Friday, 7 January 2011

BFI Screen: Charade (Stanley Donen, 1963) Review

Audrey Hepburn stars in the sly spy rom-com Charade (1963)

Regina Lampert: Can't you be serious?
Peter Joshua: Oh, you just said a horrible word.
Regina Lampert: What did I say?
Peter Joshua: Serious. When a man gets to my age that's the last word he
ever wants to hear. I don't want to be serious. And I especially don't want
you to be.

And therein lies everything that's wrong with Charade. Leave it to Stanley Donen to make a Hitchcock thriller so giddy on its own fanciful charms, so in love with it's location and stars that all sense of wit, tension and character is lost for the sake of pretty people talking pitter-patter. Critics argue that today's blockbusters are vacuous but Charade, for all of its old-fashioned classiness, is an utterly featherbrained confection.

The feeling of watching Charade is akin to that of embarking upon a sightseeing tour of Paris and, along the way, stopping off for a murder mystery. You know the sort; those harmless party pastimes where you invite friends round for dinner, dress up and play out a character until the little card reveals that the chef killed Mrs. Walton with a steak knife. Laid-back luxury is the name of the game, and the director of Singing In The Rain (1952) is about the only filmmaker who could have done it with this much moonstruck flamboyance.

The age gap between stars Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn (25 years) is creepy, but worst of all is their complete typecasting. Grant is just playing himself; what should be a portrayal of a grieving brother intent on seeking revenge turns into a wannabe James Bond - a charismatic super sleuth with a knack for charming young widows. He plays the role as if he were a movie star - sharply suited and with a witticism for every situation, there isn't an ounce of a recognizable human being in his portrayal. Audrey Hepburn is utterly lovely, but Donen has her on such familiar form as a Holly Golightly type, breezing through the city of love . It just so happens that her husband has been murdered and three strongmen are after the quarter-of-a-million dollars they believe to be in her possession. Her conversations with CIA administrator Hamilton Bartholemew (Walter Matthau) have the same tone as the romantic comedies where she made her name.

See, the brilliant thing about Hitchcock was that he could balance romance, comedy and espionage like a master - employing dazzling camera technique, saturated cinematography and subtleties of character that reward repeat viewings. He was famous for treating actors like cattle, but he also knew how to channel the duel reality complex of their profession into stories of desperation, anger and lust, often warping their star image in the process. He understood every aspect of the movie industry, and could manipulate it to his will. Donen is not Hitchcock, and while Charade is obviously designed as a parody it also asks you to buy into the mystery - gasp at the plot twists and bite your nails at the set-pieces. But Donen's caper is so self-aware and silly that it's impossible to take any of it seriously. Even the title, which the writers probably think is clever, serves as a perfect review of the film. It's a mockery, and quite a camp, outdated one.

But it's not unwatchable. Grant and Hepburn may be wasting their considerable talents on autopilot, and they don't make a believable couple, but their comic sparks strike gold every so often, and both stars ooze charisma. DP Charles Lang is an underrated talent, and his work here is striking - especially when swooning over the Parisian sidewalks, which he lenses like something from a dream. The score by Henry Mancini is also good, but the story is crying out for Bernard Herrmann, who lent mystery and romance such swelling emotional tones in Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958). What Charade really needs, in fact, is a confident hand to decide if it's straight-up parody or a genuine mystery thriller. What Donen delivers is the musical version - fast, furious, and living in the clouds, coasting through the motions with ultimate joie de vivre. It's entertaining, but also shallow, and anyone expecting more than His Girl Friday (Hawks, 1940) style putdowns wrapped up in an espionage plot should probably be looking elsewhere...

1 comment:

  1. Michael,

    You're a little too hard on Donen. Charade is a comedy with some bite. How about the funeral scene where various characters do rather nasty things to ensure Hepburn's husband is dead? That kind of treatment of the deceased is seldom seen in a film. Charade boasts some great dialogue and super chemistry between Grant and Hepburn. George Kennedy makes a great bad guy. Surprise. Surprise.