“Charade ” - Stanley Donen (1963)

Charade (1963) was something of a cinematic pastiche, and so it drew various responses.  It was a both a light-hearted romantic comedy and a corpse-strewn spy-thriller, coming hot on the heels of the debut of the James Bond films. Above all, it was a star vehicle for its two luminous leads, Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn. Depending on your tastes, you may be attracted to one or another of these slants to the film. Echoing Hepburn’s breakthrough film of a decade earlier, Roman Holiday (1953), Charade also featured some tourist-oriented location shooting – in Paris this time and in color.

Cary Grant had been approached to appear opposite Hepburn in Roman Holiday, but he had declined because of the 25-year age difference between himself and Hepburn.  However, ten years later and now 59 years old, Grant signed up to co-star with Hepburn in Charade.  But Grant’s continuing concern for the age difference led to his insistence that any romantic approaches in the film would have to come from Hepburn’s side.  So in this film Hepburn is the amorous aggressor, virtually throwing herself at Grant throughout the story.  This doesn’t come off as at all natural to Hepburn’s screen persona, and yet it turns out to be one of the key tones of the film.  Since Hepburn here is the vulnerable heroine surrounded by sinister predators, her willing submission to the charms of a reserved and duplicitous character greatly accentuates her vulnerability and the film’s emotional tenor.

The film’s story goes through four phases that correspond to four different personae that the character played by Cary Grant assumes.  The first three phases are almost equal in length and make up most of the film.

1.  Mrs. Regina Lambert meets Peter Joshua
While on a ski holiday Mrs. Regina Lampert (Audrey Hepburn) confides to a friend that she intends to divorce her husband, and shortly thereafter she also meets a charming stranger, Peter Joshua (Cary Grant).  When she returns to Paris, Regina learns that her husband has been murdered and that their apartment has been stripped bare. 

At her husband’s sparsely attended funeral, three mysterious and sinister looking characters show up; and Regina is later informed by CIA administrator Hamilton Bartholomew (Walter Matthau) that they are Tex Panthollow (James Coburn), Herman Scobie (George Kennedy), and Leopold Gideon (Ned Glass), who, along with her husband Charles and a fifth character, Cameron Dyle, had stolen $250,000 in a World War II OSS caper. Evidently Cameron Dyle died in the war, and Charles Lampert had made off with all the money himself. The three surviving OSS conspirators apparently killed Charles to get the money and now will assume that Regina has the money and will try to kill her, too.

Meanwhile Peter Joshua shows up in Paris and helps Regina move into a new hotel.  Regina is shown in short order to be amorously attracted to Joshua.

2.    Regina and Alex Dyle
Regina is now threatened by Tex, Scobie, and Gideon, and Peter Joshua tries to help her.  But it soon turns out that he wasn’t to be trusted in the first place – his true identity is now understood to be Alex Dyle, the brother of conspirator Cameron Dyle, and he is now in league with the other three.  But Regina quickly suppresses her misgivings about “Peter Joshua’s” false pretenses and whole-heartedly throws herself in with Dyle.

None of the cutthroat conspirators trusts each other, and before long Scobie is found drowned in a bathtub, presumably the victim of one of the other three. All along Regina keeps talking on the phone to Bartholomew and learns that Carson Dyle never had a brother.  So it is now clear that the Cary Grant character was lying about being Alex Dyle, too.

3.  Regina and Adam Canfield
Regina confronts “Alex”, who now admits to being a professional thief, named Adam Canfield, who is out to steal all the money for himself. Again Regina forgives his relentless mendacity and throws herself (in Hepburn's delicate style) at him again.  

Along the way, there is a nice trick about how the $250,000 was secreted in plain sight. Tex, Canfield, and Regina figure it out. But soon the corpses of Tex and Gideon are discovered, and Regina now assumes that the real killer can only be Adam Canfield.

4.  Final Confrontation
Regina arranges to meet Bartholomew, who turns out not to be a CIA agent named Bartholomew, but instead the most villainous of all of them.  But in the end Grant (a) saves the day, (b) turns out not to be Adam Canfield, but an upright US Treasury official named Brian Cruikshank, and (c) ends up betrothed to the continually enamored Regina. 

As a vehicle for Hepburn (and Grant), Charade does fill the bill, but when compared to the earlier Roman Holiday it doesn’t measure up. Both films have a theme of deception and dissembling, but Roman Holiday's approach is far subtler than Charade’s.  Whereas Roman Holiday presents innuendo and mistaken assumptions about perceptions, Charade merely has Grant and Matthau baldly lying through their teeth about who they are and what they do.

There are other limitations about Charade, as well.  The characterizations of villains – Tex, Gideon, Scobie, and the false Bartholomew – are schematic and grossly exaggerated to the point of being cartoon characters. Matthau, as the false Bartholomew, is made out to be particularly slimy and crude, but this characterization is overdone. There are also five violent murders in Charade, although we mainly see only the outcomes, i.e. the corpses, and are spared from viewing the grisly killings. The depictions of these murders are apparently supposed to be funny and in tune with the general tongue-in-cheek cartoon ambience. Along these same lines of exaggeration, Peter Stone’s script features dialogue that is full of sarcastic one-liners, particularly from Grant, but to me, they are mostly artificial and charmless. 

The cinematography is also not as artful as in the best films. Of course it is not surprising to see unnatural lighting of some studio-lit process shots showing outdoor scenes in the background, since this was characteristic of that period of color filmmaking.  But there are several pointlessly high overhead shots that don’t fit in well with the narrative rhythm of the film. And as far as narrative focalization is concerned, I won’t even discuss the prankish point-of-view shot from inside the coffin as the undertaker closes the lid on Charles Lampert, but there are some oddities here, as well. In addition there is some awkward editing, with jump cuts connected to the ends of some moving-camera shots.

These weaknesses in the schematic narrative, artificial dialogue, cinematography, editing, and some of the performances of the villainous characters can be forgiven, I suppose, if they don’t interfere to much with our main interest – the romantic relationship between the two leads, Hepburn and Grant. 

For his part, Cary Grant is his usual charming self, but his performance is variable. Most of the time he seems relatively disinterested and romantically detached from Hepburn. But then he sometimes paradoxically breaks out into unexpected zaniness – such as when, in almost slapstick fashion, he takes a soaking shower fully clothed in front of the astonished Hepburn, or when he gives her an out-of-character cross-eyed grin when she meets him in the end. 

Audrey Hepburn, of course, is one my favorite screen performers, and her  magnetism is on display here. But there are some concerns, too. Her relative indifference to the death of her husband in the opening scenes is rather disconcerting. And her romantic relationship in Charade has less electricity than those of some of her other films, such as Roman Holiday (1954), Love in the Afternoon (1957), Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), and My Fair Lady (1964).

Nevertheless and despite all the shortcomings, Charade is still an entertaining film. A further positive worth mentioning is Henri Mancini’s theme song, “Charade”, which is moody and memorable – almost up to the level of his “Moon River” for Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

No comments: