Sunday, March 18, 2012

Charade (1963) - A Romantic Hunt in Paris

Charade 1963 poster
"Charade" (1963).

In Stanley Donen's "Charade" (1963), Cary Grant stars as - somebody - who is pursuing - or being pursued by - Regina Lampert, played by the enchanting Audrey Hepburn. "Reggie," as Grant calls her, is soon to find out that her entire world has imploded, and that nothing is left but an airline bag containing a key, an appointment book, a toothbrush, and an unmailed letter to her. But everybody seems to think she has a fortune, and the hunt is on to find the funds.

Charade 1963 poster
Ah, Paris!!!!  Cary would have made a fine Bond. In fact, his performance in "North By Northwest" is considered an inspiration for the entire Hollywood "spy" trend of the 1960s. 

This is one of those delightful films that they made from around World War II until the mid-Sixties, full of romance, comedy and confusion. Everybody's identity, it seems, is in question, and there are running gags about men being killed in their pajamas, a sneezing crook and the like. It stands up there with "North By Northwest," "My Fair Lady," "Breakfast at Tiffany's," and "Sabrina" as a sophisticated take on modern life which seems to be about everything but what it really is - romance.

Charade 1963 Audrey Hepburn Cary Grant
OK, look at Audrey Hepburn.  Can you guess the year? She and Cary Grant got on very well together while filming "Charade."

Scenes set in the Alps are beautiful, but the real action takes place in Paris. Hepburn looks completely at home there, and never loses a sense of being the one adult among a gang of squabbling boys arguing about some trifle. It is Hepburn at her most bewitching, seducing the charming seducer while never knowing quite who he is. Grant shows his flair for adventure laced with romantic comedy, especially in his final scene when he makes one of the classic funny faces in all of cinema. You can feel the genuine attraction between these two, Grant and Hepburn, it's a shame they only worked together on this one film.

Charade 1963 James Coburn
Come on, pass the milk or you'll get it! James Coburn plays "Tex" in "Charade."

Add in a sinister James Coburn in quite possibly his finest role (and check out that last look on his face!), Walter Matthau as a looming but largely hidden presence throughout, and George Kennedy as the model for about half-a-dozen James Bond film villains, and you have "the best Hitchcock film that Hitchcock never made." I found the greatest similarity with Hitchcock here not in the suspense area (complete with one of the master's "MacGuffins,") though that resonates too, but rather in the vivid rendering of the Hepburn/Grant relationship. The playful flirting banter between them recalls the train scenes between Grant and Eva Marie Saint in "North By Northwest." "Charade," in fact, almost feels like a continuation of that Hitchcock masterpiece. Director Stanley Donen and writer Peter Stone deserved so much more credit than they ever received for this underrated gem.

Charade 1963 George Kennedy
George Kennedy, is he the killer in "Charade"?

It's all about the atmosphere, Paris at its most intimate. We even get to take a ride with Hepburn and Grant on one of those sightseeing boats that still ply the Seine.  Stanley Donen directs with a sure hand, rightfully making Paris itself the key to the mystery. The score by Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer is wonderfully low key and transports you to the river right there with them. If you ever wondered why Hepburn became an icon, with those classic posters from "Breakfast at Tiffany's" still selling briskly, this film is part of her mystique. She was perfection with her almost resigned but still hopeful search for a worthy man. You, too, may fall under her spell.

Charade 1963 Cary Grant Audrey Hepburn
Cary was born to play this role in "Charade."

Highly recommended, a perfect film for a couple with elements that both should enjoy. "Charade" largely had been (unfairly) forgotten because nobody has an interest in promoting it - the copyright lapsed early because of a truly bone-headed mistake by the production staff - but it a true classic from the early '60s. Cary Grant could still do it, and he maneuvers between being deliciously hammy and deadly serious in a way that few actors then or now can achieve. A great way to spend an evening.


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