Wednesday, June 30, 2010
Movie Time: Rewind: Charade
As promised here is this month's installment of the Rewind, where we look at great films of yesteryear, particularly ones made before the year of my birth, 1976. The last two months I have spotlighted two of my very favorite actresses, Eleanor Powell and Ginger Rogers. For this month I'm continuing the trend and adding another of Hollywood's greatest leading ladies (and another personal favorite), Audrey Hepburn. I highlighted Audrey in a film some time back and honestly I am a bit surprised I haven't picked more of her films to look at. Audrey was for my money, the last of the great actresses from the studio system.
By the 1950's, Hollywood's Golden Age was in its twilight, though the early and mid 1950's still held some measure of the Hollywood muscle of old. While most of the studio's major stars were aging, Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, James Stewart, there was an entirely new crop of leading ladies, like Marilyn Monroe, Grace Kelley, and the indemmable Audrey Hepburn. She burst on the scene in the early 1950's with her Oscar winning turn in Roman Holiday, and was a bona fide box office smash with pictures like Breakfast at Tiffanys when she teamed up with another of Hollywood's greatest stars, Cary Grant, to make Charade, this month's feature.
the film starts of as Regina (Audrey Hepburn) meets a charming stranger while on a skiing vacation. The stranger, Peter Joshua (played by Cary Grant) is dashing and handsome and re-firms Regina's belief to ask her husband for a divorce. When she returns home to Paris to ask him for one, she finds her apartment empty and the police inform her that her husband had been murdered. At his funeral she noticed several peculiar people inspecting her husbands corpse for signs of life. She quickly learns why though, as a CIA official (played by Walter Matthau) informs her that her husband was part of a secret mission in World War 2 to deliver $250,000 to the French Resistance, but he and his team hid the money instead. His team was made up by the same people who were inspecting her husbands corpse. The CIA believes that Regina has the money, even if she doesn't know where it is.
Regina runs into Peter Joshua again though in Paris and he agrees to help her, unabashedly admitting that he too is looking for the money, but wants to keep Regina safe as her husbands former team is also tracking her. Unbeknown to Regina though, Joshua is also working for them under an assumed name though none of the men trust each other. The plot really begins to twist as Grant's character changed identities again and members of her husbands former team end up dead. Regina is attracted to Grant's character, even though she doesn't know what side he is playing, though her role as damsel in distress is twisted as she becomes the one perusing Peter romantically. In the end it's a race to find the truth, of the characters identity, of the characters intentions, and for the money before it's to late.
Charade was directed by Stanley Donen in 1963 and marked a passing for both Donen and Cary Grant in a lot of ways. Donen was considered a bit of a Wonderkind in the 1950's teaming up with Gene Kelley and later on his own, to direct some of the biggest musicals of the decade. Films like An American in Paris and Singin' in the Rain with Kelly, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and Funny Face with Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn. As the musical faded in popularity at the dawn of the 1960's, Donen turned to light hearted drama and suspense and nothing epitomized that better than Charade. Cary Grant meanwhile was nearing 60 and was beginning to doubt his ability to be convincing as a romantic leading men in films. He had first turned down this film as he didn't want to be the romantic aggressor to a woman nearly 25 years his junior. He only came on board after screenwriter Peter Stone (who along with Donen was desperate to get Grant for the part) re-wrote sections of the film overnight to turn Audrey to the sexual aggressor.
Both Donen and Grant would go onto to make additional films finding moderate success. Donen would team with Audrey again in Two for the Road and find success with Gregory Peck and Sofia Loren in Arabesque, a film designed as an un-official sequel to Charade originally. Grant would make just two more films before retiring from film completely, the film Father Goose, a light comedy, and Walk, Don't Run. truth be told, Charade was Grant's last great film and despite the moderate success Donen had, it was his last true classic. It was also in a sense, one of the last really great studio films, as by the mid to late 1960's, the studio system was all but dismantled and given way to freelance work. (I know that Grant and Hepburn were freelance during this film too, but the whole style and scope of the film is still very much in that method).
Let's also not forget Audrey. At this point in the film, Audrey is the number one female box office draw in the country as many of her contemporaries had retired or moved on. Grace Kelly had become Princess of Monaco, Marilyn Monroe had died. Audrey was at her peak. She had just finished filing Breakfast at Tiffanys the year before and was just a year away from her biggest hit in My Fair Lady. I think one of the things that was so great about Audrey is that she played so well with so many of Hollywood's greatest actors. William Holden, Humphrey Bogart, Fred Astaire, Gary Cooper and here with Cary Grant, she made the age differences between her and these actors a non factor. She could play innocent, dark and mysterious, comedic, whatever the role and her leading man needed. Her biggest assets I think was her ability to bridge the gap between the generations in film. The 1950's and 1960's were two vastly different decades in terms of movie-making and audience expectations. So much of the 50's were about that "Leave it to Beaver" attitude, about women wanting a family and marriage and being proper. Audrey could walk that line and help bring woman's roles to a forefront, playing characters of looser moral backgrounds but still maintain her feminine edge. It's especially evident as she progresses films in the 60's, with her afternoon dalliances with Gary Cooper in Love in the Afternoon, or her party girl mentality in Breakfast at Tiffanys, or as the sexual predator right here in Charade. She manages to play these roles very dignified, doing what many would call un-dignified actions for the time and place.
Back to the film itself. the film is very Hitchcockian in nature, built around suspense with a plot full of twists and turns. Duplicity is the nature of every character and you never know who you can quite trust. The film even uses the Hitchcock staple MaGuffin, a word used to describe one small point about witch the whole plot is hinged, a device that Hitch used in almost all of his films, in this case, the missing $250,000. It's been called the greatest Hitchcock film Hitchcock never made. A large part of that is due to director Donen, whose camera work and shooting style were taken to new heights in this film. Even Hitch's panache for scenic locations is used, with the filming of this picture occurring in Paris. Audrey was also filming (nearly back to back) Paris, When it Sizzles with William Holden at the time. Donen really captures Paris beautifully. Also writer Peter Stone's fantastic script keeps the film turning at every angle, right up until the incredible twist ending, of which even Hitch could be proud.
I should also point out the quality of the supporting cast involved. Walter Matthau as a CIA agent, James Coburn and George Kennedy (most notably of the Naked Gun films) as members of Audrey's husbands WW2 team. Coburn is great in his role as the films heavy, and Kennedy shows a range as well that is often not associated with the films he makes in later years. All the actors have a really fun rapport with each other, from the flirtatious banter between Grant and Hepburn, to the trickery between the group of thieves, each actor really finds some substance in his role.
Charade is a film that captures so much of what made Hollywood great for so long. It's fun, light, and exciting, and bridges the generational gap for Hollywood. It features two of Hollywood's biggest stars of all time in a terrific performance. I've certainly shown Cary Grant films my fair share of love over the course of these posts, with North by Northwest and His Girl Friday, and Charade is certainly a welcome addition to those films. Audrey is a star in her own right and while Charade may not be her most famous role, it's easily the role that made me realize just how powerful her on screen presence could be. In a world today where stars are teamed together in films based on name alone, its so refreshing to see a film made with the biggest stars of their day that doesn't sell you on anything but the quality of the film. Another bit of trivia about this film is that it is actually in the public domain thanks to an error in copy writing, so it should be even easier to watch. be sure to check out Universal Pictures classic Charade, a fun mystery starring two of the most charismatic actors of all time. It's classic cinema at it's finest.
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