In the 1940s, it was hard to imagine how Charlie Chaplin could top a foundational career that had already extended to a parody of Adolf Hitler in 1940's "The Great Dictator." Then came "Monsieur Verdoux," the superstar's clear-eyed 1947 twist on the Bluebeard tale, which climaxes with a blistering, speechifying indictment of audiences that proved a bitter pill for an America that had been victorious in World War II. Two talkies into his career, and some critics acted as though they wished Chaplin had never opened his mouth.
The general Bluebeard conceit was age-old, but the uses to which it was put are another story. Reworking an original tale by Orson Welles about a real-life murderer-polygamist, "Monsieur Verdoux," which begins a one-week run in a new 35 mm print Friday at Film Forum, stars Chaplin as a mild-mannered ex-banker in pre-war France who supports his loving family after the Depression through a double life of murderous parasitism. The black comedy, leaping far beyond the cautionary ring of Verdoux's backstory, ultimately proffers the philosophical gentleman as the macabre epitome of homo economicus. "It's all business," he offers in his defense. "One murder makes a villain. Millions, a hero. Numbers sanctify ..."
Verdoux presents Chaplin outside of his signature Tramp role, which he still used in "The Great Dictator" (in which he also played a Jewish barber). With a spring in his step and a cravat around his neck, Verdoux charms and fast-talks a society matron (a hard sell), a pinch-faced spinster (who's spooked into raiding her bank account), and a squawking dame with lottery winnings and a stubborn smidgen of street sense. His first conquest of the film — which was originally titled "A Comedy of Murders" — we see only in the form of smoke rising from a backyard crematorium ...
Laugh-out-loud gags and familiar, innocently sentimental arcs were not the order of the day, and some even thought Martha Raye, in a vulgar turn as the gabby, resilient lottery winner, upstaged Chaplin, who was by this point a spry 67. Even apart from the intermittent humor, there's also always a pregnant sense of an axe yet to fall, perhaps most unsettling in a scene of mercy with a lonely-eyed street pickup (Marilyn Nash) on a rainy night. The great critic James Agee, who mounted a famous point-by-point defense of the film in the Nation, took a couple of lines to skewer critics for their childlike preference for more of the same.
But the tonal mix natural to the Bluebeard DNA wasn't what doomed Chaplin's strange film — that would be Verdoux's mordant concluding monologue, judging his exploits as par for the course in a world of amoral nihilism and violence. Worse, at the time, Citizen Chaplin was already weakened by the early phases of Red-baiting, a scandalous but fallacious paternity suit, and a burgeoning national defamatory apparatus. "Send Chaplin to Russia" read a picket sign outside one screening, while the press conference the day after the premiere was relentless. ("Proceed with the butchery," Chaplin began.)
"The Great Dictator" had also finished with Chaplin delivering an impassioned lecture, but the film's antitotalitarian content (similar in its "machine-men" theme to subsequent American war propaganda) was more bearable to audiences than the harangue of "Verdoux." After meager returns at the box office, Chaplin withdrew the film from circulation and, a few years later, withdrew himself from America. With his passport revoked, he resettled in Switzerland with his wife Oona and their growing family. His next film, "Limelight," was about a backsliding clown who's fallen out of favor.
"Monsieur Verdoux" would be revived in New York in 1964, when the cultural and political climate — not to mention the film's rarity and notoriety — produced a more theater-filling response. This weekend, the film returns to screens after years of infrequent appearances courtesy of a new distribution entity, Film Desk, which plans to make a partial project of reviving classics whose rights have lapsed. It's a fascinating opportunity to watch the people's idol of "Modern Times" and countless other classics chase black comedy with bleak polemic.
Through June 19 (209 W. Houston St., between Sixth Avenue and Varick Street, 212-727-8110).