Henri Verdoux (Chaplin) was a quiet, respected banker completely ruined by The Great Depression. Terrified of his wheelchair-bound wife and child being reduced to poverty and thrown out on the street, he takes to seducing wealthy, single (usually widowed) women across France and then killing them for their money. Through clever (if gruesome) means of disposing of the bodies and a charming personality, he manages to keep one step ahead of the police.
Three main plot strands play out over the course of the movie. At the beginning, Verdoux meets Marie Grosnay (Isobel Elsom), an elderly widow looking to buy the house he owns. He tries to win her over, but fails miserably. Later, in need of money, he travels to meet the easily excitable Annabella Bonheur (Martha Raye), planning on killing her and stealing her money. Unfortunately, she has just had her fortune read, which shows her to be an incredibly lucky woman. True to the reading, Verdoux's attempts to kill her backfire, nearly killing Verdoux on several occasions. In trying to develop better means to kill, Verdoux develops a poison which should be undetectable by autopsy. To test this theory, he plans to kill a girl off the street and leave her body where it will be found, then wait to see if anything comes up in the autopsy report. The girl he picks (Marilyn Nash), credited only as "The Girl", turns out to be charming, and tells the cynical Verdoux that she still believes in love, as she was truly in love once. Verdoux, heart melting, decides at the last possible moment to spare her life, and replaces her poisoned glass of wine with another.
The plots come together in the movie's climax. After narrowly escaping capture by a detective hot on his trail, and having a brief encounter with The Girl, where he gives her some money, Verdoux bumps into Madame Grosnay, sends her flowers daily until she relents to see him, and then is more successful at seducing her. The wedding is ruined as a common friend invites Annabella Bonheur; Verdoux spends most of the wedding hiding from her and eventually ends up running away before the marriage can happen. The movie at this point jumps into the future. In the prelude to World War II, European stock markets crash and Verdoux ends up losing everything. We learn in an aside that his wife and child died during this time (possibly with his "assistance"). Wandering the street, he bumps into The Girl, now dressed very chic in an expensive car. She treats Verdoux to dinner at an expensive restaurant, explaining that she's had to put her idealism aside to marry a man she doesn't love, but who can afford to take good care of her (being an arms dealer). A couple who had seen a photograph of Verdoux when a relative had left with (and later been killed by) him recognize him and immediately start to tail him. He traps them in a back room of the restaurant to give himself enough time to say goodbye to The Girl. After she departs he tears her card, returns to the restaurant, and hangs about until he is identified and placed under arrest.
Verdoux maintains his cynicism in the ensuing trial and later before his execution, declaring that he will see the Judge, jury and all present "soon - very soon" (i.e., in hell) and "One murder makes a villain; millions, a hero. Numbers sanctify, my good fellow" claiming the actions of war profiteers and soldiers kill far more, but unlike his are lauded. The movie ends as Verdoux - after having a last drink of rum; initially refusing, he then comments that he's never tried it and proceeds to do so - is lead off to the guillotine.
Shows examples of
- Asshole Victim: Lydia Floray may not be an asshole as such, but she's certainly not portrayed very positively. To be fair, neither are the other rich ladies we see Verdoux target (Annabella Bonheur and Marie Grosnay), but Lydia is by far the least likeable of them all, and significantly the only one he actually kills in the film (offscreen).
- Author Filibuster: Verdoux's statement at his murder trial.
- Big Bad: Henri Verdoux, our wife-killing Villain Protagonist.
- Born Lucky: All of Henri's attempts to kill Annabelle fail because of this: her elderly maid, which she fired earlier that day, happens to return right when he's about to drug Annabelle with chloroform since she has no other place to stay, and later, after Annabelle rehires her because she feels bad for her, she happens to break the peroxide bottle that Henri used to store his untraceable poison in and replace it with an identical one she happens to find in an overhead cabinet when he's trying to find a corkscrew, causing Henri to pour it instead of the poison into the wine. Later, when he's out at a lake with Annabelle and first tries and fails to drug her, he then tries to drown her by looping a noose with a rock attached to it around her neck which she doesn't resist since he claims it's a method to catch fish...only for a massive number of yodelers to pop out of nowhere right when he's about to finish tightening the noose.
- The Bluebeard: Henri Verdoux.
- Character Title
- Chekhov's Gun: The family of a woman killed by Verdoux promise early on in the film that they'd recognize him anywhere. Sure enough, a chance to identify turns up at the climax of the movie.
- Contrived Coincidence: The Couvais family have a photograph of Henri which would allow the police to identify and capture him much faster, but by the time they're seen again talking with the police, one of them has managed to accidentally throw it in the fireplace.
- Evil Plan: The film features Henri Verdoux concocting varoous schemes to seduce rich women and kill them for their money.
- Evil Vegetarian: Verdoux himself.
- Have You Told Anyone Else?: Detective Morrow tells Verdoux he's going to charge him with 14 murders, that he hasn't told anyone else, and why yes, he'd love some wine.
- Mercy Kill: Possibly. When talking about the deaths of his wife and child, Verdoux would only say "they were in a better place (ie. Heaven)". But given that he was willing to kill to support them, it is not improbable that he could be capable of killing them if he could no longer support them, as in his view he would be saving them from the streets or the mercy of the state, and he had the means to do it, through the poison that leaves no pain or trace. True, it was never made explicit that he did, but then all the murders in this film, except for the detective, took place off screen anyway.
- Mercy Kill: Possibly. Check the YMMV page for this film.
- A Million Is a Statistic: Towards the end, Verdoux comments wryly, "One murder makes a villain; millions, a hero. Numbers sanctify, my good fellow!"
- Mood Whiplash: The whole thing is pretty dark, but humorously so—until the last quarter of the movie, when he's caught and sentenced to death, at which point it becomes a very philosophical and pointed message about the death penalty and hypocrisy.
- Morality Pet: Verdoux's sickly wife and child, and later, the Girl as well.
- No Historical Figures Were Harmed: Henri Verdoux is based on the real-life Henri Landru, a French Bluebeard murderer who was executed in 1922.
- "Not So Different" Remark: Verdoux denounces society, especially the war machine, in his final words at the trial as responsible for crimes as bad or worse than his.
- Posthumous Narration: Opens the movie.
- Protagonist Title
- See You in HellVerdoux: I shall see you all soon. Very soon.
- Serial Killer: Henri Verdoux, though he claims that his murders are based on money and acquisition of property rather than simply killing on a whim.
- Spit Take: Verdoux delivers an epic one when he realizes one of his "wives" is present at his wedding to another woman.
- Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Verdoux is inspired by the real case of Henri Landru.
- Villain Protagonist