50th Anniversary: Charade

5 December, 2013 at 10:04 pm (charade, film)

Audrey Hepburn in CHARADEToday is the fiftieth anniversary of the release of Charade by Stanley Donen, starring Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant. (If you’re unfamiliar with the film, you can quickly watch a five-minute version of it here.) I own many, many, manymany copies of the film, having perversely tried to collect all of the cheapo, pharmacy-bargain-bin versions of the movie that sprang into being due to the film’s accidental lack of copyright. Each of them suffers from a variety of flaws based on how the individual company was able to acquire a battered 35mm print and digitize it. Most of these companies would list amongst the “special features” of their version of Charade that it had been “DIGITALLY REMASTERED!” Which was true, as there was no other way to get it onto a DVD, but the fact that it was a “special” feature was accurate only in the cruel, schoolyard way in which travelers on the short bus were taunted. The sound was tinny, the picture was scratchy, and sometimes the discs had as few as four chapter stops (one per film reel, perhaps?), but they were all between four and seven dollars, and they enabled me to watch one of my favorite films on my shiny new DVD player back in 1999, as well as to marvel at the fact that a film that felt like it should be a stone-cold classic could receive such shoddy treatment.

And then the Criterion edition came out, and all was right with the universe. I’ve purchased three versions of the Criterion Charade (letterbox, anamorphic widescreen, and Blu-Ray), and I eagerly expect to purchase one more when they eventually re-re-release it in their new standard combo pack edition. The lush, crisp visuals have enabled me to luxuriate in the film many times, so here are my thoughts for its silver anniversary:

The film is almost — almost! — able to have its cake and it, too. What do I mean by that? Charade wants to be both a romp and a thriller. It wants you to root for the romance between Grant and Hepburn, but it wants you to be genuinely worried that Grant might be the bad guy. It wants you to have a cheerful good time, but it wants to kill people off. It wants the people it kills to be menacing, but also to be sweet and a little daft. This is essentially an impossible goal, and even Charade is unfortunately unable to fully fulfill such demanding, lofty aspirations, but it gets close enough for the audience (read: me; please understand that I will brazenly assume hoi poloi surrogacy throughout this missive) to sweep past any misgivings in a flourish of batted eyelashes and warm Mancini brass.

Almost, but not quite. Let us begin with the three hapless war profiteers that are trying so hard throughout the film to recover the paltry quarter of a million dollars they secreted away during World War II (in his commentary for the UK DVD of the film, Ken Barnes claims the first place where the film seems dated is in the use of a record player at the funeral home, but the second is most certainly the film’s Dr. Evil-esque insistence that $250,000 is a lot of money*). They are the film’s three threatening bears: Scobie is too hot, Gideon is too cold, and Tex Panthollow is jussssst right, which is why he survives the longest (“My momma di’nt raise no stupid children”).

Leopold W. Gideon and Tex Panthollow

As each is introduced, he is given a degree of menace and a quirk. We are supposed to find them villanous, but also endearing. Gideon suffuciently creepy, but able to be put off with a well-aimed footstomp and is hampered by his nervous habit of sneezing. Tex is laconic, but serious and believable in his warnings. Scobie is perceived as genuinely violent, possibly even deranged in his pursuit of the money — except that his prosthetic arm seems like a bit of an overblown threat, more like the notable characteristic of a Bond villain, except that Cary Grant’s character views it with very real concern. Each is somewhat comic is his appearance, with even Scobie’s mass belied by his cherubic face and unruly wisps of hair (or perhaps I’m retroactively unable to find him dangerous after his hapless involvement in The Naked Gun films). When they kidnap Jean-Louis to try and force Hepburn’s character to reveal the location of the money, the child never seems to think of himself as in danger, and they never act toward him with any hostility. How real is their threat on his life? It should seem farcical, except for the fact that this film opens with a shot of a bloodied, dead body, and we are supposed to be seriously considering that one of these men killed him.

Or, as they start dying off, that perhaps Grant’s character offed him and then them. This is the second and perhaps most major sticking point of the film: can an audience really believe that he could be the killer? Can they get past their preconceived notions of the his affable manner and plummy voice and genuinely doubt that maybe he’s not the hero after all?

Cary Grant: Man of Mystery?

We know he’s a genuine liar. He switches identities three times before the denouement of the film, and we’ve seen him dissemble and collaborate with thieves. And then we see him with a gun in his hand, with blood flushing his face moments before we stumble upon the corpse of a man who had just been mocking him mercilessly. We know that Hepburn’s character becomes absolutely, deathly afraid of him, but does the audience ever really get carried along with her, believing that he could do her harm? It had been many years since 1941’s Suspicion, where it is alleged that studio bosses didn’t want audiences to be presented with Grant as a murderer. Hitchcock talks about this very briefly in Hitchcock/Truffault, but doesn’t specifically say that the studios felt audiences wouldn’t accept Grant as a murderer, but it is implied that such a twist would do damage to the established reputation and role they had created around him. In 2000’s What Lies Beneath the very twist is that the audience is willing to believe the best about an actor based on the rep he carries from previous roles. While Charade doesn’t seem to be weighing considerations quite that extra-textual, it does use soundtrack and editing to unsubtly make the audience pendulum between believing that circumstances can’t possibly be that dire, no matter how many bodies have piled up, and believing that against all expectations, Grant really could be a man as enmeshed in shadows as when he appeared at Hepburn’s apartment.

Where the film does play against audience expectations is with the screenplay, and what I have decided to call “The Rule of Four”. The pattern of storytelling happening in threes is fairly well-known, so much so that an audience will subconsciously expect resolution when something happens the third time. The strongest case the film makes for us to take Grant’s character seriously as the murderer is not just that he’s the last one we see with Tex alive, but also that when Tex dies… he seems to be the only one left. But, there is another. When the film introduces us to the three bears at the funeral, there is a fourth visitor as well: a menacing form that invites Hepburn’s character to meet Walter Matthau. When each of the three bears threatens Hepburn in succession, she then escapes to the Les Halles market to meet with… Walter Matthau. We are so culturally used to a pattern of three, that we don’t anticipate the existence of a fourth. Similarly, after being introduced to Cary Grant as Peter Joshua, Alexander Dyle, and Adam Canfield, we think we’re done, so the further revelation of his actual identity of Brian Cruikshank should come as completely unexpected. We examine the contents of Charles Lampbert’s airline bag three times looking for the hidden money: once in the police station, once with Tex and Gideon, and finally with Adam and Reggie. According to the rule of three, we are now done, so we put it out of our minds. To then return yet a fourth time with counter-confirmation that the money was actually there under our noses each time, is a successful swerve .

Have you ever, in your entire life, seen anything so beautiful?

I believe the above list demonstrates that the screenplay set up several deliberate patterns of threes with a legerdemain fourth, but it’s also vaguely interesting that the line “Carson Dyle is dead” is said four times during the scene in which the idea of him is introduced between Matthau and Hepburn. Just to make sure we believe it. And, this seems to be a change from an earlier version of the screenplay, where Matthau’s Bartholomew had originally left the matter more open-ended with the substitute line, “Dyle was clearly dying.” Perhaps this led the audience too quickly to the twist, or perhaps it was merely speculated that it could. In either case, it isn’t in the final film.

It is this structure of subverting the traditional folkloric rule of three that allows the twists to creep up on the audience. It is the continual meandering between underplaying high stakes and significantly underscoring dramatic reversals that leaves the audience unsure enough that an unthinkable villain can be momentarily considered as feasible. And there’s something to be said about the arch patter of the film and its stars and the way it combines with a low-gloss, off-handedly naturalistic series of beats that helps make this film both solidly classic and simultaneously warmly, modernly accessible. Which perhaps makes it appropriate that such terrible, low-rez versions of the film were offered up to an indifferent DVD-consuming audience: what could better summarize a synthesis of glitz and grain more than an independently-produced, studio-released film that took advantage of the new-fangled DVD technology with such special features as “Interactive Menus”! Ooh! Ahh!

PS: Just two days ago, Donen revealed that he intends to direct his first theatrical film since his last picture in 1984, nearly 30 years ago. Donen’s fans are likely not legion, and classic cineists may well prefer him as a choreographer than a character diretcor, but as someone who’d love to get some Charade-related material signed at a future film festival, I can’t help but find this news appealing.

Related Links:
+ EDIT: The Guardian‘s 50th anniversary retrospective
+ Two repertory screening Charade posters
The public domain status of Charade
+ Filming locations for Charade
Yahoo!Answers is not helpful
+ Tumblr user Jane Reigns copies the OED entry for /ʃəˈrɑːd/

Other 50th Anniversaries:
Where The Wild Things Are
The JFK Assassination
The Doom Patrol
Doctor Who

*According to two online calculators, $250,000 in 1963 dollars was worth approximately $1,870,000 in 2012, meaning that a one-fifth share between the original thieves would have been worth $374,000, or more than the original whole.

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