Thursday, August 12, 2010

Film Review: Charade (1963)

Even strolling by the Seine with Cary Grant,
Audrey Hepburn cannot shake her fears of murder in Charade

The first time I saw this film, I was shocked to learn that it wasn't a Hitchcock; that's how good it is. Of course it was an easy mistake to make. When watching a slick, witty suspense film starring Cary Grant, of course one would think Hitchcock since Hitch used Grant in four of his masterful films: Suspicion (1941), Notorious (1946),  To Catch a Thief (1955), and North by Northwest (1959). This 1963 gem, however, was directed by long-time MGM musical and comedy director Stanley Donen, who made such classic films as Royal Wedding (1950), Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), and Singin' in the Rain (1952), which he co-directed with Gene Kelly. So although Donen was highly credentialed, taking on a project like Charade which is charged with action and suspense was highly unusual and risky to say the least. The result, however, was a thoroughly entertaining film.

Without giving away too much of the plot, since half the fun of this movie is the curve balls it throws you, the action starts when American ex-patriot Regina Lampert (Audrey Hepburn) returns home to her Paris flat to find that her husband has been murdered while attempting to flee the country with $250,000. Regina is at a loss to explain her husband's actions until a visit to the American embassy informs her that her husband was actually a former CIA agent who absconded with that money during the war. Now her husband's co-conspirators are threatening her life unless she can somehow figure out where her husband hid the cash, and the CIA wants it back too. Helping her along the way is a dashing fellow American (Cary Grant) whom she met in the Swiss Alps, but his evasive answers and outright lies make Regina reluctant to trust him despite her obvious attraction to him.Walter Matthau and James Coburn co-star as a CIA chief and one of the conspirators out for blood or money, respectively.

What keeps this movie from being too much as the bodies pile up, each murder more gruesome than the last, is the wonderful comedic talents of Cary Grant. A combination of witty dialog and Grant's stellar physical comedy abilities break up the tension and give both the audience and Audrey Hepburn's character new reasons to fall in love with the most attractive actor ever to grace the silver screen (Grant was 59 when he made this film, but still surprisingly handsome.) My favorite part has to be when he decides to take a shower with his clothes on.

This is also my favorite screen role for Audrey Hepburn, and certainly one of her most versatile. The way she alternately chases Cary Grant shamelessly and then repulses him always makes me laugh, and she runs the gamut of emotions perfectly from despondent to frightened to childishly glib. I honestly was never a Hepburn fan until I saw this film because I objected to her anorexic physique on the grounds that I've felt the repercussions of the media's obsession for thinness in women all too personally. I liked a lot of her other films, but I never thought her performance exceptional or memorable until this one (I don't count My Fair Lady because as good as she was in that film, I can't get over the fact that she didn't do her own singing, especially when Julie Andrews originated the role in the West End and Broadway. Epic fail, Hollywood. Epic fail.).

Despite my outright adoration for this film there are two things in it that I don't like. First I can't stand the scene at the nightclub in which participants must pass an orange to each other without the use of their hands. It was another scene designed to utilize Cary Grant's physical comedy skills, but it's awkward to watch and just too drawn-out. It eats up a good five minutes of an already long movie without adding anything to the plot. The second problem I have with it is that the deaths are too gory. Hitchcock understood that with suspense films less can be more, that not showing a murder can imprint it all the more deeply into an audience's consciousness, but Stanley Donen obviously didn't get this concept, showing us a graphic drowning victim, a slit throat victim, and a person who had been smothered. I'll admit to being a little bit of a wimp when it comes to violence, but it's especially jarring in such an old movie.

One last thing to note: Audrey Hepburn's last line of the film is one of my favorites ever.

I give this movie an 8.5 out of 10, one that can be watched almost ad infinum with pleasure.

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