Saturday, December 18, 2010

Charade (1963) -- Stanley Donen

The film opens with a murder. Someone has thrown Charles Lampert from a speeding train, and his wife, Reggie (Audrey Hepburn), who at the time was on a skiing holiday, finds herself embroiled in a mystery. She knows virtually nothing about her husband, his past, where he gets his money, his relatives, or even his occupation. Returning to Paris she finds their expansive apartment empty. A French police inspector arrives to inform her of her husband's murder and to tell her that before Charles left Paris, he sold all their furniture and possessions at auction for the sum of $250,000. No-one knows where that money is. At the funeral the next day, three strange men show up to examine the body. One holds a small mirror up to the mouth to see if Charles is breathing, another jabs him with a pin. Part of Reggie's confusion is cleared up when next she is contacted by a CIA representative, Hamilton Bartholomew (Walter Matthau). He tells her that during WWII Charles and four other soldiers stole that sum in gold from the U.S. Government, burying it with the intent to return after the war to retrieve the cache. Charles double-crossed his partners by secretly getting there first, alone. Now, the U.S. Government wants its money back. So do Charles' partners, who begin to pressure Reggie, believing she must know where he hid the money.

Audrey Hepburn in Charade. 
From there, Director Donen unrolls an elaborate charade, where Reggie isn't sure who to believe, including Peter Joshua (Cary Grant), a debonair man she met on holiday who just happens to arrive in Paris to offer her assistance. He keeps changing his name, leaving her suspicious of his motives. When the partners start to turn up dead, Joshua becomes a prime suspect.

This is a fun film, a sophisticated thriller, more about the romance between the two stars than the intrigue. Donen made a smart decision not to let it get too serious, interjecting moments of droll humor. There is a silly game at a nightclub involving fruit; Grant takes a shower while wearing his suit; and Matthau displays wonderful pauses in conversations with Hepburn, a perplexed look frozen on his face.  Even with the light tone there are plenty of tense moments, including a rooftop encounter at night between Grant and George Kennedy, one of the men intimidating Hepburn. All the actors give fine performances.

James Coburn as Tex, inspecting the body of Charles Lampert.
James Coburn, Kennedy, and Ned Glass play the three partners with menace and desperation. You wouldn't want to meet the first two in a dark alley. Kennedy in particular is threatening. He wears a hook for a lost hand. And one forgets that before he excelled at comedy, Matthau was a good dramatic actor.

One of the best scenes involves Grant and Hepburn sharing a barge down the river. Donen knows how to create a romantic mood, and demonstrates here that he was also adept at pacing. Temporarily free of the goons after the money, the two stars find themselves falling in love. It is night, lights reflect off the water, and the unique Paris architecture looms up as a crew member shines a spotlight on couples kissing on the banks. If not an actual custom in Paris in the early 60's, it is nice to think so, and one of those scenes movie-goers like to imagine they might experience some day.        

Grant and Hepburn stroll alone the Seine.
There is some clever dialog between the characters. Reggie is immediately attracted to Grant's character. At their first meeting she playfully chides him:

Reggie: "I already know an awful lot of people and until one of them dies I couldn't possibly meet anyone else."
Peter Joshua: Well, if anyone goes on the critical list, let me know." (He turns to leave.)
Reggie: "Quitter. You give up awfully easy don't you?"

When they first kiss on the boat:

Peter Joshua: "Wow, when you come on, you come on, don't you?"
Reggie: "Well, come on!"

And when Reggie's suspicions are aroused:

Peter Joshua: "What do I have to do to satisfy you? Become the next victim?"
Reggie: "That's a start anyway."

Peter Stone wrote the screenplay. He'd work with both Grant (Father Goose) and Matthau (The Taking of Pelham One Two Three) again.

What Makes Charade Special

There is great chemistry between Grant and Hepburn. How could there not be? Even with a 25-year age difference, you can believe that Reggie would be attracted to Joshua. After all, these are two beautiful people. Hepburn, always gorgeous, looks stunning in bright colorful Givenchy. The outfits keep changing even though she arrives at her apartment with just two small suitcases; all the rest of her clothes have been sold.

It is an engaging mystery. We know that Charles hid the money somewhere, but it takes a sharp viewer to figure out where before Donen reveals the clever solution. And though one can hardly suspect that Cary Grant could be a killer, the story keeps you wondering until the end. Grant would only make two more films. He'd been making films for 30 years, and had been a star for 25. It's wonderful that he was still going strong.     

The great Henry Mancini wrote the score. If not up to his best, it is still Mancini. The theme is catchy, and the chase scenes accented with a nice, cool basa nova beat.

Maurice Binder designed the memorable title sequence, a rotating color wheel, which works great with Mancini's theme. Binder was also the man behind the first James Bond film, Dr. No, as well as several of the sequels.
Inside Story:
CIA man Walter Matthau.
Donen to rewrite the script to have Hepburn's character pursue him. The approach worked to perfection, making the story considerably more credible.  

This was the second of three films Hepburn made for Donen. The first was Funny Face and the last Two for the Road. It was great collaboration which always showed the actress at her most beautiful.     

Major Awards:
  • Nominated for Best Score and Original Song (Mancini and Mercer).
  • Hepburn won a BAFTA Actress award and Grant was nominated.
Other Films by Donen:
  • Singing in the Rain 1952
  • Seven Brides for Seven Brothers 1954
  • Funny Face 1957
  • Damn Yankees 1958
  • Two for the Road 1967

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