Name a movie where Cary Grant is hanging from a ledge and a villain is about to stamp on the fingers he’s using to cling on for dear life. If you thought, obviously that has to be Hitchcock’s ‘North by Northwest’, then you’ll be doing exactly what I did for many years – confusing the master of suspense’s movie with ‘Charade’. The main thrust of the scene is similar, it’s just the location that’s different. In ‘North by Northwest’ it was on top of Mount Rushmore whereas in ‘Charade’ it’s on top of a Paris hotel right next to a neon sign. There are many other similarities in the style of ‘Charade’ and Hitchcock movies, so many in fact that someone coined the phrase that it’s the best Hitchcock movie that Hitch never directed.
‘Charade’ was released in 1963, produced and directed by Stanley Donen who also gave us ‘Singin’ in the Rain’, ‘Funny Face’ and ‘Indiscreet’. It’s an interesting movie in that in a period where macho driven spy movies became prevalent, it places a woman at its centre. It’s also a very stylish, romantic comedy mystery thriller with about as much Hollywood sheen as three coats of High Gloss paint.
Now Criterion have worked their magic by bringing it to Region A locked Blu-ray so we can all have a high quality version of the movie to watch in the warmth of our own homes. It’s a great and welcome addition to a collection of notable films.
Perhaps some of us are too young (or claim to be) to remember this film, so there will be a whole generation who have yet to discover this wonderful movie.
It begins, like so many pictures since, with someone being thrown off a moving train. It transpires that he was the husband of Regina Lampert (Audrey Hepburn) and has hidden a stolen fortune that three unsavoury characters now want to find. The only problem is that Reggie doesn’t know where it is. To the rescue swings Peter Joshua (Cary Grant) – or does he? Maybe he’s the one who killed her husband and is responsible for other misdeeds along the way. Who can she trust? Why, obviously Mr Bartholomew from the CIA – or can she? Who’s telling the truth?
To find out you’ll have to watch the movie because I don’t aim to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t seen it.
This is a film inhabited by great characters. Audrey Hepburn excels in the role of Reggie as she is ... well... Audrey Hepburn. Vulnerable, petite, confused, extremely beautiful in the ‘gamine’ style that made her famous and quite stunningly draped in Givenchy chic outfits. I lost my heart to Audrey Hepburn in my early teens when I first saw this movie and, to this day, still find her beauty quite breathtaking. She was the glossy mag cover close up that would sell a million copies due to her porcelain, blemish free complexion. There are those of us who still remember her as Holly Golightly in ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ and that iconic image is hard to erase from memory too.
Cary Grant also does what he does best – light comedy. He’d been perfecting his craft since the 1930’s and here he pulls off a ‘tour de force’. The witty script by Peter Stone helps as it sparkles with great dialogue from the very beginning. When Hepburn & Grant meet for the first time we are treated to some sparky repartee.
Hepburn: I already know an awful lot of people. Until one of them dies, I couldn’t possibly meet anyone else.
Grant: Well, let me know if someone goes on the critical list.
This was Grant’s last film as a romantic lead, and third last movie before retiring from acting in 1965. He was concerned about the age gap between Hepburn and himself – she was only 34 and he was considerably older – considering it might be unseemly if he was to be seen to pursue her, so the situation was turned around and Reggie did all the chasing. It’s all very tasteful and glamorous.
The bad guys (or are they the good guys?) are superb too. We have James Coburn looking menacing, big George Kennedy looking threatening with his metal arm and Ned Glass looking stressed as the little guy with glasses.
There’s a wonderful scene where they are introduced at Reggie’s husband’s funeral. Glass’s character, Gideon, approaches the open coffin and sneezes. Tex Penthollow (Coburn) holds a mirror under the nose of the deceased to test if he’s still breathing. Scobie (Kennedy) sticks a pin into the body just to make sure he’s definitely dead. I found this quite shocking the first time I saw it, but over the years my sense of black comedy has grown. We get the message early on that Scobie is a nasty bit of work.
Last, but by no means least, we have the great lugubrious Walter Matthau as Hamilton Bartholomew of the CIA, who contacts Reggie on behalf of the American government who want the stolen money back. He’s great in the meetings between Hepburn and his character, particularly in the eating scene as he looks funny when he eats.
None of these actors were big stars when the film was made. Only Coburn had been in ‘The Magnificent Seven’ released in 1960, but his career didn’t blast off until he made the ‘Flint’ spy spoofs a couple of years later.
Obviously, the look of the film would never have been achieved without Stanley Donen’s direction and he instils a great sense of wit in the production as well as the glossiness that Hollywood was famous for in the 1960’s.
This gloss (there’s no better word for it) is aided and abetted by Henry Mancini’s atmospheric score that conveys warmth, danger or threat whenever it’s needed. There’s also the classy song ‘Charade’ with lyrics by Johnny Mercer, which although not actually sung over the main titles, is reserved for use as a background track for the romantic moonlit cruise down the Seine with Grant & Hepburn on a bateau mouche.
One other character I have failed to mention is the city of Paris itself. It lends a picturesque background to many scenes, such as the walk on the banks of the Seine when Grant’s character says “Well, who put that there?” as the camera tilts up on to Notre Dame Cathedral.
All in all, this is a very desirable movie to have in your collection. It’s also just the thing to watch on a Sunday afternoon when life seems a bit dull and boring. It sparkles like champagne bubbles thanks to the script, the cast, the music, the locations...
Oh – and don’t forget that striking, optically coloured Maurice Binder title sequence!
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