Story idea by Orson Welles. Written and directed by Charles Chaplin. Set in Paris. With that pedigree I expected far more from “Monsieur Verdoux.” Intending to be a dark comedy, “Monsieur Verdoux” also tries its hand at many other genres, and in doing so it is lost.
Monsieur Verdoux, played with desperate charm by Chaplin himself, marries and murders wealthy women in order to take care of his real family, including a child and invalid wife. Having lost his position of 30 years, with the turmoil of the world surrounding him in the Great Depression, he takes to his new venture as if it were no more than a new job.
He travels all across France, visiting his various wives and murdering them once they have withdrawn all their money due to his convincing stories of another impending bank run. This leads to his downfall, when the family of one of his dead wives appears at the wedding to his new wife. Should have spread them out more, Verdoux. One in Italy, one in Belgium, another in Spain.
Here’s part of the reason the film fails: he doesn’t seem to care about anything. He doesn’t care the least for any of his wives. Even the one he is murdering for. When he does go home, he sits across from his pretty family, aware that he does not belong with them.
The other part I chalk up to poor writing. The dialogue is rather flat and uninspired. The few comic moments are purely physical and sight-based, with none of the wit and whimsy of “Kind Hearts and Coronets” or even “Harold and Maude.” There are a few gems, including his repeated failed attempts to kill his lottery-winning loudmouth wife, but even these feel tired.
The only truly great part of the film occurs toward the middle of the film, where Verdoux picks up a lonely girl on the streets, intending to kill her to see if his new poison can be detected. After speaking to her, Verdoux discovers that this girl is a kindred spirit, and decides not to kill her after all. Their touching exchanges are the only heart in the film.
As a comedy, it’s not funny. As a dark study of a morally bankrupt man, it’s too light. When it tries to be some kind of social commentary, comparing Verdoux’s actions with those of Hitler, it falls flat.
Not a terrible film by any means, but no where near as good as it should have been. If you’re in the Los Angeles area, you can check it out for yourself on the big screen this week at Landmark’s Nuart Theatre.Rating: C+