Wednesday, March 26, 2008


Gave myself a much needed break last night and spent the evening watching movies on TV, after watching way too much news and “analyses” etc.

Just before I was about to turn it off and head for bed, the opening credits (on the RETROPLEX, I think it’s called, cable network—TCM without the style and commentary and great shorts and mini-documentaries etc., i.e. just “old” movies) started for the next movie: CHARADE.

Just the brightly colored swirling credits and early ‘60s (Henry Mancini) movie music sound stopped my finger on the off button and I was hooked.

My little boy once asked me what makes a “classical,” which is what he used to call any black and white movie when he spotted it in channel surfing (“Hey dad, it’s one of your classicals”).

I told him, for me it’s any movie (or song or book or poem or play or etc.) you can see again and again and not only still want to watch it, get caught up in it, enjoy and/or be moved by yet again, but even get something new out of it.

CHARADE is one of those “classicals.”

Though when it first came out in ’63 I found it too silly and slight. That was a particularly rough year in the life of not only the country (with JFK’s assassination toward the end of it, but lots of civil rights atrocities as well, and I started the year stationed in a segregated Greenville, South Carolina while engaged to a “black” woman).

But when I saw it again, over a decade later, I was a little less resistant and accepted it as a fairly successful, light Hollywood comedy.

But over the years, it has gotten better and better (another definition of a classic, or at least my personal classics), as I have gotten older and older.

Last night it was as good as it gets. I suddenly saw that what I had initially taken for silliness, even lameness, could be seen as a combination of parody and homage. I have a hard time remembering that Hitchcock didn’t make CHARADE, Stanley Donen did, the guy who made SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN, a similar combo of parody and homage (to Hollywood’s earlier years).

What I saw last night, was Donen lightly laughing at what had become by then Hitcockian conventions. (Hitchcock seemed to parody himself that same year in THE BIRDS.)

CHARADE’s over the top villains who are meant to be menacing come off unrealistic, almost clownish, despite their almost realistically violent (especially for 1963) deaths. But if they’re seen as a humorous comment on the menace in earlier Hitchcock films, then they’re more interesting, at least for me.

As is the whole story, especially with Cary Grant as the lead. His character is almost a parody of his character in NORTH BY NORTHWEST. The mistaken or deliberately contrived false identities, the interest of a much younger woman (though in CHARADE Grant’s and Aubrey Hepburn’s characters constantly comment on it), the literally "cliff-hanging" (or in this case roof edge hanging) fight, and even playing with matches (literally in both) metaphoric plot points!

But, of course, or at least “of course” for me, in the end, what made it imminently watch-able last night, and every time, is Cary Grant and Aubrey Hepburn and the wonderful dialogue—credited to Peter Stone as the screenwriter, but having done a bit of screenwriting in my years in Hollywood, some of the dialogue could have been contributed by other writers, as well as improvised by the actors.

In fact, one of the most wonderful things about the dialogue between Grant and Hepburn is that it feels like it’s improvised, and improvised by two comedic actors at their peaks, something I don’t always think of when I think of Hepburn, though of course she was a fabulous comedic screen actor.

Maybe it would be impossible to have such a beautifully stylized comedy/mystery like CHARADE these days. For one, the May-December romance of the leads, especially Hepburn’s character’s declarations of “love” after only knowing Grant’s character for a day or two and having conversations that sound like they could have been written by the offspring of Noel Coward and Samuel Beckett.

And who would play them? George Clooney is our Cary Grant these days, as far as I’m concerned, and has made a few movies with younger actresses as love interests, but nothing like the spread between Grant and Hepburn when this was made (or the spread the movie implied, making Hepburn younger than she actually was at the time, but him as well).

But who is our Aubrey Hepburn. Keira Knightly can carry some of the glamourous aspects of Hepburn, and even do comedy (PIRATES OF THE CARRIBEAN, especially the sequels). But Clooney and Knightly I don’t think so.

Clooney and a young Jennifer Lopez before she went all diva on us, did pull off something similar in OUT OF SIGHT (another great movie I can see anytime and dig it), but still, not the same. Bill Murray and Scarlet Johansson in LOST IN TRANSLATION come closer, but without the glamour or as much snappy repartee.

That is the crowning glory of CHARADE, the ongoing conversation between Hepburn and Grant that is like a more sophisticated, but not much more, romantic version of Abbot and Costello’s “Who’s on first” routine.

Ah I wish I had the words, but that’s why it’s a movie and not a book. You have to see it to experience it.

From the opening credits to the end credits, there’s no denying that CHARADE is a product of its times. But one whose artistry also transcends time, fortunately for us.

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