Monday, October 20, 2014

Reeling Backward: "Charade" (1963)

"Charade" has sometimes been described as "the best Hitchcock movie Hitchcock didn't direct," but I'm not sure if that's really fair. Hitch often included bits of puckish and morbid humor in his films, but when it came time for scaring people, he was deadly serious about his craft.

This 1963 romantic thriller, by contrast, is fizzy and fun. Though there are a few moments where Audrey Hepburn, as wan heroine Regina Lampert, aka "Reggie," is imperiled, they are fleeting and frightening only in that sort of way you know everything is going to be alright. After all, she's the star of the picture, and if anything really dire happened to her, the show would be over.

When I say Hepburn is the star, I mean truly that: she far outshines co-star Carey Grant, but she's meant to. He is the moon who basks in her reflected light; he reacts to her rather than the other way around. Romantically, she is clearly the pursuer and he the pursued prey, wielding the shield of propriety to fend off her advances: 'Come into your room? Alone? At this time of night? Heavens!'

In this way director Stanley Donen and screenwriter Peter Stone essentially made a proto-feminist feature film. In some sense Hollywood has backpedaled since then -- nowadays it's almost unthinkable to have a star of Grant's stature in a movie in which he plays second fiddle to an actress.

The basic plot is that she's a widow whose husband was murdered, and now three strangers are chasing her around Paris, claiming she has $250,000 that belongs to them. (That's about $2 million in today's dollars.) Grant shows up as Peter Joshua, a dashing stranger who gets embroiled in the intrigue. She falls for him hard, even when it turns out he's in cahoots with the criminals... sort of. It gets more complicated from there.

The film has an interesting progeny and legacy. Stone and Marc Behm wrote the spec screenplay, but no studio was interested. So Stone turned it into a book, and suddenly everyone in Hollywood wanted it. Thus he turned it back into a screenplay. (Behm got a story credit.)

When they released the film, Universal Pictures improperly copyrighted the movie, so "Charade" became part of the public domain immediately. The fact that anyone could release their own version of it on video, or play it on television, probably helped the film remain popular over the years. It didn't even get an "official" video release by Universal until the awful, unnecessary remake starring Mark Whalberg came out in 2002, when the original was tacked on to the DVD as a bonus feature.

There was also a brouhaha over Hepburn's utterance of the word "assassinated," which was changed to "eliminated" in the wake of JFK's murder.

The movie is a total lark, more comedy than anything else. But I adored the cartoonish villains, the Parisian locales and the genuine romantic chemistry between Hepburn and Grant.

"Do you know what's wrong with you?" she asks as they part at the end of their night. "No, what?" he responds, setting up endless possibilities of Hollywood riffs. Instead, she looks at him pensively and exhales, "...nothing!" A beautiful line, and again usually the sort of thing the guy says to the dame, not vice-versa.

Grant was 59 when the movie was made to Hepburn's 33, though as I've noted before he seemed to stop aging at 38, looking much the same until he was deep into his 60s. Still, he felt self-conscious about the age difference and had the filmmakers add in several self-deprecating references by his character.

Unlike most older stars who fade away or segue into crotchety grampa roles, Grant had a daughter, his only child, at the age of 62 and decided to retire from acting to become a full-time daddy. Apparently he was just as magical in his final role as all his onscreen ones; Jennifer Grant wrote a loving tribute.

The bad guys are:
  • James Coburn as Tex, a tall, preening showboat with a Southern drawl and a mean disposition.
  • George Kennedy as Scobie, who's even bigger and even meaner than Tex, plus he has hook/weapon prosthetic hand.
  • Ned Glass as Neopold Gideon, an older intellectual type, a turncoat who tends to have sneezing fits when he's nervous or endangered.
  • Walter Matthau as Hamilton Bartholomew, a shady CIA man who claims to be helping out Reggie but is actually after the money himself. I'm not really giving anything away here, since Matthau practically smokes with suspicion from his very first scene. Not to mention, despite ostensibly being the Paris bureau chief of a federal government division, he's never able to muster up any actual resources to assist her.
The trio of chase men are introduced in a terrific scene: they each show up to Reggie's husband's funeral, and make close inspections of the body to ensure he's really dead. Scobie even sticks a pin in it -- literally.

In another rarity of mainstream Hollywood films, it's actually Tex, rather than Peter or Reggie, who has a flash of insight and figures out what her husband did with the money.  

But then the bad guys start showing up dead one by one, so suspicion falls on Peter, whose real name turns out to be Alex Dyle... or is it Adam Canfield ... or maybe Brian Cruikshank. One of the cleverest lines of dialogue is the very end, when Reggie and ... her man have gotten engaged, and she proposes they have lots of boys, "so we can name them all after you."

"Charade" also marked the first collaboration between Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer, earning an Oscar nomination for original song.

Part screwball comedy, part spy thriller, and a whole lot romantic, "Charade" is what nowadays we would call the perfect date movie. A lot of these movies are forgettable, but not this one.

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