Sunday, February 28, 2010


Stanley Donen’s 1963 romantic thriller (or perhaps “thrilling romance” might be more apt) is a great heap of cinematic pleasures, be they visual or verbal. The well-twisted plot—involving a murdered husband, false identities, stolen money, and a mystery killer—is amusing, occasionally silly, and mostly just a platform for some deliciously deadpan bantering between Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant, two old pros of the form just casually batting words back and forth across scenic Paris. Hepburn even gets away with asking the question that has surely haunted Grant his entire career when she points at his cleft chin and asks, “How do you shave in there?” (He changes the subject, of course—some tricks of the trade best left to the imagination, I suppose.)

You can get away with a lot simply by daring to say it out loud. Unlike other films that pair a graying male lead with a pert young lady, Charade doesn’t let the matter lie unacknowledged, but instead uses the age difference to sweeten up the tart dialogue. There can be something uncomfortable about watching a film where a beautiful young starlet throws herself at a man old enough to be her father, or even in some cases, grandfather. Who wants to sit through another fantasy of aging masculine entitlement? Not I. But Donen just turns his performers loose and lets them chop the age difference to bits in their rapid crossfire exchanges (Hepburn: “I’m not fifteen,” to which Grant replies, “Well, that’s your trouble. You’re too old for me.”).

And while I’m piling on praise for the performances, I should note that this film makes excellent use of Walter Matthau’s disarming schlubbiness. His funniest moment might be the scene where he receives a call from Hepburn while inexplicably doing squats, and carries on the entire conversation bobbing up and down. The film gamely plays along and simply follows his distracting movement, making the scene that much more ridiculous. Donen’s camera, it seems, is as deadpan as any of his leads.

Not all of the performances are quite as successful—George Kennedy as a growling pseudo–James Bond villain with a hook for a hand is almost too much, and his cartoonish co-conspirators are hardly much better—but a piece of filmmaking as deft and smart as Charade is hard to trip up. Even potentially distracting choices, like Donen’s decision to mix rear projection scenes with actual Parisian locations, work to the advantage of the film’s knowing artificiality. This may be a self-aware film, but it’s certainly not a self-conscious one.

In a rather elegant way, Donen depicts the early stages of a relationship when two strangers attempt to build some sense of trust and connection. You slowly peel away the layers of identities you have built up around yourself, until at last you can reveal your true self—or perhaps selves, I should say, since these made-up identities are just as much a part of who we are. It’s only through acknowledging such artifice that the film finds its emotional plausibility. Or rather, in classical Hollywood style, the shortest path to the truth is through lies.

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