting women and little children to pieces? And done it very scientifically? As a mass killer, I am an amateur by comparison. However, I do not wish to lose my temper, because very shortly, I shall lose my head. Nevertheless, upon leaving this spark of earthly existence, I have this to say: I shall see you all… very soon… very soon.”

In 2012, we see think “Yes, Chaplin makes a good point, even if he does go on a bit.”  We’re fairly comfortable with criticizing many of the particulars of the Allies’ terror bombings on German and Japanese cities, and don’t necessarily see it as criticizing the Allies in general

Anti-HUAC cartoon published in Kino, 26 December 1947.

But given the context of 1947 and of Chaplin’s socialist sympathies, the film came across as too harsh of an indictment of the “military-industrial complex.”  The film conspicuously omits Russia from its montage of dictatorships.  Soviet puppets in Eastern Europe used Monsieur Verdoux as anti-American propaganda.  The film faced bans and boycotts, and helped galvanize anti-Chaplin opinion in the United States.

A closer look reveals more in Verdoux than ham-handed pacifism.  Unlike Chaplin’s wall-breaking benediction in The Great Dictator, his final speech in Verdoux is utterly without hope or appeals for love.  Killing is simply how the world works.

As Claude Chabrol says in an interview on The Chaplin Collection DVD release, Chaplin’s films are about survival, and Verdoux believes that man must kill to live.  It is no accident that Verdoux and Nash discuss her copy of Schopenhauer rather than Rasknolikov and Sonya’s famous reading of Lazarus.

Must the good guys, in certain occasions, murder their wives or drop bombs on sleeping children?  If so, Chaplin observes, we are in the darkest comedy there is.

Monsieur Verdoux is #202 on the 2012 edition of the TSPDT 1,000 list I’m blogging through.  I’ve now seen 425.

About Adam Call Roberts

I live and work in the beautiful Ozarks of Northwest Arkansas. I have a 2-year-old son who, right now, loves dinosaurs, dragons and showing off how fast he can run. I'm counting down through the list of 1,000 Greatest Films. Follow my journey here. I'm also a genealogy buff, and I blog about my family history.
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