Home Movies by Charles Taylor: Isn't it romantic?

Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn bring a dash of style to Stanley Donen's caper in Paris.


Charles Taylor
May 19, 1998 9:25PM (UTC)

With his 1935 thriller "The 39 Steps," Alfred Hitchcock introduced a
delectable formula: Take a casually elegant couple, throw them together in
extraordinary circumstances and watch their banter gradually evolve into
endearments without ever once losing its wit. Filmmakers have never stopped
trying to duplicate that supremely pleasurable confection. Hitchcock
himself returned to it in "The Lady Vanishes" (1938), gave it dark erotic
undertones in "Notorious" (1946) and turned out a couple of late models in
"To Catch a Thief" (1955) and "North by Northwest" (1959). Carol Reed
borrowed the star of "The Lady Vanishes," Margaret Lockwood (and a few
other things besides), for his try at the genre, "Night Train" (1940), a
modest, enjoyable entertainment marred by some heavy-handed anti-Nazi
propaganda. More recently, Kenneth Branagh went deliciously over the top in
"Dead Again," a wonderfully loony and sophisticated romantic thriller about
a desire that persists beyond the grave.

In some of these pictures -- as paperback thriller blurbs and coming
attraction announcers used to say -- the fate of the free world hangs in
the balance. In others, it's merely the hero and heroine's skins -- no
matter. The best movies descended from "The 39 Steps" understand that what
really counts is the romance. The dangers the new lovers face function like
the complications in romantic comedy: as a series of tests the lovers must
face to prove that they trust each other. And just as crucial, the scrapes
they get into test their style, their cool, their wit. Their ability to
act as deftly under pressure as they do at ease endears these
characters to us, just as we love Fred Astaire as much for the way he strides
across a room, one hand thrust casually in his pocket, as for the
way he dances.

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In "Charade" (1963) the most sophisticated of these movies, a thug forces Cary
Grant to climb to the roof of the Parisian office of American Express for
the unexpressed purpose of pushing him off. Instead of panicking, Grant
offers a dismissive complaint: "All right, but the view had better be worth
it." He's so relaxed that when he gets to the roof, he turns his back on
his would-be killer, puts on his glasses, gives nighttime Paris a cursory
glance and says "Mmm, very pretty," like someone who's been forced to look
at one too many holiday snaps.

That almost perversely d*gag* attitude is the defining spirit of
"Charade." When the picture's director, Stanley Donen, danced his
acceptance of an honorary Oscar earlier this year, as charming as one of
his films, people said that he's exactly the man they'd expect to have made
movies like "Singin' in the Rain" and "It's Always Fair Weather." Well,
"Charade" is exactly the type of thriller you'd expect a man like Donen to
make. "Charade," which takes place in Paris, dances, it capers. Even the
moments when the movie's trio of bad guys (James Coburn, George Kennedy,
Ned Glass) come to their gruesome ends are presented as macabre jokes, as
if you'd been passed a book of Charles Addams drawings over cocktails. As
the title suggests, this is a prankish, playful picture, with a pair of
charming jokers at the top of its deck, Grant and Audrey Hepburn. They
play the movie in what might be called high deadpan. Even when the
imperiled Hepburn lets her nerves get the better of her, she puts quotation
marks around her frightened reactions that are as exquisite as a pair of
Cartier cuff links. Hepburn exaggerates so that we can see she's playacting,
and the movie's light, sparkling tone remains undisturbed.

The plot kicks off with Hepburn learning that the husband she was about to
divorce (because she felt she didn't know him) has been murdered. Then she
finds out just how much she didn't know. He had stolen money from the
government during the war, then double-crossed the Army buddies who were
in on the theft. They figure his widow has the stolen boodle and come to
Paris to get it. Grant is the beguiling stranger who steps in to lend her a
hand. He's infinitely more appealing than her dead dullard of a husband, but
that's not saying much. After all, Cary Grant is more appealing than almost
anyone. (There must be at least two or three exceptions, but I've never met
them.)

The complication is that Grant may be harboring as many secrets as the late
unlamented. Shifting effortlessly from identity to identity, he poses, in
the course of the picture, as a businessman, the revenge-seeking brother of
one of the bad guys' victims and a professional thief who's also after the
stolen money. Each time Hepburn catches him in a lie, he simply comes up
with a new name and occupation. "The man's the same even if the name is
different," he assures her. True: gray hair and all, no matter what name he
gives, he's unmistakably Cary Grant, dapper and viewing the world with an
amused reticence that masks a true romantic. The fun of "Charade" has less
to do with its who's-got-the-money plot (which is nonetheless very well
worked out) than with seeing Hepburn learning to trust the instincts that
lead her to nuzzle up to Grant whenever they're alone. This is the movie in
which Hepburn says to Grant, "Do you know what's the matter with you?
Nothing," as a beatific, dreamy smile breaks like a slow wave across her
face.

That line also sums up the approach to romance shared by both the "The 39
Steps" and the great American romantic comedies of the '30s. Those pictures
got rid of all the mush that clogged up most movie love scenes and replaced
it with a style that's quintessentially American. All the longing and
idealism is clothed beneath breezy practicality, as comfortably chic as
Grant's impeccably tailored suits and Hepburn's Givenchy dresses. That
style isn't an evasion of emotion, but a way to avoid diluting the feelings
that matter. Love, in romantic comedy (which is essentially what "Charade"
is), is too big a subject for sentimental spooning. And, the internal logic
of these pictures goes, if you can talk lightheartedly about something as
monumental as love, you can be flip and sassy about whatever else comes up.
It's simply a more gracious way of getting through the day. In "Charade,"
with killers breathing down their necks almost every minute, Grant and
Hepburn play their scenes as a series of japes and come-ons, with the
entranced serenity of two people playing ping-pong while gazing -- grinning
-- into each other's eyes.

Made when the studio system was on its last legs (and four years before
"Bonnie and Clyde" announced a new American cinema), "Charade" still feels
fresh, quick-witted, nothing like the artificial, airless Hollywood
pictures of its time. That's a tribute to the cleverness and taste of the
people involved: Donen, screenwriter Peter Stone, cinematographer
Charles Lang and Henry Mancini (who contributed a lovely score, alternately
percussive and lyrical). And it's because Donen (who was living in Europe)
got the camera out of the studio. You wouldn't mistake "Charade" for the
French New Wave -- much of it was filmed on sets -- but, apart from the plot
and the charisma of its stars, the movie could almost be a Hollywood
version of an imagistic poem celebrating Paris.

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When I think of "Charade" I remember a Punch and Judy show in a park framed
by autumn leaves; an ice-cream vendor by the Seine; a flea market for stamp
collectors; an illuminated phone booth in an empty Metro station; the Opera
House at night; the slim, solitary figure of Hepburn smoking at twilight in
an elegant apartment stripped to its gilt-framed walls. Each of those shots
is evanescent, over much too quickly, like the delight of the movie itself.
You content yourself with memories, like the elderly stamp collector in one
heartbreaking scene who surrenders the precious stamps he's briefly
possessed. "For a few moments," he says, "they were mine. That is enough."
The chemistry of Grant and Hepburn seems even more precious, and for two
hours it is all the treasure we could ever desire.


Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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