Friday, February 17, 2023

Captivated by “Charade”

Valentine’s Day is a grand excuse to catch up on romantic films. The 2022 additions to the National Film Registry include some great ones. When the list was announced last December, I was otherwise engaged. But Valentine’s Day 2023 reminded me that, two months back, several classics of the genre were deemed worthy of Library of Congress preservation. For the animation crowd, there’s Disney’s charming and family-friendly The Little Mermaid. For rom-com lovers (and lovers in general), there’s the wise and witty When Harry Met Sally. Not only is this one of the most quotable movies of all times (“I’ll have what she’s having”) but it makes a trip to a certain crowded Lower East Side deli much more exciting.  Manhattan, of course, is always a popular backdrop for screen romance. But me, I’ll take Paris . . . and another entry on the Library of Congress list. Yes, I mean Charade.

 I never saw Charade when it was first released in 1963. Frankly, I tended to confuse it with another delightfully wacky romantic comedy from later in that decade: How To Steal a Million. There was a certain amount of overlap between the two: Audrey Hepburn in Givenchy and Paris in the spring, both on grand display. Charade of course had a musical theme that was on everyone’s lips: Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer’s lilting (and Oscar-nominated) song remains a classic, and I can’t imagine how it was beaten out for the statuette by “Call Me Irresponsible,” from something called Papa’s Delicate Condition.

 What Charade also has is a real sense of danger. Even as the story begins, with Hepburn’s character lunching al fresco, backed by snowclad mountains, the barrel of a pistol pokes into the frame. It’s a joke involving a naughty kid with a squirt gun, but the possibility that anything can happen does linger. Hepburn’s Regina may be a kook given to rattling off droll non-sequiturs, but there’s a real sense of shock when she returns home from her ski vacation to a palatial flat that’s completely empty, along with the news that her husband has been tossed from a train while on a baffling errand. And then there are those three Ugly Americans (played by Hollywood stalwarts George Kennedy, Ned Glass, and James Coburn) who keep following her around, demanding a huge sum of money . . . or else!

 What’s a girl to do? If she’s Audrey Hepburn in Charade, she turns to the older and wiser Cary Grant, an innocent bystander—or is he? Charade does a remarkable job of encouraging our emotions (like Hepburn’s) to turn on a dime, while blood is shed and promises are proven to be lies. Cheers to the screenwriters, and to director Stanley Donen, who keep us guessing as to where all the twists and turns will lead.

 Looking back, the early Sixties was a wonderful era for satisfying film entertainment. Stars like Hepburn and Grant were larger than life: they were as beautiful as the bad guys were ugly. Paces were swift, and outcomes (after a lot of canny misdirection) were what we’d want them to be. After the lights came up, there was nothing to be puzzled about, and no social ill that we’d been charged with fixing. Lively, jazzy music made sure we were effortlessly swept along by a cleverly designed story. In Charade, even the opening credits contribute: after some somber shots of a railroad train and then a man tumbling  down an embankment, the screen erupts into a kaleidoscopic frenzy of neon-colored lines and squiggles. Ah, Paris! Ah, Hollywood! 



No comments:

Post a Comment