Thursday, June 2, 2011

Film #57: Charade (1963)

Director: Stanley Dolan

Initial Release Country: United States

Times Previously Seen: once (about 2 years ago)

Teaser Summary (No spoilers)

Newly widowed, ever-chic waif is hounded by mean strangers over a mysterious fortune left by her enigmatic dead husband. Wears fantastic hats.

Extended Summary (Lengthier synopsis, including major spoilers. Fair warning)

Somewhere in France, a body is found beside a railroad track. The corpse was Charles Lampert, whose widow, Regina (Audrey Hepburn) at first knows nothing of her husband's death. Instead, she has been whiling away her time on a ski slope, complaining to a friend about how she knows virtually nothing of her husband, and will soon be asking for a divorce. While at the ski lodge, she has a brief flirtatious encounter with Peter Joshua (Cary Grant), a suave American seemingly on holiday as well.

Upon her return to Paris, Regina discovers that she and her husband's 5-star hotel suite has been completely gutted of all belongings. At police headquarters, she is informed that her husband has been found dead, but not before he had sold off he and his wife's belongings and attempted to flee the country for some unknown reason. The questions about Regina's deceased husband increase.

Regina Lampert, sporting the only sunglasses that could possibly be larger than her Japanese animated character eyes.

Back at her hotel room, Regina is soon met by Peter Joshua, who has looked her up and found her deep in thought. After hearing her story, he offers to help her in any way that he can. At Charles Lampert's funeral the next day, Regina witnesses more oddity: three distinctive men, known as Panthollow (James Coburn), Scobie (George Kennedy) and Gideon, one-by-one, approach the open coffin of the dead man and carefully check to see that he is dead. Regina merely watches in stunned amazement.

After the funeral, Regina is contacted by U.S. Treasury official Hamilton Bartholomew (Walter Matthau), who clarifies a few things, while adding new mysteries. He explains that Charles Lampert's real name was Charles Voss, and that he was part of a small U.S. military group that stole $250,000 that was meant for the French resistance during World War II. Voss/Lampert was part of the five-man conspiracy, which included the three strange men from Lampert's funeral, as well as a fifth man named Dyle. Voss/Lampert, after many years of waiting, snuck in and stole the money and was running off with it when he was killed. With Voss/Lampert dead for a certainty, the surviving conspirators are all after the money that they are sure he spirited away from them. The problem is that no one knows where the money is, but everyone thinks that Regina does. The only clues that Charles Voss/Lampert left behind are in a travel bag which seems to contain nothing out of the ordinary.

As if this winding tale weren't confounding enough, the confusion grows as Peter Joshua becomes more involved. At first, he is the helpful compatriot, Peter Joshua. However, he then seems to be in cahoots with the other three thieves, as they refer to him as Dyle. He later explains that he is not the original Dyle, who is presumed dead, but Dyle's brother, and he is seeking revenge on the other three treasure seekers. This, too, is another fabrication, as “Dyle” admits to a third identity – that of an international thief named Adam Canfield. All of these shifts and covers are slowly revealed to Regina through their interactions. Frustrating as it all is to her, she finds herself falling in love with this mystery man, as he repeatedly saves her from the other three fortune hunters.

The mystery man shows off his true professionalism by not laughing at that ridiculous excuse for a hat that Regina Lampert is wearing.

The serious problems start when more deaths occur. First is the massive Scobie, who is found drowned in The Mystery Man's tub. Shortly after, Gideon is discovered with his throat slashed in the same hotel's elevator. It would seem that the only suspects are the still-living Tex Panthollow or Regina's identity-shifting protector/rogue, The Mystery Man.

Just as all of this is transpiring, The Mystery Man presses Regina for any information that will still lead him to the $250,000 and save her from any further threats by Panthollow. She does recall a meeting place and time, which is in a nearby public park. When The Mystery Man arrives, he notices that Panthollow is already there. At first, neither of them understands the significance of the park. That is, until they both notice the massive swap meet of stamp collectors. Panthollow recalls that one of the items in Charles Voss/Lampert's travel bag was a letter affixed with three stamps. He also correctly assumes that these stamps must be the hiding place of the quarter million dollars. He races back to Regina's hotel room to get the stamps. The Mystery Man puts together the same pieces, finds Panthollow back in the room, but discovers that, while the letter and envelope are still there, the stamps have been torn off.

Back in the park, Regina sees the results of her own little maneuver. She had realized the value of the stamps and sent them to a friend for safe-keeping. Following a nearly disastrous sell-off of the stamps, she recovers them. We then learn that the three stamps are, indeed, worth an amazing $250,000.

Regina returns to her hotel room and is horrified to find Tex Panthollow's dead body in her room. His dead fingers have sketched out the name “Dyle” on the carpet. As Regina flees, The Mystery Man himself arrives and begins to give chase. Regina runs and manages to contact the Treasury Agent Bartholomew for help. All three people converge between the massive marble pillars of an outdoor plaza. Both Bartholomew and The Mystery Man are armed and ready to kill each other. It is only now that The Mystery Man realizes and explains to Regina that Bartholomew is actually the original Dyle; that he was never killed in the War, and that he has been posing as a Treasury agent and killing the other thieves in order to get at the money through Regina. While he denies it at first, Bartholomew eventually admits to the truth. He threatens Regina in an attempt to wrest the valuable stamps from her, but The Mystery Man gets to the real Dyle first, shooting him dead.

Hamlton Bartholomew, one of several characters who are not quite what they seem.

The following day, The Mystery Man and Regina go to the American Embassy to return the $250,000 that was originally theirs. The Mystery Man decides to remain in the hallway, claiming that, being a professional thief, it would hurt him too much to see so much money simply given away. This, however, is his final ruse. When Regina strolls into the office of Treasury Director Crookshanks, she discovers that he is, in fact, the man who has been so rapidly swapping names. This final identity is, however, genuine, and the two fall into each others' arms.

The Verdict

Charade is a decent enough movie, and it held my attention, but this was despite some really serious problems I have with it.

The good? One thing is the overall plot. As far as playful suspense movies go, the story in Charade clicks along really well. Like many of Alfred Hitchcock's stronger suspense movies, the viewer is intrigued enough to try and piece together the strange scenarios. However, every time you think you have a handle on it, one of the variables changes. This is typified by the nominal chameleon, Agent Crookshanks. Even though I wasn't completely in love with this movie, the time flew by pleasantly enough as I scrambled to keep to up with the plot.

Helping out the telling of the tale are some humorously 2-dimensional characters brought to life by some solid acting. While I have serious problems with some of the acting (I'll get to that in a moment), James Coburn and George Kennedy are enjoyable. Even better, I felt like Walter Matthau steals all of his scenes. His effortlessly dry humor is perfection.

Another undoubted strength is the visuals. As might be expected from a director who was behind such technicolor musical standards as Singin' In the Rain and many others, Charade's vibrancy is rather appealing. The shots are framed perfectly, and all actors and props are right in their places. Such compositions make the film exceptionally easy on the eyes.

One of the many shots in the film that could make a pretty decent postcard. Note the artful arrangement of colors.

All of these positives just barely outweighed the nuisances to me. First among these bugaboos is that there is a serious lack of cohesion in the speech and actions of the main characters. Both Regina Lampert and Crookshanks make odd swings between being silly and playful to being highly emotional. This leads to some rather strange scenes and annoying interactions. Most obvious to me is a rather weird scene in which Crookshanks, to bring a smile to Regina's face after a near-death experience, jumps into a shower fully clothed and pretends to wash. I think it was meant to be charmingly goofy, but it comes off as just bizarre.

The greater problem to me is a major bias of mine: Audrey Hepburn. I am simply not a fan of hers. Granted, the fact that the character she plays is a confusing hodge-podge of attitudes and emotions, and perhaps no actress could have pulled it off. Still, there has always been something about Hepburn's giant-eyed posing and aristocratic air that irks me. I realize that she was the “it” girl in her day and is still seen as a fashion icon, and I guess I understand why. All the same, the only movie in which I've been able to stomach her is My Fair Lady, and that only because she is verbally abused relentlessly by Rex Harrison. Her role in Charade managed only to annoy me with her odd shifts from comically apathetic widower to hopelessly fawning romantic or from clever, cool customer to skitish, hapless victim.

One of many scenes in which Audrey Hepburn over(re)acts. Seriously - it's just a friggin' match, lady.

Will I watch this movie again? Probably not. The riveting aspect of this movie was the suspense of the unknown. Even having watched the movie a few years ago, I had forgotten nearly all of the plot details. Now knowing them all, further viewings would only highlight the things that I don't like about the movie. I would still recommend that nearly anyone who enjoys films give it at least one go. Anyone who really likes Audrey Hepburn and/or Cary Grant will surely not be disappointed, as the former is at her most “adorably” elfish, and the latter is...well, he's Cary Grant.

That's a wrap. 57 shows down. 48 to go.

Coming Soon: Dr. Strangelove: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

One of my favorite comedies of all time, by the otherwise dead serious directing great, Stanley Kubrick. If any film on this list has a chance to unseat Kind Hearts and Coronets as “darkest comedy”, this is the one...

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.