[Marxism] The Return of "Monsieur Verdoux”

Andrew Pollack acpollack2 at gmail.com
Mon Jun 9 05:21:11 MDT 2008

Yesterday's Times has a review of the revival of Charlie Chaplin's great
social satire and witchhunt victim, "Monsieur Verdoux." Below the link to
that review is Jim Cannon's review of the film and commentary on its
reception when it first came out.


THE MILITANT May 10, 1947

*The Lynching of "Monsieur Verdoux"*

About a year ago I made a firm resolution to boycott all movies unless the
picture has a horse for the hero. And I have stuck to it much better than to
some other firm resolutions I have made. My heart was in this one. Hollywood
double-crossed me once too often. I am no student or critic of cinematic
art, but I know what I don't like—and that is the unappetizing and
indigestible compound of tripe and syrup which the movie moguls and bankers
dish up to the defenseless, amusement-hungry people in the name of art. And
I like it still less to come out of a theater, after a three-hour bout with a
double-feature, with that let-down, sticky feeling of having been played for
a sucker once more.

Dominated by this mood, I was fully prepared to remain indifferent even to
the announcement of a new movie by Chaplin, until I* *noticed the hatchet
job most of the critics of the big press were doing on the picture. With
almost one voice they denounced Chaplin for introducing social criticism—and
deadly serious social criticism as that —into a medium which has become
almost universally dedicated to the prettification and falsification of
life, and maintained that he wasn't even funny any more. The vicious
over-zealousness with which Chaplin and his new film were being attacked,
with the obvious design to "kill" the picture before the mass of the people
had yet had an opportunity to see it and judge for themselves, aroused
suspicions that there might be some ulterior purpose behind the
lynching campaign;
that the movie critics might be giving a false report of the picture, as
most Hollywood pictures give a false report of life.

Word-of-mouth testimony from some friends who had crossed the critics'
picket line to examine the picture for themselves gave support to my
suspicions, with the result that after more than six months' total
abstinence, this reformed movie addict fell off the wagon and went to
see *Monsieur
Verdoux*.* *And I thanked my lucky stars for one of the most enjoyable and
satisfactory Saturday afternoons I have had in many a day. The critics are
definitely misleading the public in their reviews of this picture.

In *Monsieur Verdoux *the supreme master of the screen discards the familiar
role of the little tramp with the baggy pants and flopping shoes to play the
part of a suavely mannered, impeccably dressed sophisticate. Monsieur
Verdoux had been a bank clerk for 25 years or so, and was ruthlessly
dismissed from his position when the depression came. He had to make a
living somehow, so he went into business for himself—the business of
marrying women for their money and then disposing of them. He does it all to
support his family to which he is deeply and tenderly attached.

It is this theme of the picture, this merciless satire on business in
general, and the business of war in particular, that has roused up so much
antagonism from those who do not want the truth to be told to the people.
Deprecation of war and its mass killing is deemed to be out of season by the
powers that be. The bland insistence of Monsieur Verdoux that he is only
doing on a small scale what others do on a big scale and are acclaimed as
heroes for, has set the subservient critics after him like bloodhounds on
the trail.

And the justification he gives for his crimes—that he has a dependent
family—that is too much like the plea offered in self-defense by all social
criminals in our decadent society to be accepted as a joke. It is the truth
that hurts. I personally know a man who betrayed his socialist principles
and entered the service of the war-propaganda machine, and then excused his
action on the ground that he had a wife and child to support.

I don't doubt that he shrugged his shoulders, perhaps a bit regretfully,
when the bomb fell on Hiroshima and destroyed a whole city-full of families
who also had a right to live and to be supported. That is what Monsieur
Verdoux did when the police inspector read him the list of a dozen or so
women whom he had done away with in the line of business. "After all, one
must make a living." Killing is a recognized business in the world as it is
organized today.

>From the beginning of the picture up to its supremely tragic denouement,
this macabre thesis is sustained. How, then, could comedy be introduced
without disintegrating the whole structure into farce? The answer is
Chaplin. The comedy in this picture is unsurpassed, even in the movies of
the Chaplin of old. But the comedy never runs away with the picture. The
somber theme dominates the comedy from beginning to end.

The best comedy parts are those which depict the numerous and always
unsuccessful attempts of Monsieur Verdoux to liquidate one of his numerous
wives, a dizzy dame with a raucous, rowdy laugh and a lot of money she had
won in a lottery: She simply couldn't be liquidated. Luck was with her every
time. The unexpected always happened. This part is played by Martha Raye,
and she is terrific. The scene where Chaplin tries to poison her, and the
wine glasses get accidentally switched around, and he thinks he has poisoned
himself instead, is funny beyond imagining.

Another scene, where Monsieur Verdoux, in the course of business, has
finally arranged a wedding with another moneyed widow, after long and
arduous preparation, is a masterpiece of comic frustration. It was to be a
fashionable wedding. A host of guests were assembled. The preacher had
arrived. The bridegroom was nervously waiting, and the bride was descending
the staircase. At this point the proceedings were suddenly and violently
disrupted by a loud pistol-shot laugh on the edge of the crowd—the
unmistakable laugh of Martha Raye. She had been brought to the party by some
friends she picked up who were telling her a "rough" story, the kind she
dearly appreciated. The expression on the bridegroom's face when he hears
that unmistakable explosive laugh of one of his other wives, and his frantic
efforts to extricate himself from the impossible situation must be seen, but
may not be described. After all, it's Chaplin.

>From there the hilarious comedy fades out like a dying echo and the tragic
drama mounts in power and suspense to the final catastrophe. There is the
stockmarket crash in which all the money Monsieur Verdoux had accumulated in
the course of his business is wiped out overnight. Through mortgage
foreclosure, he loses the home which he had provided for his family. He
loses the family. He is apprehended by the police, tried, convicted and

But never once does Monsieur Verdoux step out of character, never does he
bend an inch to comply with the Hollywood formula. In court after his
conviction he admits his crimes but denies his guilt. "All business is
ruthless, I only did on a small scale what others do on a big scale." Then
he receives his death sentence and, with ominous reference to the prospect
of an atomic war, ironically bids adieu with the words: "I will be seeing
you all very soon,"

In the last scene of all, in the death cell awaiting the end, Monsieur
Verdoux remains true to himself. The inevitable priest comes to hear his
confession and administer spiritual consolation. It is a vain errand. There
was no repentent sinner waiting for him. Verdoux rises from his cot to meet
the priest with the sprightly manner of a welcoming master of ceremonies.
"Father, what can I do for you?"

He is taken aback; no Hollywood priest was ever received that way before.

"I want you to make peace with your God."

"I am at peace with God. My trouble is with my -fellow men."

The priest is obviously losing ground, but he tries again.

"May God have mercy on your soul."

"He ought to. It belongs to Him."

After that, there was nothing left for the priest but to start praying aloud
in Latin, which he promptly proceeded to do, as the executional squad
solemnly surrounded Monsieur Verdoux and marched him, the small-time,
unsuccessful murderer, to his doom.

The picture had to end on a note of defeat and despair which was implicitly
foreshadowed from the beginning. It is not a call to arms, but only a
protest and a warning. The lesson is negative but, for all that, powerful in
its indictment of contemporary society. And powerful, too, in its indirect
indictment of Hollywood, of its sham and falsity, of its betrayal of the
artist's sacred duty to hold the mirror up to life and reflect it truly.

Monsieur Verdoux is dead, but in my opinion, his picture will live; the
vindictive and mendacious critics will not succeed in "killing" it. Perhaps
they have condemned it to a slow start by their brutal lynching bee. But the
truth about *Monsieur Verdoux *will be advertized by word of mouth, and it
will make its way. It is a great picture and a brave one, too, hurled in the
face of the Truman Doctrine and all the war-mongering. The people will
receive- it gladly, not only in America, but all over the world.

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