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Thriller Thursdays: Charade - A perfect Hitchcockian film

A glamorous heroine, villains who want her dead, a dead husband, and a hero who just might not be one

  • Sunil Bhandari

Last Updated: 04.26 PM, Aug 04, 2022

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Thriller Thursdays:  Charade - A perfect Hitchcockian film

In our weekly column, Thriller Thursdays, we recommend specially-curated thrillers that’ll send a familiar chill down your spine.

There is a moment in a Parisian Cafe where Regina Lambert (Audrey Hepburn) is gobbling down food, and Peter Joshua (Cary Grant) is watching her, and the following conversation ensues-

Peter - Oh you should see your face!

Regina - What’s the matter with it?

Peter - It’s lovely

And we notice, yet again, along with Cary Grant, the gamin unadulterated beauty of Audrey Hepburn.

The film, as it were, urges us to do so, even as her character's husband is killed, and various nefarious characters start circling her asking her to hand over - “something” - which Charles her husband had taken from them. And mysteriously, a handsome Cary Grant walks into her life, offering his shoulder, which, in no time, becomes his arms.

Charade is the conceit that cinema can carry with aplomb - smartly written, sumptuously shot, gorgeously scored, directed with a light touch and enacted with full consciousness that this was Cinema as Fun.

The film starts on a misty morning, with a train racing through the countryside - and then a body tumbling out of it. And then begin the credits with Henry Mancini's fantastic opening score - hummable, sumptuous, urgent. And then the Alps! And Regina at one with the snowy mountains. And then a gun is pointed at her - and water sprayed on her face! A friend Sylvie's son up to some childish tricks. And Regina exclaims in frustration - “Can't he do something useful, like start an avalanche or something?!”

And you know this is going to be a fun ride!

Regina tells Sylvie she wants a divorce from her husband Charles, as she doesn’t love him, as everything with him is about secrecy and lies. And lo and behold, she reaches her apartment in Paris and it is BARE! Not a piece of furniture, cloth or decoration! Every room, every cupboard empty.

The police appear and tell her that Charles had sold everything, booked an onward ticket to Venezuela with passports of four different countries with him - and then had been murdered.

Regina is clueless about it all. And to compound, the distress appears three people she would hate to meet alone in the dark, who, one after another, threaten her with myriad unsavoury consequences if she doesn’t hand over what Charles was supposed to give them. It’s a sheer blessing that she has a CIA agent Hamilton Bartholomew (Walter Matthau) a call away for help and Peter looking out for her.

But obviously, nothing is what it should be! And there’s tumbledown and chaos, murders and suspicions. And everybody seems to be lying. And Regina has no idea who to turn to.

The charm of Charade is its deliciously conceived journey and its continuous turn of events. And the terrific set pieces! There’s a delightful chase Regina gives Peter, there’s an orange game which ends in unexpected ways, there’s a fully-clothed shower scene, a kissing scene on a yacht, and the delirious scene in the church as Charles' mates come one by one to check on Charles' corpse - and to reconfirm he is actually dead!

Charade has the most charming locales, shot as it is in Paris, and we transverse the city with its characters - besides the Seine, on the Seine, its parks, cafés, streets, flea markets, the metro, theatre, et al! There is a freshness and immediacy to the proceedings which makes the city just the place to worry in, get chased in or simply to romance in!

Audrey Hepburn is fully attuned to the goofy subtext of the film and gives it her most cooky charm. She agitates beautifully, and in her stylish distress, one can easily see her fall for the ageing Cary Grant, even through his incessant lying (which in itself is a running joke in the film, though with dire possibilities). And Cary Grant is like wine, very obviously conscious of his age difference with Audrey, and perfidious in his infinite attraction. His character Charles tells her - how about making me Vice President in charge of cheering you up? And Audrey makes him President instead, though he has other things on his mind!

The movie would have been infinitely lesser if it didn't have the excellent turns by James Coburn, George Kennedy and Ned Glass as the villains who lean into the fun of the film with their crazy wickedness, though often ending on the wrong side of life! And they engender all the action in the film, which is remarkably well done, shot as it on the streets, stations, staircases and roofs of Paris. And all combined, with its chicness and twists, it is as Hitchcockian as a non-Hitchcock film can be!

Stanley Donen, the director, is an old veteran in imbuing movies with the memorable and unforgettable - think Singing in the Rain and Funny Face. And here he has his old collaborator Peter Stone writing the screenplay, which literally sparkles with wit and unexpectedness. And what can one say of the gorgeous background score by Henry Mancini, the man behind the title themes of The Pink Panther and Hatari. The music seems to be stitched into the fibre of the film, and is, in turn, romantic, playful and tender. It is a treat to hear the score in its entirety, and visualize the film through its musical bars.

And then the wonderful twist in the tail! This is one fabulous film, a treat for all the senses!

Trivia

After several studios rejected the initial screenplay, Peter Stone the screenwriter turned it into a novel, which ironically then generated interest from all the studios which had earlier rejected the idea!

Cary Grant’s character called Peter Joshua was named after director Stanley Donen's two sons, Peter and Joshua.

The title music track of Charade was made famous in Hindi cinema, after being copied, bar to bar, as the title track of the film ‘Gumnam' which starred Manoj Kumar.

Watch Don’t Charade here.

(Views expressed in this piece are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of OTTplay)

(Written by Sunil Bhandari, a published poet and host of the podcast ‘Uncut Poetry’)

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