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Monsieur Verdoux: Chaplin in Paris

The Tramp matures, messily

The title character in Charlie Chaplin's Monsieur Verdoux (played by Chaplin, of course) is a dainty ex–bank clerk, laid off during the French market's crash. Verdoux applies time-clock-honed efficiency to his private practice: teasing the heartstrings of wealthy matrons so as to relieve them of their savings accounts and lives. Chaplin was hamstrung by legal trouble and political suspicion in the U.S. prior to its 1947 release; his first film in seven years found him standing belligerently apart from cocksure postwar America, yanking his audience back to the catastrophe years of the '30s (astringent here, his bitterness would later scab into the fusty, down-the-nose "satire" of A King in New York). Verdoux's transformation from foxy assassin to self-satisfied social critic displeased reviewers (the aphoristic "One murder makes a villain; millions a hero" is as dumb here as when it resurfaced in Cliffhanger). Having been served little, sour gags where fat guffaws were expected, critics panned the movie, most judging that Chaplin had forsaken entertainment to become a Cause; still, others saw a mature artist working with kamikaze mettle. Those two views are not mutually exclusive. The film is fascinating for Chaplin's terrible candor: the gelid misogyny, the naked conflation (confusion?) of love with pity—Verdoux only kills to keep his handicapped wife caged in bourgeois comfort. The idea came from Orson Welles, whose movie about a populist named Kane predicted Chaplin's broken romance with the "little man": "You talk about the people . . . as though they belonged to you."

 
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