Chaplin's 1947 movie about a little Frenchman who makes a living marrying and murdering rich old women is a favourite of mine. It's not perfect, far from it. Chaplin directing Chaplin is incapable of controlling his star's excesses and the tone veers from subtle black comedy to crude slapstick to moralizing tragedy, with Chaplin repeatedly dropping out of character and lapsing into the mannerisms of the little tramp. But, I don't know- it's a mess, it's uneven- but somehow it's also amazing and wonderful. Chaplin is protean. He's like Dickens. He works on a huge scale, digging deep and taking large creative risks and if, sometimes, inevitably, he gets it wrong it doesn't matter in the larger scheme of things. Miscalculations that would destroy a lesser movie somehow just add to the fascination of this one.
It's a brave film. It's only two years after the end of the Great Patriotic War- and Chaplin is talking about how if you kill one person you're a monster, but if you kill thousands you're a hero. He doesn't sentimentalise Verdoux (well, not much) but he makes the point that he's a small-time operator in a society that runs on theft and murder. Inevitably the film bombed at the box office. Too cynical, too left-wing, too intelligent, too complex.
The idea for the movie came from Orson Welles. Welles wanted to direct, but Chaplin was too much of a control freak to let him. I think of the Welles-Chaplin Verdoux as one of cinema's lost masterpieces. I'm sure it would have been marvellous. But I can't exactly regret it, because what we've got, the Chaplin-Chaplin Verdoux, is one of the greatest movies ever made.