Thursday, 26 March 2015

Movie review: Charade (1963)


A stylish spy thriller with a dash of humour, Charade thrives on a hip vibe generated by a crackling mystery, a stellar cast, and a cool Parisian setting.

Regina "Reggie" Lampert (Audrey Hepburn) is trapped in a loveless marriage with a husband she barely knows. While she is on vacation, suave stranger Peter Joshua (Cary Grant) seems to make it a point to meet her. Reggie returns to her Paris apartment and is startled to learn that her husband Charles is dead, having been thrown from a train, and has left her next to nothing. At Charles' funeral service, three grim strangers show up: Tex (James Coburn), Scobie (George Kennedy) and Gideon (Ned Glass). They all seem eager to confirm that Charles is indeed dead.

Joshua reappears and befriends Reggie, while in the following few days Tex, Scobie and Gideon start to make their menacing presence felt with veiled and obvious threats. American Embassy official Hamilton Bartholomew (Walter Matthau) connects with Reggie to warn her that Charles was illegally in possession of $250,000 that belonged to the United States government, and that the three henchmen are his former crime accomplices and likely won't stop at anything to find the missing money. Reggie has no idea where her ex-husband has stashed the loot, but soon realizes that even with Joshua's help her life is in grave danger, she can trust no one, and nothing is at it seems.

The premise is simple: a plucky damsel in distress is surrounded by a throng of potentially dangerous men. The bad guys are chasing a classic MacGuffin in the form of a missing cache of World War Two money stolen by four soldiers while on a mission behind enemy lines. Elegantly directed by Stanley Donen, Charade is often referred to as the best Hitchcockian film not directed by Alfred Hitchcock. This is a engaging thriller handled with a light touch, Donen translating the Peter Stone screenplay (based on the 1961 short story The Unsuspecting Wife) into a romp through Paris, with romance and humour injected in just the right amounts to brighten the mood.

The Henry Mancini music score and title song, as well as the animated opening credit sequence by Maurice Binder, announce Charade as a slick example of 1960s film making. Donen aims for chic smoothness, and achieves it through personality and pacing. Even during the more serious action and danger scenes Donen leaves no doubt that Reggie will emerge unscathed, and there is a steady stream of hints pointing to the many plot twists. Charade unfolds like a fun trip through a handsomely-trimmed maze; there are a few surprises around some corners, but never any doubt about the final destination.

On closer examination there are plot holes to be sure, as well as some incongruous character reactions as Reggie demonstrates remarkable composure and finds a steady steam of clever quips in the face of sudden danger. The flame of romance between Joshua and Reggie also has the potential to flounder on the jagged rocks of a 25 year difference between Grant and Hepburn. That hurdle is mostly cleared by making Reggie the romantic instigator, a stance that fits in with her relief and liberation at the end of a loveless marriage. Hepburn and Grant develop an easy chemistry and glide over the rough patches on a large dose of star charisma.

The supporting cast is deep in talent. George Kennedy waves a steel claw to good effect, James Coburn does the same with a Texan accent, and Walter Matthau adds bureaucratic oiliness. Filled with unscrupulous villains chasing a cheeky heroine, Charade wins on charm.






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