Sunday, February 20, 2011

Charade [Stanley Donen]

Charade with Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant is a lot like its name suggests, not a “born” film but one crafted by miming elements and references from other films. In this case that's not a bad thing at all, because the whole package is devised and presented with such cleverness, good cheer and sparkle it goes down like an exceedingly smooth fruity liquor.

The plot is all manner of silly stuff, a collage of elements mainly from Alfred Hitchcock's Cary Grant films (North by Northwest, To Catch a Thief). Hepburn with her dazzling good looks and sophisticate aura plays a recent widow whose husband is killed in mysterious circumstances and who may have hidden a large cache of stolen wealth. Unfortunately for her some very unpleasant characters who knew her husband believe that she holds the secret to the missing hoard and will stop at little to get it. In steps Cary Grant as her knight in shining armor...or is he? The film's fun comes out of Audrey encountering a plethora of event twists and hidden identities until the poor girl no longer knows what she can believe. It's all in good fun because Charade is really built upon the chemistry between Hepburn and Grant. Of course, even with the script's knowing winks at their remarkable age difference it's a little creepy to see pretty Audrey throw herself upon a distinctly avuncular character. Still charm is both actors' strong point and Charade works beautifully in the scenes of their cheerfully saucy verbal tango. Grant especially is unparalleled at straight-faced comedy. When asked by Audrey if her late husband's tooth-powder tin could contain the stolen money as heroin, Grant takes a whiff and with a look of priceless solemnity exclaims, “Heroin! Peppermint-flavored heroin!”

Which is not to say the other characters are dull. Why no, you have some wonderful support from stars like Walter Mathau, James Coburn and Richard Kennedy (Naked Gun); all of them look like they were having a good time. Apart from romancing his lovely co-star, Cary Grant also gets a little action, and a scene where his character leaves an assailant dangling from a roof with an “American Express” neon sign and then tells Audrey he left the fellow “hanging around the American Express building” recall to mind him being Ian Fleming's first choice to play James Bond.

Charade's not a note-perfect Hitchcock-Grant pastiche. It sometimes tries a little too hard for laughs; The scene of Cary Grant bathing with his suit on is wholly unfunny and embarrassing (admittedly, less embarrassing and horrifying than the prospect of seeing him bathe without the suit). For a film so light-hearted in tone, the murder tableaux are more explicit than Hitch would have gone for: one character has his throat slashed while another is found asphyxiated with a plastic bag. Gruesome.

The other Stanley Donen film I saw and really liked was Two for The Road, featuring Audrey Hepburn again, this time in a tugging bittersweet romance with the brilliant Albert Finney. Now that was a “born” movie.

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