Saturday, August 15, 2015

CHARADE: The tale of four men and the woman that loves him.

This TotED classic remix is brought to you for the Anti-Damsel Blogathon,hosted by Movies Silently and The Last Drive-In!

"Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these... 'it might have been'."
--Felix Unger John Greenleaf Whittier

Let me tell you a tale of a missed opportunity.

Back when Thandie Newton appeared in Mission Impossible II, Hubby Vinnie and I were immediately taken by her looks and demeanor, not to mention her charisma on screen.  We began wondering what she'd be good in, and he wondered how exciting she'd be in a film with Will Smith.  Not a couple months later it was announced that they would indeed star together in a remake of one of my favorite films, Charade! Needless to say, our zeal and excitement for this production was so high, people wanted to climb us.

Alas, such great heights only bring such shattering falls.

The writers' strike came along, and Hollywood rushed to get something, ANYTHING before the cameras, to make sure there wouldn't be any gap as scripts weren't being written.  Smith shuffled his schedule around to do the Ali biopic, and rather than waiting, as responsible adults would do, the producers replaced him with Mark Wahlberg, who is of course your second choice after Will Smith.

The result, The Truth About Charlie, was a calamity, made by and starring a great bunch of people, led by an actor who was so clearly out of place he brought the whole thing down, like a Detroit Slant-6 engine with one piston made of day-old rye bread.

We left the theater feeling the same sense of loss as when you pay hundreds of dollars to see a Broadway play, only to have one of those little slips of white paper flutter from your Playbill, informing you that this evening the role of the star will be play by the understudy. We raced home and cleared the taste from our mouths by watching the original.  Audrey Hepburn always makes things better.

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!” Reggie gets trapped in another phone booth near the end of the film, being chased by quite a different tormentor, but I'm getting ahead of myself.

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.

The Criterion DVD features a great and witty
commentary track by Donen and Stone!
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!

One of the nice things about the film is it does a good job of using its setting as part of the plot.  Many films could take place in any city - they don't take advantage of any landmarks, there's no sense that the people around them are in any way representative of the city they're in.  But Charade weaves its way in and out of Paris perfectly, they ride the Bateaux Parisiens, the floating restaurant on the Seine, and the climax takes place around the Palais-Royal