Friday, January 28, 2011

CHARADE: Wish I'd Gotten to Know Him Before I Fell in Love

“I wish I’d gotten to know her before I fell in love...I could say who’s to blame, say who’s the man in this cautionary tale...."  (From "Out of Jail" by They Might Be Giants)  I’ve always affectionately joked that Charade was the best Hitchcock movie that Hitchcock never made, as those who know me well can attest. Brimming with piquant romance, sophisticated comedy, and stylish suspense—including a soup├žon of graphic-for-its-era violence and gore—Stanley Donen’s 1963 romantic comedy-thriller is a thoroughly entertaining object lesson in why it’s so important for people to really get to know their sweeties before marrying them. Case in point: Charade’s heroine Regina “Reggie” Lampert (Audrey Hepburn). Reggie, a beautiful young American simultaneous translator in Paris, quit her job at E.U.R.E.S.C.O. after marrying the rich and mysterious Charles Lampert—but he’s turning out to be too mysterious for comfort. When we meet Reggie, she’s vacationing in Megeve’s lovely French Alps resort, but it’s no pleasure trip. She’s suffering from buyer’s remorse — or more accurately, bridal remorse — and seriously contemplating divorce. As she sadly admits to her friend Sylvie (Dominique Minot), “I’ve tried to make it work, really I have.…But with Charles, everything is secrecy and lies. He’s hiding something from me, Sylvie, something terrible — and it frightens me.” Witty byplay with a handsome older gent who introduces himself as Peter Joshua (Cary Grant) perks things up before Reggie returns home to Paris

Reggie in disguise, with glasses!
But her homecoming is a rude awakening: Reggie is utterly gobsmacked to find their apartment is completely bare, and Charles has been murdered! On top of that, three men unknown to her turn up at Charles’s very sparsely-attended funeral. One of them, Tex Penthollow (James Coburn), holds a mirror to Charles’s open casket to see if he’s breathing. The second, Leopold W. Gideon (Ned Glass, who also played opposite Grant in North by Northwest as the suspicious Grand Central Terminal ticket agent) sneezes violently over Charles’s casket. (Sylvie dryly notes, “He must have known Charles pretty well…he’s allergic to him.”) The third mourner is an angry, imposing fella named Herman Scobie (George Kennedy) with a bad attitude and a metal prosthetic claw. He storms into the church and confirms Charles’s deceased state by plunging a pin into his corpse, to the shock of both Reggie and Sylvie.  

Reggie's a Truthful Whitefoot, with a white dress to match!
"Is this the party to whom I am speaking?"
With oranges like these, who needs apples?
Turns out Charles was living a double life—a quadruple life, really, considering he had 4 passports under 4 different names. But that’s only the beginning; self-described American Embassy “desk jockey” Hamilton Bartholomew (Walter Matthau) reveals that Charles was a wanted man! He and the other “mourners” had fought in World War 2 together, going behind enemy lines to deliver $250,000 in gold to the French underground. Instead, they stole the gold but got ambushed by the Nazis, which is how Scobie got a claw where his hand used to be. Charles escaped with the $250 grand and had managed to elude his former comrades until now. The bewildered, vulnerable yet determined Reggie is the gang’s only lead, if they don’t get fed up and kill her first. There’s one scene where Tex corners Reggie in a phone booth at the Black Sheep Club (oranges never looked so sexy or funny!), torturing our hapless heroine by dropping lit matches on her dress as she brushes them off, screaming and sobbing. It’s always made me want to write a scene (if someone hasn’t beat me to it) in which the heroine has just enough room to knee her tormentor in the groin, snapping, “I saw that movie, too!” Peter catches up with Reggie in Paris and offers to help her out with the fix she’s in. His playful hard-to-get routine is catnip to her, and she’s falling in love…until she finds out the guy has as many aliases as Charles did. Boy, Reggie sure can pick ’em!  Bartholomew wants to take advantage of Reggie’s mystery man by encouraging her to play nice with Peter — or is it Alex? Adam? — and see what he’s up to. Who can she trust, and how can she keep all those names straight? Her life becomes a case of “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer” as the crooks and Peter/Alex/Adam/Whatever His Name Is moves into Reggie’s small hotel, where comedy, suspense, murder, and paranoid gallows humor also set up light housekeeping.

Charade
is the movie that made me a fan of both Donen and screenwriter Peter Stone. In fact, I actually saw Charade long before I ever saw any of Donen’s classic musicals. He has fun with Charade’s Hitchcockian aspects, such as the clever corpse-eye-view shot involving a morgue drawer. Every other line of Stone’s screenplay is sparklingly quotable, and Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn are among my favorite screen couples. It’s a pity they didn’t have more opportunities to team up onscreen together during their long careers. My family and I have always loved the wry way that Grant, then 59, and Hepburn, then 34, kidded the age difference between them. That was more or less Grant’s idea, according to Donen and Stone on the superb Criterion Collection DVD’s delightful, anecdote-rich commentary track. Grant was concerned that it would be unseemly for a man his age to be chasing a beautiful woman so much younger than him, so he convinced the filmmakers to make Hepburn’s character the romantic aggressor. Personally, I found this gambit to be quite charming, and it makes sense for Reggie’s trusting, romantic, impulsive personality. 

Will Reggie and Peter/Alex/Adam
live happily and frivolously ever after?
In fact, Audrey Hepburn had the most remarkable knack for being glamorous yet approachable; she was one of the most endearing glamour-pusses in movie history. James Coburn, George Kennedy, and Walter Matthau are in top form in their early pre-Oscar screen roles. Both Hepburn and Paris look their sophisticated best here; let’s face it, Audrey was born to wear Givenchy!  Charade’s driving opening theme is my favorite piece of Henry Mancini music (the Pink Panther theme comes a very close second). In fact, the whole score reflects the film’s many moods perfectly. Without giving too much away, I love the clever MacGuffin, too; those who aren’t as into philately as my stepdad may have a new respect for stamp-collecting after watching Charade!



18 comments:

  1. "Charade" is one of my favorite films, Dorian, and while I had seen it in bits and pieces on late-night TV over the years, it was at your urging that I finally sat down and watched the whole thing on video. I think seeing the commentary would be fun.

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  2. Avery, I'm delighted to see you Following our merry crew of movie mavens here at TotED; thanks for joining the fun! I'm also pleased to see that you love CHARADE as much as Vinnie and I do. Happily, Amazon.com has several Criterion Collection CHARADE DVDs and Blu-Ray discs, many of them gently used and therefore a great bargain. It's well worth it for not only a high-quality edition of the film, but also for Donen and Stone's entertaining and informative commentary. Buy one and enjoy!

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  3. I REALLY need to see this film...but on a better transfer.

    I won't lie...I saw this film for the first time on youtube all chopped up and with grainy quality.

    One of these days I'm going to get the Criterion transfer and enjoy it the way it was meant to be seen...

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  4. Always nice to hear from you, Nate! While seeing CHARADE in bits and pieces is certainly better than not seeing it at all, you owe it to yourself to get the spiffy Criterion Collection edition as soon as you're able to. As I mentioned in my earlier comment to Avery, there are now plenty of reasonably-priced new and gently-used copies of both the DVD and Blu-Ray editions available on Amazon.com. Go for it; you'll be glad you did! :-)

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  5. One day while we still lived in New York, The Wife was talking to her Mom, and the conversation turned to the level of excitement and adventure in our marriage. She commented that, for example, we had never experienced anything like the events of, say, Charade. I looked her, arms akimbo, said "Fine!", and headed to The Kid's little blackboard and wrote "WELCOME TO FRANCE". I then proceeded to chase her about the apartment, demanding she hand over the stamps. She kept ahead of me, giggling madly and, yelling "No, no, never!" while her mother sat on the couch watching us repeatedly race by, laughing her tits off.

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  6. Vin, I've been giggling uncontrollably for the last several minutes remembering that time! See, this is why we've been happily married all these years (not to put the proverbial whammy on it :-))!

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  7. Please welcome TotED's newest Follower, Connor Noble! Thanks for joining the conversation here at our little cinematic sewing circle! :-)

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  8. For those of you who haven't had the pleasure of hearing "Out of Jail" by They Might Be Giants, the song I quoted at the beginning of this CHARADE blog post, here's a link from YouTube: tinyurl.com/4cqjya8

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  9. Or try this link to the song: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=37bAjZ0_Lic

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  10. Well, all I can say is that, if I were married to Vinnie, I'd be careful about which movies I fantasized about out loud. Just be grateful you weren't feeling nostalgic for FRENZY or PEEPING TOM or something like that.

    Good comments, Dorian, except that in the case of best film never made by Hitchcock, I'm still favorably inclined towards Billy Wilder's WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION. It's a close call, though.

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  11. HA! Fear not, Michael, Vinnie's taste in fun comedy-thrillers is a lot like mine -- other than the time he watched THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE with two-week-old Baby Siobhan. :-) (Don't get me started on Mom's reaction! :-)) And yes, I must agree with you that WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION is a mighty close runner-up in the Best Hitchcock Movie Hitchcock Never Made competition, as well as being another one of my favorite films of all time! It's another film I'll be sure to write about here in TotED in the not-too-distant future.

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  12. By the way, one aspect of CHARADE that's always intrigued me is that Reggie Lampert is an emotional eater, though I doubt it was referred to as such back in 1963 when CHARADE was in Radio City Music Hall and other movie theaters. Note how our girl Reggie eats almost constantly when she's stressed-out. Indeed, she's eating in her very first scene as she confides in pal Sylvie about wanting to divorce Charles. Sylvie's reply: "It is infuriating that your unhappiness does not turn to fat." Amen to that, sister! :-) I love the scene on the cruise when Adam (as Cary Grant's character is calling himself at that point :-)) admits to Reggie that he's in love with her, and she suddenly drops her knife and fork with a clatter: "I'm not hungry anymore. Isn't it glorious?" :-)

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  13. I never mentioned the impressive film career of Monte Landis, who played the MC in the nightclub. Aside from a big list of character parts, he's best known to genre fans as the owner of Mario's Magic Shop in Pee-Wee's big adventure, and a number of appearances on The Monkees, most notably as "Mr. Zero" in The Devil and Peter Tork.

    http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0484842/

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  14. Vin, thanks for mentioning Monte Landis! He was indeed a popular character actor and entertainer all over the world, in addition to his CHARADE role as The Black Sheep Club's peripatetic MC! :-)

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  15. Very nice, DorianTB. Such a fun film. I love the Title design and sequence by Maurice Binder, who also did a few of the James Bond openings.

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  16. Thanks for your kind comments, Readerman! In addition to CHARADE being one of my favorite films, I'm also a fan of Maurice Binder's credit sequences. Sometimes the credits are even more fun to watch than the movies! :-)

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  17. Ah, the romantic aggressor--I love that description which might have been my modus operandi back in the day! Another lovely review Dorian and from my vague recollection a wonderful movie.

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    1. Eve, thanks for your kind words about my CHARADE post! I was too shy to be a romantic aggressor myself (though nobody ever believes me; blame my "Stealth Shyness" :-)) Fortunately, Vinnie isn't the least bit shy, and we've lived happily ever after, not to put the whammy on it! :-) By all means, Eve, treat yourself to CHARADE; not only do we own a Criterion Collection version, but CHARADE has been turning up on HBO and Cinemax lately! :-)

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