A Movie A Day: CHARADE (1963)
Do you realize you’ve had three names in the past two days? I don’t even know who I’m talking to any more!
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with the next installment of A Movie A Day.
[For those now joining us, A Movie A Day is my attempt at filling in gaps in my film knowledge. Every day Monday-Friday I’ll be reviewing a film I haven’t seen before. Each film will be connected in some way to the film before it, be it by actor, director, writer, etc. It’s a great time to be a film explorer, with TCM’s amazing programming, Netflix Watch Instant’s large library and studios starting up boutique burn-on-demand DVD services for their more obscure vault titles. So, I’m going exploring and I hope you guys will join me on my cinematic expedition.]
Walter Matthau bridges us from yesterday’s Bigger Than Life to today’s Charade, but first it’s time for our Buster Keaton short: “Hard Luck.”
As you can see, today’s short is all about a dude who keeps trying (and failing) to kill himself after his girl leaves. Wait just a damn minute! Groundhog Day, you sneaky monkey!
The most interesting thing about this short is that it was lost for over 60 years and the one print they have is in rough shape, a hodgepodge of surviving bits from other prints missing some moments and, most importantly, the ending. We know what that ending is and Keaton has actually said it was one of the biggest laughs his work got. I’ll get to it in just a bit, though.
Hard Luck isn’t top notch Keaton. The story is sprawling and unfocused and there aren’t any jaw-dropping amazing stunts (that survived anyway), but even so it’s still fun. If the bulk of the short had followed Keaton so despondent that he kept trying to find more and more elaborate ways to kill himself I think I would have loved it, but now it’s a weird almost stream of consciousness tale of a dude who drinks a bottle of what he thinks is poison when in reality it is a waiter’s stash of whiskey and is somehow roped into being hired to capture an armadillo for the local zoo. Then there’s a fox hunt, a country club romance, a gunslinging bandit, Keaton riding a giant horse and Buster tied to a bear.
The pieces are fine but they don’t connect. Perhaps a lot of that connecting tissue ended up lost forever, but what we have left to look at is fine, but lesser Keaton.
Now, the ending with the huge laugh has Keaton climbing to the top of a comically tall high dive platform after thinking he won the hand of a lovely lady and turned his luck around only to find out she’s married. I’m not exactly sure why the cauliflower-eared husband wants Keaton to take the high dive, but he does and Keaton makes the jump, misses the pool and all that’s left behind is the crater.
The footage ends with a group looking into the crater, saying how far down it goes. Then a title card comes up and says “years later…” and cuts out. The joke is that after the title card comes up, Keaton re-emerges from the crater with a Chinese wife and children.
Alright, that’s pretty damn funny. I could see that playing like gangbusters. So, overall the short is pretty weak, but not a chore to get through. Speaking of things that aren’t a chore to get through, how about we finally segue into our big movie of the day?
Charade is a pretty big gap in my movie knowledge. When The Truth About Charlie came out and everybody was up in arms about how it’s such a shitty remake of Charade I just nodded my head silently, making a mental note to catch up with Charade so I could be just as upset as my film geek friends. Much like Flight of the Phoenix, I avoided the remake because I didn’t want it to hurt my first viewing of the original, which I for sure was going to see… it was just a question of when.
Well, that when is now and thank God I waited because I had the option to watch the Criterion Blu-Ray, which is aces, as usual. It’s not quite the immaculate transfer that yesterday’s Bigger Than Life was, but still better than most library titles are treated.
Maybe the remake had trouble capturing this rather unique mixture of thriller and romantic comedy that Charade has. The ‘60s seemed to be chock full of these kinds of movies that weren’t straight up crime thrillers, but also had a real threat to them. Charade is interesting as it’s one that feels to be an almost perfect balance of both, whereas things like The Italian Job and Ocean’s 11 and Gambit leaned more into light and fluffy pictures with a backdrop of crime thrillers.
I mean, Charade opens with a dead man falling from a moving train and then creepy dudes like a glowering James Coburn and a hook-handed George Kennedy show up to torment the newly widowed Audrey Hepburn. It’s still by no means a “dark” film, but it’s got a real feeling of threat from these guys.
Now, Hepburn isn’t just some mourning wife looking for a big, strong man to help her figure out the mystery of his missing fortune and protect her from the bad guys. If she were this would have gotten really boring really fast. She was out of love with her husband and finds out pretty quickly that he stole $250,000, so she spends the movie looking for it.
Cary Grant plays her love interest. The way they get around the quite striking age gap is that they don’t make Grant the aggressive one of this courtship. Quite the contrary, actually. He’s his suave, charming older gentlemen self and it’s Hepburn who pursues him. She’s intrigued by him and the more it becomes clear that he’s wrapped up in this chase for the missing money the more intrigued she becomes.
I talked about how much I love George Kennedy in my The Flight of the Phoenix review and he gets a nice juicy intimidating character here. The man is pure menace even before his sharp hook hand is revealed. His Herman Scobie spends the entire movie pissed off. He’s pissed off that his stolen money was stolen from him, he’s mad that he doesn’t know where it is, he’s mad he only has one hand, he’s mad at his partners, he’s mad at Audrey Hepburn… he’s just a plain old grumpy grumpus. And that makes him dangerous.
James Coburn is one of his partners and plays it much smoother. He’s not as scary, but he is James Coburn so he ain’t the easter bunny, either.
Walter Matthau is also in the mix as an American intelligence officer who is also looking for the money. He acts as a kindly guide for Hepburn, offering up advice and information when he can.
It could be Grant’s influence over the tone of the film, but Charade is just charming. The character work, the photography, Stanley Donen’s direction, the writing, the locations, the whole set up is just lovely from start to finish.
There’s also a stand-out fight scene that takes place on a rooftop between Grant and Kennedy that has to be mentioned. The movie’s tone is light, but this scene is actually pretty brutal. Kennedy uses his hook hand really well in this fight, much to the dismay Grant, I’m sure. Lovely choreography here and Donen shows the area well, giving the fight a bit of tension as they get perilously close to the edge of the roof.
My big takeaway from the movie will be how they treat Cary Grant’s character. That’s the smoothest bit of writing in the movie. You never really know his motives, if he’s good, bad or a little bit of both or if he’s genuinely falling for Hepburn or playing her.
In an odd way Grant being such a likable screen presence made not really care if he turned out to be the good guy or the bad guy, which is weird because Audrey Hepburn (especially at this time) is one the most adorable creatures in the world and my instinct is to protect her and make sure all the bad of the world stays away from her.
I suppose the fact that she plays such a strong woman in the film also helped there because I knew no matter what she’d be able to roll with whatever twist the story took.
Final Thoughts: Charade is fun, funny, charming, entertaining, romantic, smart, witty and classy all wrapped up together. There’s a reason why this one is talked about so highly. And now I’m convinced to never ever in a million years see The Truth About Charlie. I’ve seen this story told and told well, so there’s no point.
Upcoming A Movie A Day Titles:
THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE (1969)
TUNES OF GLORY (1960)
HITLER: THE LAST 10 DAYS (1973)
YOUNG WINSTON (1972)
More Matthau on the way tomorrow with 1980’s Hopscotch!
Previous A Movie A Day (2013) Titles:
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