Chaplin, Metastasis

The Double Life of Verdoux

 | Roundtable |

  BY S Ramani, A Malhotra

'...just the overall corruptibility of society that allows a monster like Verdoux to attain purity'

Monsieur Verdoux is a highly obscure title in Chaplin’s filmography. It is a film where he does not appear as the Tramp. It is also not a silent film in genre, style or tone. It is a film where, as pocket summary states it, Charlie Chaplin plays a serial killer.

This film was released in 1947, seven years after The Great Dictator (1940). The world had changed completely in those seven blood-soaked years. The project came to life as a result of Orson Welles trying to convince Chaplin to work with him. His initial idea was a romantic story with Chaplin and Greta Garbo. Chaplin was interested but Greta Garbo retired from cinema altogether. Then Welles launched into a more ambitious idea, a fictional retelling of the exploits of real-life French serial killer Henri Desirée Landru, with Chaplin playing the Bluebeard killer. Chaplin was interested in this story but stated that he was too old to be directed by another film-maker. So he bought the story from Welles (for which he’s credited) and made it his next project.

The film’s release was tinged with controversy. 1947 was the year where the Cold War first drew lines on the sand. The House Committee of Un-American Activities (HUAC) started its hearings against Hollywood artists for communist sympathies. A lifelong leftist, Chaplin was a natural suspect. The film’s content also clashed against the dictates of Hollywood’s draconian censorship. Only James Agee, the famous American movie critic, came to the film’s defense writing several articles arguing for its importance as a satire and film achievement. Since then its defenders and fans have formed a wide international cult, including Fellini, Visconti, Luis Bunuel and many, many others. 


Sudarshan Ramani: You know, (Monsieur) Verdoux was the first Chaplin movie I saw. I borrowed a DVD from the British Council Library (City Lights was rented out). It was also the first black-and-white old film I saw which convinced me that old films can be just as modern as new films.

Anuj Malhotra: I wonder how Verdoux would strike someone who hasn't seen any Chaplin before. It isn't really an ideal prototype. Is it a surprise to then see his earlier work, or is Verdoux a greater surprise after you have watched all the films from the ‘20s and the ‘30s? 

SR: Well, the thing is all of us “know” Chaplin in the way we know the Beatles. His image, some of his gags (The Dance of the Rolls in The Gold Rush, the fact that he kicks the backsides of his pursuers) are embedded in the unconsciousness of popular culture. 

There’s this familiarity when you arrive to his movies. So paradoxically, I think seeing the unknown, obscure films like Monsieur Verdoux can be a better palate cleanser. As such for me the Chaplin sound films, Verdoux and The Great Dictator are the lens through which I see his silent films. I look back and see elements in those films that anticipate the more cynical later comedies. It’s possible to see continuities rather than discordances.

AM: A case may be made for that. Verdoux is filled with anger that’s rather shocking when you first see it. It’s there in how it makes murder so banal. It smartly places its murders inside manors, chateaus and on estates, gets a nicely suited man to commit them while he trims rose stems - there is a lot of cleverness in the exteriors there. If he set it in a factory, where a labourer murders women with a giant spanner, it would be different.  Like Fritz Lang, Chaplin subverts the audience's immense love for The Tramp and his antics - a subject of much laughter earlier - into a method of culpability for the crimes on the screen. They can no longer merely see and then unsee the film. The gags implicate the audience and make them hero-villain Verdoux’s accomplice.

SR: Verdoux is like Lang as well, in that there's really no one to point fingers too. It's just the overall corruptibility of society that allows a monster like Verdoux to attain  purity within it.

AM: I watched Chaplin’s films chronologically. Verdoux struck me immediately as the natural consequence of Modern Times and The Great Dictator.

SR: I think the main thing about Chaplin, and I mentioned this in the King of New York article, is that he was someone who learned and observed and was highly attuned to society. Going from The Great Dictator to the bleak postwar Monsieur Verdoux is a shocking leap, but understandable if you consider that the former film is pre-war, while the latter is obviously informed by a post- Holocaust and post-Hiroshima view of the world.

AM: Verdoux feels like a fantastic eruption. The Great Dictator, on the other hand, is a little like the dream in The Kid, or the crude fantasy of the bourgeois household in Modern Times, but stretched to feature length (Chaplin's films are full of impossible dreams, indistinguishable from what the rest of the film). It's like The Tramp sitting inside a trench during the War and creating this fantasy where he employs speech to commandeer the world into peace. Monsieur Verdoux has a certain dreamlike character as well: it imagines The Tramp as a person with a past, a home and reputable neighbours.

'Like Rupert Pupkin, Verdoux has tailored himself into an image of the bourgeois'

It reminds me a little of Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. Verdoux's meeting with the young, stranded girl is mirrored in Bickle's meeting with Iris. The male assumes a moral high-ground while the woman/girl reminds him an alternative is possible - which completely throws his beliefs into crisis. All three films have tragic figures, blue-collar workers performing roles that seem to have been forced upon them. Like Rupert Pupkin, Verdoux has tailored himself into an image of the bourgeois - which ironically, makes him double-removed - a fact the girl reminds him of.


SR: At the heart of the Chaplin Debate is the central axiom that Chaplin became rich by acting poor. Critics in the Anglophone often took umbrage with Chaplin for his sentimentality towards the poor, for his Victorian attitude of ennobling poverty, associating compassion and niceness to the poor. There’s also that remark by Buster Keaton, "Chaplin's Tramp is a bum with a bum's philosophy of life, my man is a working man."

AM: It’s interesting how Chaplin's approach to this changed over the years, as he became rich himself. It seems clear that the view from the inside offered details that were even more rotten, the idea that privilege is ultimately vulgar and founded on a premise that may be fake.

Like he says, 'despair is narcotic, it lulls the mind into indifference', which is a marked difference from his earlier films, where despair wasn't a possibility at all.

SR: Well, what makes Chaplin a great artist is that there was never an entirely knee-jerk attitude against the rich. He doesn't think people with money are stereotypically bad in the Soviet Tradition. I mean in City Lights he makes fun of the rich guy who as an alcoholic becomes pals with the Tramp but when sober doesn't know who he is. But the point is the Alcoholic personality is endearing and likable.

AM: Chaplin doesn't judge individuals, but structures within which they reside. And in Verdoux, that’s what is so striking; he is criticizing both the structures but identifying himself within the thing he decries. He’s not only criticising the world's apathy in general, but accepting that as a Hollywood filmmaker, he’s implicated too - as a result of the manner in which he worked, his own attitude. In Verdoux, Chaplin is more generous to his support characters and bit players. He’s interested in depicting the cruelty of the noveau-riche Martha Rayes towards her maid, a tragic character who is an annoyance for both her employer and Verdoux, whose murder-plot she interrupts unwittingly.

SR: Verdoux is certainly a film that marks the maturity of Chaplin as an artist. It’s a blindingly honest film, filled with a commentary on his personality, his public profile and his earlier films.

AM: In the scene where he seeks to poison the young girl, out of the blue, she looks at him as he approaches the table with the Hitchcockian wine-bottle and says, 'You look funny.' He remarks, 'Do I? Why?', and she goes, 'I don't know.' It's as if Chaplin is self-reflecting on the long-dissipated Tramp, who is now a spectre, still visible in brief flashes, but very much a memory.

The Idle Class (1921): 'Chaplin performs a double function'

In an earlier short, The Idle Class, Chaplin performs this double-function, of the man on the street, the noble honest man trying to fend for himself, and the callous, rich man who doesn't care for his wife. What is startling about Verdoux is that these two personae have now fused together much more closely, and the distinction isn't really clear - so that even while sitting in his country house with his wife and the neighbors, he can conceive of a most diabolical plan over dinner. This, he accomplishes with the assistance of his chemist-friend, who contributes to murder unwittingly, like the rest of us.

SR: Yes. What's interesting or disturbing is that he, in a very self-aware manner invites you to conspire with Verdoux. Like that scene where he poisons that man on the train. You see him prepare and time it well, play that man for a fool, and poison him with smug satisfaction. It's suspense in reverse-Hitchcock way. Hitchcock had you experience the suspense of vulnerability, the powerlessness and confusion of the troubled, here with Verdoux, you have the suspense of power.

It's like you are the bad guy waiting for the plan to come out, and you always wonder “Will I get caught this time, will this sucker take the bait”, you are waiting thinking, “steady, stay calm, play it cool” that's the suspense of exercising power, waiting to see if a plan comes out. In this case, the taking of a man’s life. Such an approach to comedy, also strengthens the identification with Chaplin the Creator and Verdoux, since comedians/actors/directors wonder all the time "Is the timing right?" "Will the audience get it?"

AM: It is like another transeuropean story where train, travel, war and the depression are important - Sacha Guitry's Story of a Cheat. Much like Guitry in that film, Chaplin is very careful about revealing the entirety of his method to the audience; they are in on his secrets: the fraudulent bank transfer, the murder in the night, the poisoned wine, the rock on the boat. The character's adventures become our own.

'...Much like Guitry, Chaplin is careful about revealing his method to the audience...'

SR: It's the only film where Chaplin plays a powerful man – power over life and death, power of intelligence. Adenoid Hynkel had power of course, but he had no idea how to wield it, had no intelligence and genius. Verdoux not only knows who he is, what he is capable of but he knows how to use it and with the exception of Martha Raye’s character, he never faces something he cannot control.

AM: It is always a choice for Verdoux, one he is unable to make because of, again, the role he has to perform - that of the provider - but once he doesn't, once his family is dead by the war, he can be on his way.

It is marked by these twin-images: the roses and the incinerator, the subtitle: 'comedy of murders', the girl's youth and Verdoux's plans for her - it is as if the war through the world into a moral dilemma it can no longer resolve, or atleast the film cannot. What is interesting in that context is that it is very much a film about Europe as well, the continent.

SR: I am not sure about that, because Chaplin is not really a European. He called himself "a Citizen of the World, a Cosmopolitan" and I think his vision of Verdoux is not specifically about Europe after the war, but a kind of sentiment about the Western World generally and America in particular. He put across the idea in that film that modern democratic states (as opposed to the dictatorship in The Great Dictator) are bloody, violent and that it corrupts people. In the end, that nice girl who he spares becomes the mistress of an arms dealer.

That said, Verdoux’s double life did not make sense to me for a long time. I mean I didn't get what Chaplin was trying to suggest with this sentimental family life and child he has back home.

AM: It’s important because it represents a past that he can’t go back to. The ideals of dignity and pride, stature and standing. His wife says to him, 'We were happy in the one-room apartment.' and he replies, 'We will never go back to it.' This is the point at which Verdoux connects, I feel, to The Tramp.

Obviously, the idea of simulation, of performance, of creating a certain facade is central to Verdoux - he is a mimic, an actor, a mannerist who anticipates Farocki and his observations about how capitalism creates a world full of mechanised realities and resemblances forty years later.

SR: Well for me, I tried to see it psychologically. For me, the happy family life didn’t make sense as an excuse or a motivation and justification.

AM: I think it makes sense as a justification. What Verdoux is essentially saying is that war has rendered morality relative. That if the Depression took away his thirty-year-old job and left millions like him unemployed, it is justified that he fend for his family by doing what he does. I agree that later becomes a ruse. It is Verdoux's method of satisfying himself and not entirely true, and Chaplin is aware of this. His wife says, 'In the last three years, you have become desperate and anxious' - Verdoux has given himself a grander purpose, but it isn't only that, he discovers that he has a natural instinct to murder.

SR: That is right. I think seeing what we see, it's a case of a man who initially did things out of necessity but gradually found that being a conman and murderer was an aesthetic pursuit. He cloaks his actions to his victims in the facade of a bourgeois gentleman and gradually the life at home, with his wife and child becomes less honest and truthful to his nature.

AM: What I find curious about this film are the lengths to which Chaplin goes to establish the kindness of Verdoux, especially towards those 'lesser than him' - the caterpillar at the beginning, then the cat, and then the girl; it is as if kindness itself has become a ritualised performance for him. I especially like the way Chaplin reads the line, 'Violence begets violence,' to his child - like a rehearsed line meant to be used whenever it can, but that he doesn't really mean it. He even treats himself to a satisfied expression after he has said it; as if content with the manner in which he has performed it. It's like you say, Verdoux empties out as a human being during the course of the film.


'...tremendous economy'

SR: What I especially like in Verdoux is the style, it's something all by itself. It’s highly cinematic. The comedy shifts in style and tones, you have the classical physical comedy but you also get the sophisticated humor. It’s a dark story, but most of the action takes place in broad daylight.

AM: There is also tremendous economy in how it operates: overnight travels represented by a recurring image of rotating trainwheels, Verdoux headed for another misdeed, the transition from night to day depicted through the scene from an open balcony, the fact of the murder communicated through Verdoux setting a table for two, but then removing one plate.

SR: It's completely unified, story, performance and mise-en-scene. The Wellesian influence remains within the film. You have a broad timeline of several years, a mix of genres (low-comedy and sophisticated French farce), some scenes play like a thriller, others go back to classic silent gags. The characters also have a higher degree of realism, not only Verdoux but the supporting characters as well. It’s a great advance from Chaplin’s sketch-like episodic work before. Even visually, it shows the influence of Kane, using sound, editing and visual cues for transitions and scene shifts. Chaplin takes this fresh influence and modernises his old style of comedy.

AM: Yes, for instance, the image of the house: his abode, the only real hope left for Verdoux of ever becoming an actual human being, stripped of all pretense - condensed in this single composition of Verdoux, his son besides him, walking through a corridor to the room where his wife sits, knitting.

SR: It also adds up to the ultimate vision of the film. It's one thing to make a dark movie about a serial killer, Lang’s M is the locus classicus – night-time setting, underbelly setting, back alleys, tinged with expressionist horror. It’s another thing to show it how Chaplin does. Murders in broad daylight, no theatrics, life goes on and nothing really changes in society.

AM: Yes, it's true. In that it begins with this family which is concerned about a lost member, but  the police stuff, the chases and the procedural really only serve to develop the legend of Verdoux but never really interfere with the film or Verdoux's own plans. It will be difficult to establish the authorship, what of it comes from Welles and what from Chaplin but the unity of form, tone and content is a remarkable aspect of Verdoux

'...the Wellesian influence remains within the film'

SR: It's definitely a Chaplin film. Welles wrote it with Chaplin in mind and Verdoux as a story/concept cannot be made with another actor. This brings the other idea beloved of Cahiers writers - the Axiom of the Cinema - that movie stars contain in their being and performance their past lives on camera and their succeeding performances are in dialogue with earlier performances. The substance of the film is really Chaplin’s personality, his face, his body, the history it carries within himself.  Chaplin’s performance becomes, simultaneously, the form/content/text/subtext of the film. If Verdoux may not be Chaplin’s greatest film, it is assuredly his greatest performance as an actor, and so one of the greatest in history.

AM: Yes, it is especially true of Chaplin - as close to an icon that cinema ever came. He become a resurrecting symbol - appearing mysteriously in different cinema universes - before Chaplin himself put a complete end to the myth in Verdoux.  In my view, it is made even greater by the fact that it is the performance of a performance; it is made of tiny gestures, veneer-slips and expressions of truth that really reveal themselves to the viewer on the second go. It is really a performance of two halves - the Verdoux in front of the ladies, and the Verdoux behind their back, when entangled in a hug with them, his face invisible to them (but not to us).

There is a line that is repeated throughout the film about Verdoux: 'I would know him if I ever saw him.' - it's as if the characters of all the films The Tramp appeared in were made to line up and repeat it, confirm it.

SR: The final mystery of Verdoux is that it really is the end of Chaplin the Actor. His films after that didn't have a performance or role of comparable calibre. Limelight, A King of New York feature characters and stories but there they serve the situation, Chaplin is in that as merely another actor. He's not really the engine or center anymore.

AM: Yes, it is not co-incidental that he is taken to his death at the end. It's also dark and truthful - it's the one Chaplin film (and he made one about Hitler) where characters shoot themselves in the head, are burnt in incinerators, jump out from the windows and even a mastermind like Verdoux is eventually defeated by the tides of history. It is also peculiar in Chaplin's filmography in that it refers directly to actual historical event and uses archival footage to depict these.

A fact central to Chaplin's work is his sensitivity to the environment from within which his films rise. It reminds me of the incident on the shooting of Mr. Moto when Lorre was required to do a take, play the detective. Inside his trailer, he saw Hitler deliver a speech that would necessarily drive Germany into war, and he ran out, exasperated and crying, 'For God's sake, don't ask me do these phony takes when the world's collapsing.'


SR: With Verdoux, I think it's interesting in that it shows the way historical events no longer concern private lives and individuals, it happens outside them, as if they are irrelevant.

AM: Yes, the war renders the sprightly Verdoux with a spring-in-his-step old, haggard and tired. He begins to walk with a limp and the expression on his face is no longer full of clarity and smugness; he is confused and unclear. And yet, when he sees the young girl arrive in the car and offer him a ride, it is clear he senses an opportunity, still.

SR: The trial speech is really an echo of the speech at the end of Great Dictator, where Chaplin steps out of Hynkel/Barber and speaks directly. Here we have Chaplin speaking but at the same time, it’s Verdoux, or rather Verdoux and Chaplin at once. That synthesis becomes arch-Brechtian in a way that cinema can only do.

The girl is kind and offers him a lift, but has chosen to be part of a loveless engagement to lead a comfortable life. Verdoux, similarly, is a likeable charmer, but murders for a living.

'I shall see all of you, very soon, very soon.'

AM: I think Verdoux really is a criticism of the world at large, a world in which he was The Tramp for years, he advised them to be courageous and smile but which collapsed into war and vulgarity, forcing him therefore to despair and resignation. Chaplin's films are full of images of his character running away from the police, but in Verdoux, when he sees the cops enter the club, he enters with them, hoping to be caught. It's really the end of the old character, the image. The cop tells the photographer in the prison twice, 'No pictures!'

SR: The conversation between Verdoux and the Priest is the essential thing of course. As Chabrol noted, what makes it really harsh is that the Priest is not an idiot, he’s decent and sincere. He's not a caricature and this makes Verdoux' argument that much harder to shake since you can't say that it's a simple anti-religious statement.

AM: Yes, I think in saying his soul is his business and not God's, he is placing the responsibility of the human condition on man himself. He laughs at the idea of destiny - a convenient ruse - despite what has happened to him. I do wonder how the film would seem if there was no house for Verdoux to fend for, no history as a bank clerk, if he were simply a murderer.

SR: I think it would defeat the point of the film, that the serial killer is part of the same world and attitudes we live in. Not apart from it.

AM: Yes, the idea about relative morality, 'in comparison, I am an amateur.'

SR: Yeah he is.

That line says it all, "Numbers sanctify, my good fellow."

Then he walks to the gallows and his gait becomes the Tramp again, as Bazin pointed out, so shockingly.

AM: The whole film is about him revising the final 'iconic' image of The Tramp: walking with Paulette Goddard into the sunset at the end of Modern Times, erasing it and replacing it with him, alone, held by cops, headed to get his head - the great instrument of his performance - chopped off.