Sunday, July 4, 2010

Review – Charade

July 4, 2010

Charade – U.S., 1963

Legend has it that the role of James Bond was initially offered to Cary Grant, and it is not hard to see why. In addition to his strong build and natural good looks, Grant had the uncanny ability to look and sound completely convincing regardless of whether the character he was playing was lying through his teeth or telling the absolute truth – a perfect quality for a spy. Grant apparently thought he was too old to play the role that would eventually make Sean Connery a star, and so in 1962, Cary played a rich businessman out for a good time in That Touch of Mink instead of James Bond in Dr. No. The following year, Grant made Charade, and after seeing the film, I’m convinced Grant would have made a great Bond.

In Stanley Donen’s Charade, Grant plays Peter Joshua. While on vacation, Peter happens to meet Regina Lampert (Audrey Hepburn), the lonely, frustrated wife of a wealthy American. Peter and Regina have a brief, slightly flirtatious conversation. She is a little more open about her flirtation, while he seems a bit uncomfortable with it. In the film’s opening scene, Regina confides to her good friend Syvie that she’s decided to divorce her husband, Charles, for she feels as if she hardly knows him. This turns out to be truer than she could ever have imagined. Upon returning home, she’s shocked to discover her apartment empty and all of her belonging missing. A police detective later tells her that her husband sold all of her things for a quarter of a million dollars just before he unsuccessfully tried to flee the country. That is, before someone killed him. As if this isn’t shocking enough, Regina is then shown four passports, each containing her husband’s photo, but four different names. Later, she is told that her husband was part of a group of soldiers that tried to steal $250,000 of government money during World War II. Years later, her husband apparently retrieved the money but neglected to share it with his fellow partners-in-crime. Now these dangerous individuals have come back to collect their share of the loot, and they are convinced that Regina knows where it is.

This is the basic set up of Charade, and I will not give anything else away, for like Goldfinger, Charade is best watched cold. Knowing its secrets beforehand would diminish first-time viewers’ fun and excitement or at the very least alter the experience slightly. Moments of confusion and intrigue would likely be replaced by ones in which you marvel at a character’s skills or an actor’s talent. I’m not saying this would make someone appreciate the film less; however, I believe Charade is most effective when one sees it through the eyes of both Regina and Peter, and since neither of them knows all of the facts, maybe it’s better if we don’t either. Otherwise, they’re playing catch up, and I believe mysteries and suspense films are more effective when the audience learns things at almost the same time as the characters in the film do.

One of the interesting aspects of Charade has to do with the film’s romantic storyline. When he made the film, Grant was fifty-eight; Hepburn was just thirty-four. Grant, who turned down the role of Humbert Humbert in Stanley Kubrick’s film Lolita, is said to have felt uncomfortable with the idea of an older man chasing a woman so many years his junior, and therefore, the character originally intended to be the pursuer in Charade was made to be the pursued. It was the right decision. In the film, Regina is ready to move on after he husband’s murder, and Peter is the one she wants to moves on with. His hesitance, in combination with her rather bold pursuit, makes for some absolutely hilarious moments. In one particularly funny moment, she tricks him into coming into her room and actually tells him to take a shower there. Is she intending for something to happen between them, and if she is, why does he keep ruining the moment?

Charade was written by Peter Stone, who was the first person to win a Tony, an Oscar, and an Emmy. His script is nearly perfect, suspenseful one minute and hilarious the next. Much of the suspense comes as a result of the three men trying to get their money back. George Kennedy is especially creepy as Herman Scobie, a man with a claw for a hand who distrusts everyone and seems prone to violence. Matching Kennedy in intensity is James Coburn, who plays Tex Panthollow, a man with a rather mean streak. In one scene, he flicks lit matches onto Regina’s dress in an attempt to scare her into telling him where the money is. It works. The third man in the group is Leopold Gideon (Ned Glass). He’s more awkward than terrifying. His method of scaring Regina seems to be to whisper in her ear things like, “Where’s the money?” Compared to his two partners, he’s almost polite. It’s when Regina and Peter are together that the humor and snappy dialogue fly. In one scene, Regina says that if she’s going to die it might as well be for her country. Peter replies, “That’s the spirit!” In another scene, Regina walks into a room to find Peter on the floor after a fist fight with an intruder. After she asks him if he’s all right, he replies, “I sprained my pride.”

Charade is the kind of film that Hollywood should make more often. It’s smart, funny, and unpredictable. It contains many twists and turns and will keep viewers guessing until the very end. In addition, its two stars give great performances, and it includes some impressive work by Walter Mathau as well. Those who give it a chance won’t be disappointed. (on DVD from the Criterion Collection)

4 and a half stars

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