Criterion Project #2: CHARADE (1963)

Film: Charade

Year: 1963

Director: Stanley Donen

The second feature in this long voyage is a classic, crowd-pleasing, twisting, turning, hey-I-thought-Alfred-Hitchcock-directed-this, riotous romp with a so-creepy-even-the-film-knows-it romance between old man Cary Grant and pretty young thing Audrey Hepburn.

It’s always a pleasure to re-visit Charade. What other film features a scene with Walter Matthau battling a stain on his tie with quips like “The last time I sent a tie out only the spot came back” while also having a scene with James Coburn menacing Audrey Hepburn by striking matches on her? It bounces around a bit. And If I do have any substantial criticisms of the film it concerns these tonal shifts, which range from knee-slapping comedy to awkward romance and suspenseful thriller.

The film follows the recently widowed Mrs. Lampert (Hepburn) who finds herself caught between a US government agent (Walter Matthau) and a trio of violent war vets hellbent on retrieving some buried treasure. She meets an odd man named Peter Joshua (Grant) who gets caught up in Mrs. Lampert’s tangled web and assists her (?) in deciphering the mystery along the way.

Essentially, it’s a vehicle for the two stars to play off each other while trying to solve a mystery. Nothing more, nothing less. And I dig it.

Again, my only quibble with the film is its inconsistent tone. The elements all work on their own but there’s no subtlety to the transitions. In between the wacky chicanery and zippy dialogue are some truly macabre deaths and moments of actual fear that clash with the tone of the rest of the film. One scene shows a murder victim lying lifeless on the carpet wearing a bag over their head (think 1974’s Black Christmas ) and another shows Cary Grant taking a raucous, fully-clothed “shower” in front a bewildered Audrey Hepburn. Two sides of the coin.

Thankfully the endearing, eccentric cast of characters helps to smooth out some of those rough transitions.

The age thing between the “romantic” leads is only a minor quibble (there’s about a 25-year age gap between those two). The film breezes by with plenty of loops and turns to keep the mystery churning while our two leads charm the pants off of us. Grant plays to his usual comedic stylings, ranging from witty zingers to slap-stick physicality, and Hepburn uses those big brown eyes to much delight as a widowed French interpreter with an insatiable appetite and an aversion to cigarette filters.

They meet at a picturesque ski resort and engage in witticisms such as:

Hepburn: “You’re blocking my view.”

Grant looks behind him both ways. “Which view would you prefer?”

Hepburn: “The one you’re blocking”

Move out of the lady’s view, bozo

Need I say more?

Other highlights include the aforementioned James Coburn and a perpetually angry, sweaty, hook-handed George Kennedy as the main heavies, and of course Walter Matthau’s bumbling US Embassy representative who pops in to keep the mystery and intrigue from flatlining. A strong group of supporting players.

Every time I replay Charade it proves to be an entertaining watch with a great cast that keeps some of the tonal issues from derailing the flow. It’s certainly one of the more re-watchable films in the entire collection – a rare breezy entry in a catalogue teeming with deep, challenging films. For my sanity I think perhaps this would have been better slotted somewhere between some Ingmar Bergman or Krzysztof Kieslowski films as a palette cleanser, but there’s never a bad time to watch Charade again.

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