Approximately two months ago, Kate at CrossExaminingCrime invited a bunch of bloggers to contribute to a collaborative post on our favourite mystery movies. You can view the results here — without my contribution, because, despite being given plenty of warning, I couldn’t organise myself in time.
I had earmarked the Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant vehicle Charade (1963) and, having finally gotten round to rewatching it, thought I’d write about it here instead because it’s such a joyous time and I had a blast revisiting it after a number of years.
After a lightning-fast prologue sees a dead body thrown from a train, we start with Regina ‘Reggie’ Lampert (Hepburn) on holiday and contemplating divorcing her husband Charles. In this frame of mind, she meets the charming Peter Joshua (Grant), they trade some banter, and part ways. Returning to Paris, Reggie discovers the apartment she and Charles lived in stripped bare, fast upon which we learn that Charles was the dead man thrown from the train at the start, having sold the entire amassed possessions of their lives and apparently fleeing the country.
A rare moment of repose for Reggie (Audrey Hepburn)
From here, re-enter Joshua, who has seen the news of Charles’ death in the papers, and add four men who will drive the rest of what is about to unfold: FBI man Hamilton Bartholomew (Walter Matthau) and the trio of crooks he’s hunting Tex Panthollow (James Coburn), Herman Scobie (George Kennedy), and Leopold Gideon (Ned Glass). It would appear that these three and Charles stole something very valuable several years ago, and that Charles sold it, kept the money, and was doing a runner when one of the three caught up with him and killed him trying to claim what they felt was theirs. The only problem is, whoever killed Charles didn’t find the money, and since he’d sold everything else it must have been either on his person or secreted somewhere…but no-one knows where.
Herbert Bartholomew requests an audience
There’s so much going on here, I don’t even know where to begin. Ostensibly the setup for a sort of international thriller, at the insistence of Inspector Grandpierre (Jacques Marin) all concerned must remain in Paris, and so as suspicion centres around Reggie, and Joshua offers his assistance — and as the three increasingly-impatient thieves try by various gambits to intimidate Reggie into handing over a fortune she doesn’t possess — the script becomes something altogether more elusive. There’s certainly an aspect of detection in the location of the $250,000, and, as the relationships between characters get ever-more murky and complex, classic detection staples like identity begin to raise their head, and then the whole thing becomes a murder mystery as the splitting of the money takes on a sort of tontine aspect; and of course there must also be romance, smooth though the path of that ne’er did run.
Whoever cleans this carpet should be fired…
And yet the movie never once feels overstuffed, or unable to give each element the attention it deserves. Peter Stone’s script whisks these ingredients together beautifully, toying with the trappings of the thriller, the detective story, even to a certain extent puzzle plotting as a variety of deaths occur to men all wearing pyjamas (the man found drowned in his bed is an especially genius touch in how to take the apparently miraculous and make it mundane) and we get a dying message clue that is as simple as it is easily-misunderstood. And the cast are clearly having a great time knowing that everyone gets a chance to make their mark. Coburn in particular, ludicrous Texan drawl and all, clearly belongs in a role that for all I know was custom-tailored to his needs; the tracking shot that introduces him to proceedings, when he appears at Charles’ funeral and struts effortlessly down the aisle of the church, captures his loose-limbed insouciance gorgeously, and the menace he brings to his interactions with Hepburn is remarkable when you consider how goddamned charming the man was in so much of his work.
Tex (James Coburn) would like a word, too…
What especially makes this stand out for me, aside from the expected ingredients of Grant’s charm and Hepburn’s doe-eyed appeal, is how intelligently it’s filmed. As a director, Stanley Donen is clearly happy to let his performers and script take a starring role, and to deploy Henry Mancini’s music to sparing but striking effect. The film-making here feels weirdly incongruous in how happy it is to not show off: witness the real-time, unbroken shot of Joshua and Scobie ascending a building in a lift (elevator, if you will), in which Kennedy and Grant simply occupy separate sides of the screen and…just watch each other while the floor numbers tick by. What little action there is — and it makes no pretense to be an action movie, being more than happy to thrill your grey cells — has, of course, dated and looks horribly staid by today’s smash-a-car-through-everything excess; however, the scene of two men fighting on the roof of a building, thoroughly unchoreographed and without a spin kick or a thigh-scissoring in sight, with no quick cuts and almost no music to soundtrack it really makes you feel it.
Scobie (George Kennedy) and Joshua (Cary Grant) ain’t sayin’ nothin’
And the framing of certain shots, like that fight, is fascinating, too, since the cameras couldn’t move quite so freely back then and so you sometimes just get a wide shot of something interesting happening without the need to cut all over the place for coverage. There’s something of a Citizen Kane (1942) homage, too, in Joshua’s first reappearance in Reggie’s life following the revelations about Charles, with Donen happy to cast his no-doubt expensive leading man entirely in shadow, so that Grant is a silhouette to us (and Reggie) when they have their first serious conversation. Sure, sure, you can claim it’s an allegory or something, go for your life, but whatever it is it’s damn rare enough to find, and to find it done with such confidence is heartening indeed. In a genre that Alfred Hitchcock had more or less claimed for his own at this point in time, and where the most tempting route was surely mimesis, Stone and Donen have combined with one of Hitchcock’s most successful leading men to produce something which should never be slapped with a lazy “Best Film Hitchcock Never Made” sobriquet.
It’s cheaper than hair dye, I suppose…
And, best of all, the various mysteries are actually surprising; quite a few reversals throughout are handled brilliantly, with the revelation of who’s responsible for the murders actually eliciting a gasp from the friend I watched this with even though I’d argue that’s far from the biggest surprise in here (though surprising it no doubt is, not least because there aren’t really any clues to lead you to that conclusion with anything beyond guess work…). The biggest mystery, resolve in the final scene, was the point where I knew I loved this film when I first watched it: for something so light and fast and witty and clever to stick the landing so perfectly was a the crowning glory on a marvellously confident display from all concerned. It’s fast, it’s funny, it’s dark, it’s wickedly clever, and it contains a few twists and surprises that I guarantee will catch you out even 56 years later. Check it out if you don’t know it; I guarantee you’ll find something to love.
Grant’s such a pro, he even makes the ‘comedy orange’ routine work
Yes, I’m aware there was a remake; no, I don’t want to talk about it.
Colin @ Riding the High Country: A film like Charade was made at a time when the world was poised on the cusp of hope and despair; huge changes were taking place and such an environment is by definition uncertain. Now I don’t want to make any pretentious claim that Charade was trying to be a statement about the upheaval taking place all round. Rather it’s just an observation that even the lightest pieces of entertainment can’t help but reflect to some extent the state of flux at that time. It’s this sense of never feeling confident about what may happen next, of how the plot may develop, that is one of the film’s great strengths.