Friday, January 29, 2010

What is the deadly truth behind 'Charade'?

Charade (1963)
Starring: Audrey Hepburn, Cary Grant, Walter Matthau, James Coburn and George Kennedy
Director: Stanley Donen
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

'Reggie' Lampert (Hepburn), a quirky young American living in Paris, has her world turned upside down when her husband is murdered and she learns that he wasn't all who she believed him to be. Worse, three thugs (including Coburn and Kennedy) are stalking her, insisting that she has the $250,000 that her dead husband stole from them. Only the charming Peter Joshua (Grant) and the mysterious Paris CIA Station Chief (Matthau) can help her... but will they? When a quarter of a million dollars are up for grabs, can anyone be trusted?

For many years, I would catch pieces of "Charade" on television, and I was convinced that it had to one of Alfred Hitchcock's movies--one of his best, in fact. It isn't, of course, but it is a far sight more "Hitchcockian" that the vast majority of films that critics like to apply that label to. Its fast-patter dialogue, its mixture of intrigue, mystery, comedy, and romance is very reminicent of great Hitchcock movies like "The 39 Steps" and "The Lady Vanishes".

Hepburn is as gorgeous and energetic as ever as 'Reggie' Lampert, and her acting skills are on fine display here. Cary Grant is likewise up to form in an excellent performance, even if this film was made during the twilight of his career; his ability to be charming and menacing at the same time comes into play nicely in a couple of scenes here, and keep your eyes open for the moment when he mokcingly mimics Hepburn's "surprised look". (Another very remarkable thing about Grant's part in this movie is the acknowledgement that he is old enough to be her father, and that he initially keeps her at arm's length when she aggressively persues him in a romantic way. 'Reggie' clearly has a thing for older men, but Peter Joshua has enough class to respect their age difference. How many other Hollywood leading men would accept a role like that? Given what is standard fare in movies, not many!)

In addition to great performances by its stars, the film sports a spectacular supporting cast, with George Kennedy as a hulking, hook-handed maniac, and Walter Matthau's quirky American agent being particularly noteworthy, and an intelligently constructed story full of sparkeling dialogue, clever twists, lots of laughs and thrills, and a climactic chase and confrontation that definately makes this "the best Hitchcock movie that Hitchcock never made."

Rounding out this perfect package is the score by Henry Mancini. The 'Charade Theme' is perhaps the best tune he ever wrong, and its heard in many different and clever permutations throughout the film.

"Charade" is a true classics, and it's a film that should be required viewing for anyone who thinks they can properly mix comedic and thriller elements in a film. (The blender they show in the beginning of the original 1963 preview for the film is a great analogy... the elements of a romantic comedy and a thriller have been blended together here in a seamless, perfect whole. Movies like this are all too rarely made these days.)

It's also more than worth seeing for an excellent performance by Hepburn, one of the most beautiful women to ever grace the silver screen.

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