Thursday, September 8, 2011

Charade (1963) - What's In a Name?

*** Special Note: It's not often that I really feel a need to put a SPOILER WARNING at the head of one of these write-ups. After all, generally we're talking about films that go back as far as the very earliest days of movie-making Even today's film is nearly 50 years old. So there is a large part of me that says anything in the movie is fair game to talk about. Nonetheless, a huge part of the enjoyment of this movie is the twists and turns that it takes, and there is no real way to discuss it in any meaningful way without revealing at least some of these. Although I've tried to do so without revealing too much, if you are one of those people who truly likes to go into a movie without knowing what's going to happen, you might want to go ahead and watch it (it is available on Netflix "Watch Instantly", at the Internet Archives, and even on YouTube, along with great looking Criterion Blu-Ray and DVD editions) and then come back to read this.

Simply put, though, this movie gets my highest recommendation. If you love thrillers, especially those with a comic twist, I think you'll really enjoy this one. Beyond that, well, if you want to know more, keep reading, but you have been warned.***

Charade is, in many ways, a film all about names. First, and most obvious, there are the name changes that Cary Grant's character goes through.When we first meet him, he is going by the name Peter Joshua. Soon however, we learn that that may or may not be his real name. Along the way, we meet many other characters, most of whom are hiding under either false or assumed names. Even heroine Audrey Hepburn, who we first meet as Regina Lampert learns that because her husband's identity was a fictitious one, (he actually has four passports) should be going by the name "Mrs. Voss" though she quickly rejects that idea, since "Lampert" is the only way that she knew her husband Charles.

Then there are the names of the stars of the movie. Not just leads Hepburn and Grant, but the supporting players also. When you have a cast list that includes Walter Matthau, George Kennedy, and James Coburn (who absolutely eats up the screen every time he opens his mouth as the flamboyantly-accented "Tex") you know you're in for a good time.

However, the most surprising name of all is one that is omitted from the crew of this film. The one person who actually had nothing to do with it, but whose spirit seems to have somehow worked its way into every reel. That name is Alfred Hitchcock.

Is it possible to capture more charm in one shot?
Now I am certainly not the first to make this observation - it was actually in a contemporaneous review in the National Catholic Register that the movie seems to have been first called "the best Hitchcock movie Hitchcock never made" - but the sentiment is very true. Now don't get me wrong, I am not in any way trying to suggest that director Stanley Donen, already famous for such movies as Singin' in the Rain, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Royal Wedding, Pajama Game, and Indiscreet among many others was trying to ape Hitchcock at all. It's simply that this film, with its almost perfect balance between comedy and suspense, with its masterful location shots, with the way that it uses both setting and timing to effectively keep the viewer on their toes without losing us in the ever-more-convoluted plot, and with the delightful performances he is able to draw out of his two leads (Grant and Hepburn have rarely been as charming as here), has simply created a film that one suspect the "master of suspense" would have been proud to have called his own.

Of course, there's also one more name that shouldn't be overlooked when praising those who made major contributions to this film - that of screenwriter Peter Stone. Stone, along with Mark Behm, conceived  the idea initially as a screenplay called "The Unsuspecting Wife". When they were unable to sell the screenplay to any of the studios, Stone adapted the story into a novel called Charade. When the novel was serialised in Redbook, it was read by Stanley Donen who quickly snatched up the rights and hired Stone to rework it once again into a screenplay tailored for his two stars. Thus Stone, working from his novel which was adapted from his (and Behm's) original screenplay wound up finally seeing his ideas come to life.

Its a path almost as convoluted as some of the twists in the film. But it's also one that gives us such memorable lines of dialogue as:
Reggie Lampert: I already know an awful lot of people and until one of them dies I couldn't possibly meet anyone else.
Peter Joshua: Well, if anyone goes on the critical list, let me know.
Alexander Dyle: What do I have to do to satisfy you? Become the next victim?
Reggie Lampert: That's a start anyway.
Reggie Lampert: Of course, you won't be able to lie on your back for a while but then you can lie from any position, can't you?
Reggie Lampert: Is there a Mrs. Dyle?
Alexander Dyle: Yes...
Alexander Dyle: but we're divorced!
Reggie Lampert: I thought that was Peter Joshua?
Alexander Dyle: I am just as difficult to live with as he was.
among many many others. There are times, in fact, when the dialogue becomes almost Hawksian, thanks not only to the fast-paced style of Donen's direction, but the snappy delivery of Grant and Hepburn.

Ok, I think by now it's obvious that this film comes with my highest recommendation, but just in case you need a little more convincing, here's a look at the trailer.

And here's the skinny:
Title: Charade
Release Date: 1963
Running Time: 113 minutes
Stars: Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn
Directed by: Stanley Donen
Produced by: Stanley Donen
Distributed by: Universal Pictures

One last thing before we close, a special note about the public domain nature of this film from Wikipedia:
Before 1978, U.S. copyright law required works to include the word "Copyright", the abbreviation "Copr." or the "©" symbol. Because Universal Pictures included no proper copyright notice with Charade, the film entered public domain in the USA immediately upon its release. Copies of this movie, made from film prints of varying quality, have been available on VHS and DVD based on its status in the public domain. However, while the film itself is public domain, the original music remains under copyright.
Until next time, Happy Treasure Hunting,
-Professor Damian


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