The Bottom Line
A "comedy of murders" from the mind of Orson Welles: When an economic downturn forces longtime bank clerk Verdoux (Charlie Chaplin) out of the job in 1930s France, he's forced to make ends meet for his family the only way he can - acting as a Bluebeard and murdering old maids for their pensions.
The Rest of the Story
The movie opens as our strange protagonist uses selling his house as a pretext for throwing himself upon visiting prospects, promising one Madame Grosnay the moon and the stars. From there we see him crisscrossing France, and through a highly regulated and idiosyncratic system, he kills off one mistress, woos another (Annabelle Bonheur, played with hokey and decidedly un-French delight by Martha Raye), and continues his hunt for the quarry of the opening scenes.
We learn he has an invalid wife and young son out in the country, and that he has hidden the loss of his clerking job from them (as well, of course, as his current means of profit). He also learns from a pharmacist friend about an untraceable poison. He sabotages his own first attempt to use it when his intended victim reveals she, too, married an invalid, but its effectiveness is proven on a chief inspector of the police who has been tracking him and knows of his crimes.
Finally, Verdoux succeeds in wooing Madame Grosnay, but his game is finally ended when Grosnay, Bonheur, and one of his earier victims' families scare him off. Meanwhile, a market panic proceeds to ruin him, and his family dies, leaving him a bitter broken man for all his effort. Finally tracked down, Verdoux is found guilty and sentenced to die, but not before saying a thing or two about the world at large ...
Sounds like a winner, right?
The film's genesis is itself fascinating. Orson Welles, at the height of his directorial powers, writes up a treatment of Monsieur Verdoux to star the great Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin refuses to star in a movie that he himself doesn't direct or write, and so instead he buys the script drafts from Welles and offers him a story credit on his finished product. Having seen it now, I can honestly say this was not a movie clamoring for the Charlie Chaplin directorial touch - and one can only wonder what Welles would've done with the same material ...
There are so many blunders in the production that it makes it successes all the more frustrating. The movie's two opening scenes sum up this trait: the first features a virtual black hole of exposition, excessive character development of a family who makes virtually no future appearance throughout the rest of the film, weakly executed physical comedy, and a weird aimless bitterness, while the second shows Chaplin tiptoeing through a rose garden buzzing like a bee while an incinerator belches ominous smoke into the pastoral sky - a bravado touch of the dark games afoot.
The modern appreciation of Chaplin recognizes his faults along with his charms: his oversentimentality, his unsubtle politics, his at times interminable pacing and his lack of an editor's eye. Here the plot and its machinations are sufficiently open-ended enough to minimize most of these, and Chaplin's own considerable magnetism allows for sympathy in a decidedly ugly character. At first it feels like stunt casting but by the end, the motives and the demagoguery that Chaplin's Verdoux uses to justify his lifestyle are solidly built on the idea that also drives the Little Tramp, the solitary soul in a sea of indifference and injustice (although the philosophical waxing of the character as he awaits the guillotine is the most hamfisted Chaplin scene chewing put to celluloid. But clever!)
All of the other parts beside Chaplin are ably cast (particularly Raye) but the parts are also decidedly less memorable. Chaplin's directing is surprisingly efficient for a run time of 124 minutes, but there is still plenty of fat to be trimmed (particularly after he has been outed as the "Bluebeard Murderer".) It's a pity that despite the stifingly grim central plot (in 1947, no less!), the rest of the film seems dated and quaint - strangely unsatisfying, given that Chaplin still had the startling work he produced in Limelight ahead of him.
My Rating 5 out of 10. Dated in almost all respects, the film suffers from being both heavyhanded and overly broad.
Orson Welles (idea)
Charles Chaplin ... Henri Verdoux
Martha Raye ... Annabella Bonheur
Ada May ... Annette, Annabella's maid
Isobel Elsom ... Marie Grosnay
Charles Evans ... Police Detective Morrow
Marilyn Nash ... The Girl