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Monsieur Verdoux

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The tar-black comedy Monsieur Verdoux (a 1947 sound film) stars Charlie Chaplin as the titular Parisian, a modern-day Bluebeard who woos, marries, robs, murders, and incinerates a parade of rich ladies. Unlike Perrault's fairy-tale killer, though, Verdoux—the name means "sweet worm" in French—has a softer side. He murders to support his lovely invalid wife and their young son, having been laid off his job as a bank clerk sometime in the 1920s.

It's this mix of supple cynicism and naked sentimentality that makes the story so sticky: Initially primed to revile the calculating Verdoux and his pathetic affection for roses, we're caught entirely off-guard by his secret compassionate motive. Later in the film, a young woman unwittingly blocks his murderlust by mentioning her invalid husband, and we stop short again. Verdoux is horrid, there's no doubt. Even setting aside the Hitler references (Verdoux and his family are vegetarians), the lecherous way he seduces older women ("Your youth could never compete with your age now... your ripeness... your luxuriousness") is shudder-worthy. And yet, the film argues, it's a human-scale evil. As Verdoux is led off to the guillotine (ah, France), he cites the "building weapons of destruction for the sole purpose of mass killing" in his defense. As an excuse, it's inadequate. But the film lets Verdoux's point stand.

If this sounds like a heavy load for a comedy, you underestimate Charlie Chaplin. The comic scenes are plentiful and effortless, climaxing in a would-be rowboat homicide pitting Chaplin against Martha Raye as a remarkably tenacious wife. The boat isn't too stable and the floozy can't swim, yet she proves very difficult to off. Monsieur Verdoux is both deliriously funny and devilishly complex—on par with any of Chaplin's silent masterpieces. Don't miss it.

 

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