Combustible Celluloid
 
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With: Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn, Walter Matthau, James Coburn, George Kennedy
Written by: Peter Stone, based on a story by Marc Behm, Peter Stone
Directed by: Stanley Donen
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 113
Date: 05/12/1963
IMDB

Charade (1963)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Stamp of Excellence

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Charade is a peculiar film because it represents the absolute best of Hollywood filmmaking without actually contributing anything to the history of cinema. It's a perfectly constructed entertainment film, perfectly perched in its time. It represents a bit of the past and a bit of what was to come, but not enough of either to really make a difference. No matter. Now that the Criterion Collection has released the movie on a superb DVD, I'll be happy watching it over and over until the end of time.

Audrey Hepburn stars as the wife of a mysterious fellow who is thrown from a train in the first shot. According to the Paris police, he has stolen a great deal of money (actually only $250,000), and everyone is after it, but no one knows where it's hidden. Cary Grant plays a suave American who lends her a hand. A trio of bad guys (Ned Glass, James Coburn, and George Kennedy) keep showing up to make trouble. And Walter Matthau is on hand in a brilliant early role as an FBI man.

But no one is ever quite as they seem in this story. Grant goes by four different names and identities, and we're never sure we can trust him. Grant always had a bit of a dark side, a sinister center to his sauve humor, that helps him out here. We only ever know as much as Hepburn does, and we're never sure we can trust him. It's a great performance. Plus Grant and Hepburn have amazing chemistry, never mind that he was 25 years older than her. It's too bad that this was their only film together. (They were supposed to make another film together the following year, Howard Hawks' Man's Favorite Sport?, but it fell through.)

Hepburn was seemingly most comfortable with director Stanley Donen, with whom she worked three times, on Funny Face (1957), Charade, and Two for the Road (1967). These may not be her most famous roles, but it's clear that Donen understood how far she could go and what she was best at. Donen also had enough clout to actually film most of Charade on location in Paris, which lends it a good deal of romance and intrigue.

Though the breakthrough Bonnie and Clyde was still four years away, Donen introduced some of the first gruesome violence in a mainstream Hollywood film. When various cast members are killed, we stare death right in the face and occasionally see some blood, which seems odd when you think about it in context with a Cary Grant film.

The screenplay for Charade was written by Peter Stone, a playwright whose father had produced Charlie Chan and Shirley Temple films. It was his first screenplay, and it was a doozy (he went on to write The Taking of Pelham, One, Two, Three and Just Cause). It's an example that should be studied along with Chinatown for perfect structure. Not to mention that it consciously made a woman the center of the movie, a rarity for this kind of "spy" genre (if you think about the James Bond and Pink Panther movies, you're getting warm). And, on top of everything else, it's also a amiable romantic comedy.

The Criterion DVD is special because it contains a new commentary by Donen and Stone. The two men remember dozens of great stories about the filming and about Grant, Hepburn, Matthau, and the others. They joke with one another and argue when one of them remembers something wrong. It's one of the best commentaries I've ever heard, bar none. The disc also contains the trailer, detailed filmographies for both Donen and Stone, and a terrific chapter menu.

Charade reminds us that when all the elements come together, it's possible for Hollywood to make a flawless entertainment that thoroughly whisks us away. Too bad it doesn't happen more often.

The Criterion Collection's 2000 DVD is still in print. In 2010, Criterion released a new Blu-Ray edition.