22 December 2005

100 films: Charade

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starring: Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn, Walter Matthau, and James Coburn
written by: Peter Stone, from the story by Stone and Marc Behm
directed by: Stanley Donen
NR, 113 min, 1963, USA

Regina Lampert (Audrey Hepburn) is in the process of divorcing her wealthy husband when, upon returning from a skiing trip, she finds her husband gone, along with every possesion in their luxurious apartment. He has sold them all, it seems, at public auction and headed for South America, but not before he was murdered at the Paris train station. At the funeral she receives a letter from H. Bartholemew (Walter Matthau), a CIA supervisor who informs her that her husband had stolen the sum total of his wealth from the American government during the war and that several of her husband's accomplices would stop at nothing to get the money from her. Having no idea where the money is, she confides in Peter Joshua (Cary Grant), a debonair older man she met on the slopes. But he, it turns out, is in cahoots with the dangerous men, or at least is pretending to be in order to steal the entire fortune. Or is he?

Stanley Donen's Charade is the high-water mark of what I like to call the "jazz thriller"[1] genre--that series of films of the 1960's where double-crossing murderous thieves ruled the day and Henry Mancini made a fortune composing the music[2]. The rules of the genre are rather simple: our hero (or heroine) must negotiate a labyrynth plot heavily influenced by Hichcock where people are trying to kill them or steal from them or both. Nothing can be as it seems, least of all the thing that seems the most certain, the entire film must turn on something very small and overlooked, and it must move quickly to a hip jazz score. When done well, this invariably makes for entertaining cinema, and when done poorly, it still has parts that are kind of cool.

One of the key, if overlooked, components of the genre is the ability of the entire cast, not just the leads. This sort of film relies on a strong supporting cast full of nefarious villians and suspicious-looking people around every corner. In a film starring Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, it's all to easy to overlook the efforts of James Coburn, Walter Matthau, and George Kennedy[3], but without them, the film suffers dramatically. Coburn in particular isn't given a lot to work with, but he creates a believable character in an underwritten role, as does Kennedy with his. It would be far too easy for them to play the roles like James Bond villains, but they don't, going instead toward the idea of being veterans.

Cary Grant never seemed to be lacking in on-screen chemistry and charisma, be it in His Girl Friday or North by Northwest, but as an audience we're used to being absolutely sure what side he's on, so it's refreshing in a film this late in his career that he picked a role that keeps us guessing. Peter Joshua is not his real name, nor is the next one he gives, or the next, but somehow he manages to maintain Hepburn's trust. It may be that his motives always seem pure, but it seems to fall in line with my theory that regardless of how things change, there is one constant: women will always fall for Cary Grant. His character is easily 30 years older than Hepburn's, is a confessed thief and liar, seems to have killed several people, and for all she knows is trying to kill her, yet she cannot stay away from him. Normally an audience would object to such a tendency, but with Cary Grant involved it makes perfect sense. We cannot stay mad at him, even if he is killing people left and right.

Charade is sometimes dismissed as a film that is too whimsical to achieve greatness. Indeed, it's fun and sexy and has popcorn tendencies, but it's also a taut, engrossing thriller that is expertly made and knows exactly how much information to reveal at every point along the way. And for a story with this many agendas, that is a crucial skill often ignored. Few thrillers are this tight and compelling and few love stories are this believable. To get both in the same film is a rare treat.

[1] No one, to my knowledge, calls it that. I made it up just now.

[2] Mancini wrote, among other things, the theme song to The Pink Panther, which was immortalized by numerous cartoons and Peter Sellers films.

[3] Kennedy you will probably recognize but not be able to place, so I'll help. He was in Cool Hand Luke (1967) and The Dirty Dozen (1967). Coburn was one of the Dozen as well, along with a number of great character actors. It's one of my favorite war movies, and definitely worth a look.


Rachel said...

hmmm... jazz thrillers excellent new genre!
Correct me if i'm wrong but is there a scene in this film where they are passing fruit with their chins in a jazz club? Its been a long time since i've seen it.

lucas said...

that's the one.