As a fresh 35mm print of Charlie Chaplin's quintessential 1947 thriller Monsieur Verdoux begins circulating through revival houses around the country, it seems like a good time to remind people that while the late actor is mainly known as a star of the silent screen, he definitely didn't die with it. Although the greatest slapstick artist of all time initially rejected the development of sound film, mocking it with hilariously exaggerated voices in City Lights, he eventually adopted it after realizing that resistance was futile. However, he refused to simply throw in a few lines of dialogue to accompany his beloved tramp shtick, choosing instead to take his career in a fresh direction. While Chaplin made many sound films over the course of several decades, only two of them really qualify as classic talkies (except for Limelight, which deserves a category of its own). Late flops like A King of New York don't really hold together, but Chaplin's initial forays into the world of sound film display his talent as a composer of distinctive prose.
His first work of this era, The Great Dictator, remains a masterpiece that broadened the potential of his tramp character with a modified Prince and the Pauper tale applied to World War II, and Chaplin doing double duty playing both a Jewish barber and an exaggerated Adolf Hitler (or "Hinkel," rather). Monsieur Verdoux, in which he plays a frustrated man whose losses during the Great Depression lead to a twisted scheme where he marries, murders and robs rich women, represented something else altogether: Chaplin's only brooding melodrama, the occasional laughs are almost incidental.
The movie didn't get much acclaim when it first came out (quite the opposite, actually), and built up a cult following over the years, but it has yet to be appreciated by the masses as an essential part of Chaplin's career. Film critic Pauline Kael complained that, once Chaplin started talking, he "became a deeply unfunny man; if he had found the street language to match his lowlife, tramp movements, he might have been something like Richard Pryor."
She makes a wise observation, but Chaplin had little interest in translating the Tramp into a chatterbox. Verdoux shows how Chaplin utilized dialogue in subtler ways. When we first hear the character talking about "liquidating members of the opposite sex as a strictly business enterprise," he delivers the line with such relish that it rightly gives you the chills. Later, Verdoux explains why he refuses to feel sorry for himself. "Despair is a narcotic," he says. "It lulls the mind into indifference." The statement has beautifully haunting repercussions. Eventually, Verdoux allows himself to get caught, and remains collected throughout the climactic trial. Like The Great Dictactor, the movie ends with Chaplin delivering a harsh declaration of principles.
After thanking the prosecutor for admitting Verdoux has brains, the killer launches into a justification of his actions. "As for being a mass killer, does not the world encourage it?" he asks. "Is not building weapons of destruction done for the sole purpose of mass killing? Has it not blown unsuspecting women and children to pieces -- and done it very scientifically?" He pauses for an eerie laugh. "As a mass killer," he adds, "I'm an amateur by comparison." In final analysis, then, Verdoux isn't satire; it's a summary of apocalyptic dread.
Watching the film now, one can only imagine how he might have expanded on this bleak sentiment in the unfilmed project about the Tramp surviving a nuclear holocaust, an idea he had developed with film critic James Agee (a major outspoken advocate of Verdoux). We can see here that Chaplin's interests went deeper -- and darker -- than slapstick humor could take him. "I am at peace with god," Verdoux says when a priest tries to bless him before he's executed. "My conflict is with man." And those of us appreciative of the insight put forth in Verdoux, which remains potent to this day, feel his pain.