A different type of film entertainment existed in the middle of last century. It was funny and thrilling, breezy and clever, a classy sort of movie that captivates all who go into the cinema but leaves little to no lasting impact. They were made by people with a love for and great knowledge of cinema – Hitchcock, Reed et al – and they were designed only to keep your eyes glued to the screen. You don’t really see this today. Instead we get shit like Failure to Launch, Norbit and Saw 47, none of which resemble quality film entertainment. But don’t let’s get bogged down in the rubbish polluting cinema screens here and now.
Charade is the most enjoyable example of that classy entertainment that I’ve seen. It has just about everything: danger, romance, double-crossing and witty banter. A great director at the peak of his powers. Three huge stars, and another who would go on to become a legend. A twisting, cracking script, and excellent production values. Everything seems so effortless, but to get so many different aspects working perfectly in sync takes a lot of work, so the people involved were clearly professionals of the highest order.
Hepburn plays Reggie, a widow, who is being chased by three men (including James Coburn) who think she’s carrying $250,000. Cary Grant appears to want to protect her, and Walter Matthau’s CIA staffer wants to help her, but who’s jeepin’ who? The plot unfolds at a swift pace, supported by a steady stream of great lines, most of which come in conversations between Grant and Hepburn’s characters. It’s easy to see why these two would rank extremely highly on lists of the greatest movie stars ever (I believe Premiere magazine rated Grant at #1), because their very presence on screen is enough to ensure a contented smile from me. With Stone’s wonderful words to back them up, they create iconic roles which made me wish for an infinite reserve of one-liners and comebacks.
For me, though, the real star is Donen. I always figured Singin’ in the Rain was more Gene Kelly’s show than his, but on the basis of this, he’s a fantastic director in his own right. One could film this script with these stars like a sitcom, and it would still entertain; he lifts it to another level by employing wonderful dollys and pans, and timing each shot just right so that the line gets the biggest laugh. He wasn’t yet 40 when he made this; unfortunately, he became swiftly less active as the years went on.
Aside from not having anything to keep your brain ticking over after leaving the cinema, the only quibble I might have harks back to an earlier point: people like Grant, Hepburn and Matthau are (were) such massive stars that they only really needed to turn up to get the audience on-side. That isn’t to say they don’t do a good job; it’s just that I sometimes wish for real characters when I watch these movies, not another identical performance in that star’s typical groove. I suppose that familiarity was precisely what made them famous and what got them the big roles, but acting has come a long way since then, and someone like Tom Cruise has to work extremely hard just to separate the audience’s preconceptions from the character he’s playing. And quite often, to my mind, he does it.
Anyway, if you enjoy life, see this movie. Two hours could hardly pass more swiftly and enjoyably. That makes it very hard to write about – it’s light entertainment, but made with the utmost precision to mine the most out of the material. All you can do is doff your cap, then move on to the next thing.