|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 14 December 1999|
Smoothly elegant and sophisticated, CHARADE is simply perfect; it sets a wittily romantic and suspenseful mood in the early scenes (at a French alps ski resort), and sustains it throughout. The plot is agreeably complicated, the characters are memorably colorful, the double-surprise ending works perfectly, even if guessable. It's one of the great tour-of-Paris movies; it avoids all of the usual tourist sites (I don't think even the Eiffel Tower is visible), but evokes the very sense of Paris -- the parks, the broad boulevards, the boats drifting by on the Seine, even the onion soup. Watching CHARADE is a relaxing but involving experience; you're likely to have a smile on your face throughout.
Hepburn unexpectedly finds herself a widow -- and learns that she knew very little about her husband, who was murdered (in the opening scene) and who left nothing behind at all, except a bag with a few odd items in it. Walter Matthau, who is terrific (no surprise there), is the CIA agent who tries to help her figure out what's up. Grant turns up seemingly out of nowhere, a man of mystery and many names.
Hepburn and Grant also encounter citified westerner James Coburn, the constantly coughing Ned Glass, and hook-handed George Kennedy, former partners of her husband who want the $250,000 he disappeared with. Soon, there are murders, chases and suspenseful moments all over Paris -- with occasional romantic interludes between Grant and Hepburn.
They're so splendidly matched, and so clearly enjoy working together that it's a pity they never made another film together. Indeed, Grant, who turned 60 while CHARADE was being made, only did a few more movies at all.
He's at the absolute peak of his charm, grace and style in CHARADE, and there's never been a more charming, graceful and stylish actor. The excellent commentary by Donen and Stone points out that he didn't have to wear tailored clothes (though he usually did), since whatever he put on looked tailored on him. Grant wasn't just the ultimate movie star, he was a fine actor and a very shrewd comic performer; he started out (as Archie Leach) in the same kind of music halls that Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel began in, but he was so devastatingly handsome (and seemed to just get better-looking as he aged) that he ended up one of the most durable leading men in movie history. Like Fred Astaire, he made what he did look easy, a part of him. His comic timing is as deft as Jack Benny's, and he was as good an actor as Spencer Tracy. However, since he was, after all, Cary Grant, we didn't notice the brilliance of his technique and style. We simply expected Cary Grant to be perfect, and he was.
So was Audrey Hepburn. It's wistful and amusing to hear Stone sigh again and again about how beautiful she is in CHARADE, and she certainly is, wearing her Givenchy clothes with slim grace and style (there's that word again). But she was also a fine actress; we believe her terror, her growing love for Grant, and her intelligence and wit.
It's surprising that this sophisticated movie was the first screenplay of Peter Stone, who continues to do fine work both for movies and the theater to this day. He wrote the script on speculation, with Grant and Hepburn in mind for the leads, even though she'd never made a film like this before. The screenplay was turned down by all the major studios, so he turned it into a novel which, when published, immediately attracted the attention of all the studios which had turned it down in screenplay form.
Through a blunder at Universal, which released the film in 1963 (it was a smash hit), CHARADE was in public domain from the day it was released, so there have been a lot of lousy video releases of it. But the blessed Criterion Collection bit the bullet and released this superb edition anyway. Charles Lang's excellent cinematography and the realistic but handsome sets by Jean d'Eaubonne haven't looked this good since the film was in theaters. The fine sound recording also showcases Henry Mancini's famous, career-making score.
The narration by Donen (pr. Dawn-in, not Doe-nin) and Stone is arch and amusing; obviously longtime friends, they bicker at times, as well as filling in each other's memory gaps. While you'd be right to wish that Donen had talked more about his directorial choices, what we do hear is great stuff, both about how the film came to be and about their experiences in making the movie, lacing their conversation with memories primarily of Grant and Hepburn.
One interesting near-omission is that Donen and Stone don't mention Hitchcock often -- because, we gradually realize, they knew their debt to him was so obvious that it hardly needed mentioning. CHARADE does resemble some of Hitchcock's films, from THE THIRTY-NINE STEPS on through SUSPICION, TO CATCH A THIEF and NORTH BY NORTHWEST. CHARADE is more directly comic than Hitchcock's thrillers, and Donen's style is distinctly his own, not borrowed from Hitchcock -- but the famous comment that CHARADE is the best Hitchcock movie Hitchcock never made isn't too far off the mark, either.
CHARADE is a genuine classic, and it's wonderful to have it in this excellent form on video at last. What's wrong with CHARADE? Nothing.