A murderous attack on bourgeois conventionality, Charlie Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux represents the apex of the artist’s subversive humor. Chaplin’s films have always been anti-establishment, favoring marginal characters cast aside by society and left to fend for themselves. Whether kicking an immigration officer in the rear or sleeping on public monuments, Chaplin’s Tramp never went looking for trouble: he was always defending himself from society’s restrictions. Monsieur Verdoux challenges audiences by placing sympathy with a mass killer: a daring move for today, and one unfathomable back in 1947.
Chaplin plays Verdoux, a Bluebeard who marries and murders older women for their money. Verdoux, however, is not a “villain” in the traditional sense: within the film, he becomes a victim, a marginalized outcast like The Tramp. “Don’t believe too much,” Verdoux advises. “This is a ruthless world and one must be ruthless to cope with it.” A sentiment that perhaps The Tramp would have agreed with, but only up to a point: whereas in City Lights The Tramp goes so far as to risk his life in a boxing match to raise money for the woman he loves, would the same man ever go so far as to murder for love, as in Verdoux?
This moral transformation is a reaction to the politics of the time: the atrocities of World War II as well as the anti-Communist witch-hunts in America (of which Chaplin was a target). “One murder makes a villain, millions a hero. Numbers sanctify,” warns Verdoux in his final moments, a bleak insight into the moral ramifications of capitalism and war that transcends its original context and begs to speak to contemporary viewers.