Chaplin’s first true “talkie” in both sound and style, Monsieur Verdoux also marks the first time he officially abandons the Little Tramp character he made famous. Yet “abandons” may not be quite the right word, for Chaplin himself embodies the Tramp, even as this new character of Verdoux leaves those old outward cues behind.Monsieur Verdoux takes Chaplin as actor to an unfamiliar role, that of a murderous bigamist, a mantle his Depression-era character takes on after losing his job of thirty years as a bank clerk. Henri Verdoux visits his wife and child regularly, but not often enough for them, as they complain about his always being away on business. Of course, his business is of a most unseemly and time consuming nature: he marries rich widows, fleeces them for their money, and then kills them.
The film represents a development away from the unbridled optimism of Chaplin’s old screen persona, all the while retaining (though sublimating) the same boisterous charm and playfulness of that former character. This leaves the distinct impression of both continuity and discontinuity with Chaplin’s previous work. Echoes of the earlier films are apparent, notably when the Tramp’s coy, playful smile makes an appearance in a rowboat with one of his wives.
Such continuity is evident from the first few lines of narration as the film opens. Verdoux offers a brief history of himself, finally commenting that to do what he does, one must fundamentally be an optimist. In other words, he has bought into the prevailing mindset of the modern world: the belief in undying progress and the advancement of mankind. Even at this early stage of the film, it’s clear Verdoux sees himself as an extension of the modern age.
Yet in that opening scene, with narration peppered with optimism and hope, the “new Charlie” makes his first appearance, albeit at this moment, only as director. While his words are punctuated with optimism, the image before us is one of a graveyard. We even see Verdoux’ gravestone. We know he speaks to us as a dead man, much like William Holden’s young writer will do three years later in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd. Like Wilder’s critique of the Hollywood machine, Chaplin uses this imagery to undercut the optimism of the modern age in the first few frames of the film.
The sense of discontinuity only grows throughout the film, as more and more of this character becomes clear. It’s still Charlie, but he’s changed. That paradox is beautifully contained in the stunning final image, one of Verdoux walking away from the camera, in handcuffs, on the way to execution. For anyone familiar with his work, that scene evokes the final image of Modern Times, where the Tramp and the Gamin walk away, arm in arm, into the sunset. The latter image is filled with hope and determination as they head off toward their destiny. In Verdoux, destiny surely lies ahead, but this time it is one of death and destruction.
Despite the wonders of his earlier work (City Lights and Modern Times are brilliant) the discontinuity present in Verdoux takes the film to a new level. Not only does it breathe new life into Chaplin’s onscreen persona, but it traverses new ground by examining the dark underbelly of a Depression-era, Capitalist, and warmongering society. Verdoux makes it clear that such things matter, not just on the stage of world diplomacy and economics, but in deeply personal ways as well. These commitments change the structure of society, thereby affecting its people. On the one hand, they bring a surface level optimism and hope for the future – people are thinking about what can be accomplished. But on the other, such commitments work against that hope in the dark corners of our cities and people. In light of this, one wonders with Verdoux what good it is to gain the whole world, if we lose ourselves in the process.