I have just added this, Chaplin’s own favorite among his films, to my 100 Greatest English-Language Films List.
Henri Landru had been guillotined for murdering eight women. Fifteen years later, in 1937, Henri Verdoux met the same fate, with half a dozen more victims to his credit—or debit. From the grave, this “mass killer” speaks to us as disembodied voiceover, describing himself as having been “for thirty years an honest bank clerk until the Depression of 1930, in which year I found myself unemployed. It was then I became occupied in liquidating members of the opposite sex. This I did as strictly a business enterprise, to support a home and a family,” that is to say, his wheelchair-bound wife and young son. This modern Bluebeard, actually, juggled numerous marriages simultaneously, all to those whom he murdered for their money so that the only marriage and family that he cared about could survive in these “desperate times.” Henri was too old to find other employment.
From an idea by Orson Welles, Charles Chaplin’s tartly funny black comedy, with slapstick interludes, reflects on the recently ended Second World War; looking ahead ten years past Verdoux’s execution, it assumes the form of a political statement. Its centerpiece is yet another of Chaplin’s dazzlingly brilliant performances, this time as a dapper, world-weary cynic who ultimately believes that he did not murder enough people, because, as he puts it, “[n]umbers sanctify.” Through Verdoux, Chaplin is taking aim at war, in particular, the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Relatedly, he is aiming at capitalism, which ruthlessly cuts employees loose when it has no further use for them. Business and war are combined in an unseen figure in the background of the plot: a munitions manufacturer.
“I’ve never had rum!” En route to his beheading, Henri thus has a new experience: Chaplin’s quiet affirmation of the beauty of life.
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