By Steven Suskin
19 May 2013
Charles Chaplin, in his later years and later films, struggled with the old Charlie; both the character, and the style of filmmaking that had made him the most famous actor/director/writer/producer in the world. "City Lights" and "Modern Times"—both made while he was in his forties—were built around variations of his Little Tramp. And brilliantly so, allowing Charlie (the character) to comment on the changing world. "The Great Dictator" (1940), finished when Chaplin was in his fifties, deftly placed the Tramp in Hitler's shoes. Here was the clown dangerously playing with pure and non-fictional evil, and emerging victorious.
After a long stretch, Chaplin returned in 1947—as he neared sixty—as Monsieur Verdoux [Criterion]. Now an old man, there was no Tramp in sight. (As it happens, his next film—"Limelight," in 1952—did incorporate the flavor and the world of the Little Tramp.) "Verdoux" stands out among Chaplin's films for its—what? Strangeness? The idea: Chaplin as a modern-day Bluebeard, inspired by the real-life serial murderer Henri Landru.
This came from Orson Welles, who wanted to direct and write the film. Chaplin seems to have turned down the idea, as he wasn't about to work for another director; forgotten it; and then come up with his own version of Chaplin-as-Bluebeard. Ultimately, Welles was paid for the rights and credited for the original idea. (Welles' mood at the time can be seen in "The Stranger," in which he played a mass murderer living in a small town with his innocent wife. "The Stranger" is in the same moral vein as "Verdoux," but far more gripping.)