Friday, April 22, 2011

“How about making me vice president in charge of cheering you up?”

You’ve probably noticed that I’ve got a fondness for movies from past decades. Over the course of viewing and contemplating films for this here project, I’ve come to realize that I’ve got a particular fondness for the 1980s, 1930s, and (with relevance to today’s entry) the 1960s. While I am far from anything close to a hippy, I’ve got to admit there’s a definite appeal to the cocksure swagger of a good 60’s movie. 1963’s Charade, which I’ve seen quite a few times in my life, certainly qualifies.
Regina "Reggie" Lampert (Audrey Hepburn) is a wealthy young woman who’s on holiday in the Alps and plans on divorcing her husband when she returns home to Paris. He beats her to the punch by getting himself thrown from a train to his death in the pre-credits sequence. At his funeral, a colorful band of shady looking types (Tex Panthollow (James Coburn), Herman Scobie (George Kennedy), and Leopold W. Gideon (Ned Glass)) make sure he’s dead and Regina starts wondering just what’s going on. She gets called in to the American Embassy by a CIA Agent named Hamilton Bartholomew (Walter Matthau) who explains that during WWII, her husband was part of a group of people who stole a hefty sum of money that technically belongs to the US government. Her husband stole the money from them, but being as he was the only one who knew where it was, a treasure hunt with deadly consequences commences. Oh yes, and along the way Reggie meets the charismatic and mysterious “Peter Joshua” (among other names) (Cary Grant), who’s reason for wanting to find the money changes as often as he changes names.

That’s really about all that I can say about the plot without stumbling into spoiler territory. Just trust me when I say that the plot twists fly fast and thick in this film, but they all make sense by the end of the movie. Basically, if Alfred Hitchcock had ever decided to make a romantic thriller in the 60s, this is the movie he would have made.

But it’s not Hitchcock who directed this. It was Stanley Donen (who’s done all sorts of big films like Singin’ in the Rain, Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, Damn Yankees and some films that aren’t musicals). The visuals and pacing of the film are both outstanding. Paris looks great (as it usually does) and the pacing is lightning quick as we move from scene to scene with a near-manic urgency (which works perfectly for the mystery). Characters seldom get a chance to catch their breath, and when they do, well, its basically for Hepburn and Grant to have fantastic chemistry together as their characters struggle to trust each other as they fall in love. Also, the final chase scene and showdown is exceptionally tense and well-edited, so bonus points for that.

Screenplay by Peter Stone and based on the story “The Unsuspecting Wife” by Peter Stone and Marc Behm. Funny thing is, the writers shopped the story around first, got no bites from Hollywood, so they published it as a novel under a different title and lo and behold, the studios went for it. Say what you will about the film industry’s lack of originality, but it has always been like that.

The story works great. Yes, its based on the old plot of “we need to find the money before its too late!” but it handles that plot with a deft touch that throws in romance and some legitimately nice twists. Dialogue is great in this too, as character verbally spar with aplomb.

About the only complaint I have with the movie lies with one character, Jean-Louis, the little son of Reggie’s best friend. He shows up at a few intervals with an important part to play, but I don’t know if it’s the writing or the fairly bad dubbing on his voice, but he is annoying as all hell.

However, the character work on Regina herself is outstanding and worth noting. She’s vulnerable and in way over her head, but she is anything but helpless. She doesn’t run around with a gun in her hand, but she’s incredibly smart and resourceful, often figuring things out for herself just as often as she finds herself in trouble. Just a fantastically well-realized and believable female lead character.

Original music by Henry Mancini. You can’t go wrong with Mancini and this is very much a truism for this movie. Action sequences have a lot of percussive beats that drive things forward quite nicely as well.

Charade is one of those movies that I love deeply and can watch frequently. It works equally well as a Romantic Comedy as it does a crime thriller and it’s great seeing Coburn and Matthau on screen, but the real heart and soul of the movie belongs to the interaction between Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, and they’re both fantastic in this. Hepburn in particular is radiant and I dare any heterosexual male out there to not fall in love with her even a little bit after watching this. Wholeheartedly recommended.

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