The Film: Charade (1963)
The Principles: Stanley Donen (Director). Cary Grant. Audrey Hepburn. Walter Matthau. James Coburn. George Kennedy. Ned Glass.
The Premise: While on a holiday, a woman’s husband is murdered. When she returns and learns the horrible news, she finds herself the target of three crooks, a shady stranger and a CIA operative who are all chasing the $250,000 her husband had stolen.
Is It Good: Well they don’t call ‘em Classics when they suck and they certainly call Charade a classic. Ostensibly it’s a simple little crime thriller with a few too many twist and turns, but overall there’s a bit of depth to it that manages to give the whole thing a bit of weight. Too much weight? Well, perhaps, but we’ll get into that in a bit.
And a lot, if not all, of that weight can be credited to our two leads. Audrey Hepburn’s Reggie Lampert is a smart, strong, funny, classy, charming, cute-as-a-button woman who knows what from what. When we’re introduced to her, she finds herself staring down the barrel of a gun…a water gun. The gunman? A young boy who delights himself in shooting her right in the face. Her response (“Let me guess, you didn’t know it was loaded”) seems cute and innocent enough, but, when taken in context with the rest of the film, betrays a woman who is all of the things listed above, but is also a bit distrustful, perhaps even cynical. It’s a sentiment that’s given some credence when she discusses the fact that she’s preparing herself for a divorce with a friend. Her reason? Her husband keeps too many secrets, tells too many lies. It’s even further confirmed when she meets Grant’s Peter Joshua. The pair flirt (and the chemistry between Hepburn and Grant is remarkably palpable) but there’s a coolness to her, a distance that doesn’t really seem to have anything to do with the fact that she’s married. Grant plays his character the same way, but he’s more aloof than distant – you can tell he’s an old pro at this game.
Now, I’m spending a lot of time on that whole thing because it plays into the biggest problem I had with the film, which is namely the fact that (spoiler alert) Reggie falls for Peter. Without giving too much of the plot away for those who haven’t seen it, Grant’s Mr. Joshua is stripped of his credibility very early on and the audience is left spending the rest of the running time wondering just who he really is and what he’s really up to and, as such, in an effort to keep Reggie (and us) off-balance, the story calls for Joshua’s various lies to be called out and, even though he has a seemingly reasonable answer for everything, our (and her) reasons to trust him are never completely justified.
And there’s the rub – we’re introduced to a woman who’s been made to be distrustful and cynical. A woman who’s on the verge of leaving her husband because she can’t trust him (and who’s secrecy and hidden past ultimately resulted in his murder!) and she finds herself back in the same position with a man who is apparently worse (as Mr. Joshua may very well be a murderer himself) and it’s not something that’s ever commented on in a deeper way as Reggie falls for him openly and without any hint of hesitation, which only serves to amplify the sort of whiplash that comes from the back and forth. In some ways it feels like they sold the character out here.
But there’s every possibility that the depth in Reggie’s character was never intended and was added purely through the sheer force of Hepburn’s effortless talent. And besides – Cary Grant takes a shower with his suit on in one of the sweetest scenes you‘ll ever see. Hell, I kinda fell in love with him too.
Is It Worth A Look: Certainly! I don’t want my little rant above to overshadow the fact that I thoroughly enjoyed this little movie. The story is solid and there are some great performances from a truly star-studded cast and while neither Donen nor writer Peter Stone have the sure hand of Hitchcock (whose North by Northwest is extremely visible here), they (along with Hepburn and Grant) manage to weave a fairly taut little thriller with enough charm and humor as to leave you with a buzz. Not to mention a climax that has both leads trading in their charm and charisma for a thrilling chase sequence that will indeed have you leaning forward in rapt attention. It’s in the Criterion library for a reason, after all.
Random Anecdotes: Netflix lists the aspect ratio at 1.85:1 Widescreen, but when I fired it up on Instant I discovered a horrible transfer whose 1.33:1 ratio was decidedly NOT Widescreen. Turns out that since Charade isn’t copyrighted, anyone at all can master a release and sell it, and the version that Instant has came from a transfer of a shitty, scratched, horrible 35mm print (thanks to Greg Clark for that little tidbit). So, yeah, it looks terrible; so much so that by the end watching it had almost become a chore. Apparently the only edition that’s worth a damn is Criterion’s (and they have it on Blu – buy it from CHUD!) so if you’re going to watch it, try and track that one down. For everything I couldn’t see behind the grain and the fuzz I could tell that Donen certainly wasn’t a slouch, too bad I couldn’t see it as it was intended.
Cinematc Soulmates: North by Northwest. The “Flying Hellfish” episode of The Simpsons.