Overrated II

film 2 of 4


Film Review by Dean Duncan Apr 10, 2015

This starts really well, with its Saul Bass-like graphics—tip of the hat, anyone?—and that groovy Henry Mancini theme. (My dad liked it so much that he bought two copies of the l.p.!) How 1963! Times and places are always cool, whenever or wherever they are. A precipitous prologue features a murder in murky brown, suggesting an impending Le Carré moral grey. Impending, but never arriving. For all of its celebrated twists, Charade is more a bon bon than an actual analysis, or serious moral statement.

That’s not a problem, at least so far. That prologue is quickly followed by a playful, skillful expository sequence, gloriously set in a Swiss ski resort. The location work is superb, and continues to be one of the film’s best features. What a first shot! In one fell swoop director Stanley Donen utterly establishes his milieu, his cinematic/stylistic intent, and a philosophy of sorts. That’s not Jeopardy, it’s a water pistol! There’s the whole movie, actually, in a nutshell. It evokes and pays homage to Hitchcock, but in the end it’s a confection, a lark. (By the way, that water pistol-toter is one of the less prepossessing little kids ever to appear in a film. They keep coming back to him though, in case he ever improves. Which he doesn’t.)

Not a problem, part 2! This Cary Grant/Audrey Hepburn meeting is really superb, carried forward by its terrific, terrifically rendered dialogue. A reference to the glories of screwball comedy, especially as they have recruited Screwball’s greatest proponent? This early conversation is another signal of things to come, not only in Charade but in the cinema entire. There’s a frank, adult/sensual undercurrent to the exchange that isn’t at all crass, and actually seems quite healthy. Part of grown-up life, after all! Hollywood had often effaced or even ignored these important things, to its often discredit. Of course as we all know, that pendulum is about to start swinging pretty hard in the other direction!

Also, Grant (when he’s not being forced into ill-advised stunts like the clothed shower or that final stupid face) appears to be trying out some kind of reduced, Bressonian thing. It works very well.

Micro-observations: that flat is beautiful. Jacques Marin is very good. Walter Matthau’s part is well judged, and his early scenes benefit from the way that they take their time, improvise a bit, add unnecessary and irrelevant touches (the sandwiches). This material, this method are kind of reminiscent of Leo McCarey’s films with Grant, or whoever else he got his hands on. A worthy standard! These gratuitous bits are also an effective way to put the audience off the scent, if you know what I mean. A change is initiated by the exceptionally well executed funeral sequence, with its menace and comedy so expertly intermingled. Each villain really registers, especially with the business he gets. The camera work here isn’t quite Hitchcock stylized, but it’s elegant and effective. They’re having cinematic fun, trying to be medium-expressive, and serving the audience as they do so. The Cary Grant in the doorway silhouette is really stunning.

It’s also a bit obvious, and this might also be the shape of things to come, at least as far as this film is concerned. All of the initial subtle or expert will now give way to waves of obviousness; after the funeral everything gets and stays silly. It’s partly because, with the exception of Ned Glass’s sneeze (amusingly executed, and resolving into a reallysuperb bump-off), the villains’ bits of business begin to pale, or become the whole of their characters. Tex. The hook. It’s all so calculated, or inorganic, that earlier menace resolves into merely going through the motions. Who cares? Much later, as a result, there’s a roof-top fight that bids for about the least suspenseful set piece ever.

The problem isn’t just with the peripherals, though. Charade‘s real difficulties are right at the core. For one thing, Mr. Grant’s role-switching, which becomes the film’s central conceit, has no philosophy or reality to it. This isn’t Kafka’s anxiety, or Orson Welles’ relativity. It’s not even about our ability to transform ourselves. (Why would Carey Grant want or need to do that?) In the end the shape-shifting is a gimmick, and nothing more.

Now I’m in for it. Shall I proceed? I shall, regardless of all those torpedoes.

Ms. Hepburn is an even more serious problem. She really does try, and as mentioned her ardency can be poignant to the point of being quite moving. (Here’s a run up to the glories of Donen’s subsequent Two for the Road, in which Hepburn is really superb. Richard Lester’s Robin and Marian [q.v.] is similarly good, in a much different register. The thing is, I’m afraid that there A.H. will come up seriously short once again.) But she’s so wan, so weak, so underwhelming! Listen to her scream, for instance. No oomph! I know that that may come down to her childhood, to war privation and periods of malnutrition and the like. There’s an actual real-life, documentary component to her frailty, and it adds tremendous heft to her later, life-long charitable devotions. That’s all way more important, and I’m just talking about her performances in films.

Restricted to that context, this is still fair to say. Maybe it’s a mass, career-long variation of Ms. Hayworth’s appearance/reality problem. They go to bed with Gilda, and get up with Rita. Actually, maybe it’s us that I object to. We want Ms. Hepburn to be that Princess, and we keep saying that she is, all evidence and decency to the contrary.

On the other hand, her surveillance attempts in the streets of Paris are quite funny. The stamp trick is obvious and heavy—what is this, a Blake Edwards movie?—but it’s also kind of lovely. Again, if Charade weren’t such a bon bon, Hepburn’s parade of punishments would contain a measure of Wait Until Dark sadism, even misogyny. As it is—after all Donen is a lovely man, with a lovely sensibility—this mere entertainment does have a bit of resonance, a bit of progressive possibility. Here’s a woman in the middle of a male genre, front and centre in a punitively male world. She is sort of rescued (the conclusion on that stage is quite well judged), but she is also resourceful, and doesn’t have to betray or abandon her values to prevail. And we could look at Ms. Hepburn’s delicacy in another way, I suppose. Powerful, sacred vessel, with chivalry as the most apt and reverent and righteous response.

But still…