Charade (1963)

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It’s easy to yearn for the days where they made stylish, amusing films like Charade which were equal parts charm, class, and wit all stirred together to perfection. Those were the days when two stars as beloved as Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn could carry a picture no questions asked because people would turn out to see them no matter the story. And it’s true, though they were never in another picture together, there’s a wonderful chemistry that builds between them and never ceases from the outset of this lithe thriller.

From their first exchange up until their last, it’s hard not to delight in their every interaction, every word, every smirk. There’s a consistent playful patter bubbling up that’s at times suggestive but never loses its sensibilities. There’s a constant twinkle in the eyes of our stars interrupted every now and again by brief moments of sheer terror. Hepburn playing her elegant self but perpetually frantic while Grant exudes his general charisma that sees him through peril as well as innumerable comic situations (ie. an awkward game of pass the orange as well as showers with his clothes on).

Of course, it hardly hurts a bit that Charade has a surprisingly tense plot that while a little flimsy in some areas still manages to have a plethora of twists, turns, and about-faces to come off generally befuddling like many of the most enjoyable thrillers out there.

It all begins with a body getting tossed from a passing train. Regina Lampert (Audrey Hepburn) is on a vacation on a snowy mountaintop away from her husband with a wistful sense that her marriage is done for. Little does she know how right she is. She returns to her residence in Paris only to find all her belongings gone and her husband dead. The police believe it has to do with a missing $250,000 that Lampert was purported to have absconded with during the war. Their guess is that one of his old platoon mates let him have it so they could get the payload for themselves. All of this is news to Regie who was painfully ignorant of her husband’s affairs. And now with it all dropped in her lap, she doesn’t quite know what to think.

The police inspector (Jacques Marin) on one side questioning her and the Federal Agent Hamilton Bartholomew (Walter Matthau) frightening her out of her mind. The only real bright spot is her newest acquaintance Peter Joshua (Grant) and she’s bent on chasing after him before the people chasing after her catch up. Because life, even a spy life, is better with a companion.

Forget the fact that this film has often been attributed to Hitchcock. This is Stanley Donen’s creation and if nothing else it exhibits his admiration for the Master as well as his adaptability taking his own skills as a comedic and romantic director and adding a touch of the thriller to the mix.

He makes it work very well and paired with the typically jazzy score of Henry Mancini, a continually entertaining script by Peter Stone, and generally immaculate color cinematography by Charles Lang, Donen can’t miss.  If it’s not the greatest film if only for the very fact that it doesn’t take itself all that seriously, Charade uses that very quality to its advantage with plentiful splashes of fun and romance.

Audrey Hepburn robed as per usual in iconic creations by Givenchy looks to play the huntress on the prowl. While on his own admission Cary Grant takes the passive role as the pleasant older gentlemen who nevertheless wears many hats and many names. Though Hepburn and Grant undoubtedly take center stage and rightfully so,  that’s not to discount quality character actors like Walter Matthau, George Kennedy, and James Coburn filling in as the deceased Charles Lampert’s old war comrades each carrying a bit of a vendetta.

The surprisingly tense conclusion sweeps through the Parisian streets, subway stations, colonnades, and finally an abandoned theater. But, above all, Charade does well to neutralize its more intense or even grisly moments (at least by 60s standards) with its persistent charm. The type of charm that make those films of old so endearing much like the actors who starred in them.

It’s as if in the twilight years of the studio system some of the greatest names coalesced to gift the world another gem for the road. There certainly were signs of change with wistful mentions of Gene Kelly’s early classic An American in Paris or a passing remark about stamps commemorating Princess Grace’s coronation (which took her away from a brilliant film career). At 59 Cary Grant was aging gracefully but still near the end of his career with only two more pictures to follow. And Audrey Hepburn herself would finish out the 1960s with several notable classics and then she would all but conclude her illustrious career for good.With Stanley Donen still with us, he truly acts as one of the last strands connecting this generation with those Golden Years of Hollywood.

However, the most significant reality is that this film came out in December of 1963, a mere month after John F. Kennedy was assassinated near the Book Depository in Dallas Texas. That singular event more than any other was emblematic of the change that would surge through society and the world at large. That is the world that Charade was born into.

So if you were to use the unforgivable cliche at this point that they “just don’t make movies like they used to,” you probably would be correct because that’s close to the truth. Films like Charade are all but gone and when you actually consider the joy of watching Hepburn and Grant together, it really is a terrible shame, though it simply seems a testament to the rolling tides of change.

Still, there’s something truly magical that occurs when they’re together. They were an altogether different breed of star. Maybe it’s the way they carry themselves, dress, or speak. Maybe it’s the way they look at each other. Maybe it’s their quips. Maybe it’s something else entirely. But they’re two of the greatest we’ll ever know for the simple fact that they were so beloved. They made us love them and as a result, we buy into this entire film. We bought into their charade and enjoyed every last minute of it.

4/5 Stars

10 Films to Watch if You Like Classic Bond

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North by Northwest (1959): It’s no surprise that Alfred Hitchcock was offered the chance to direct Dr. No because he had singlehandedly propelled the spy thriller into the public eye through such classic as The 39 Steps, Foreign Correspondent, and Notorious. It’s also no surprise that he turned down the chance because had essentially made the greatest spy thriller ever. There was no reason to attempt to make another. Cary Grant. Eva Marie Sainte. Bernard Hermann. Ernest Lehman. Mt. Rushmore. Cropdusters. Just a few of the things that make this film awesome. It’s a must for all Bond fans.

That Man from Rio (1964): So there’s no doubt that Philippe de Broca’s film was made in a world conscious of the James Bond phenomenon but it’s also a charming blend of Tintin-esque action serials and wild humor that’s anchored by the charming pair of Jean-Pierre Belmondo and Francoise Dorleac. Its mixture of lavish location shooting, fun-filled action, and consistent humor makes it a must for all Bond lovers.

Charade (1963): By now we’ve all heard that this picture from Stanley Donen was the best Hitchcock film that he never made. Sure, that’s probably true if you want to put any stock in such an assertion but beyond that, we have Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn starring opposite each other in a spy comedy romance. It sounds like an absolutely delightful proposition and it is. It’s funny as a rom-com but still exhibits enough intrigue to pass as a compelling thriller.

The Ipcress File (1965): Sir Michael Caine as British spy Harry Palmer should be enough to pull audiences into this franchise. But if not that then consider this. Although it was made by some of the minds behind Bond, this franchise was supposed to be its antithesis in its representation of the spy life. It’s the anti-Bond if you will. Funeral in Berlin and Billion Dollar Brain would follow in the subsequent years.

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965): However, if you want something completely different from Bond with a sense of stark realism matched with a cynical edge you probably couldn’t get closer to the mark than watching this thriller based off the work of John Le Carre. Richard Burton is as disillusioned as any spy in the history of the movies and you get the strange sense that he has the right to be. If you looking for another tonal shift in the realm of spy thrillers look to The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. It’s demanding but certainly worthwhile.

Casino Royale (1967): We’re about to enter the territory of less demanding fare and the epitome of that is this initial Casino Royale (please don’t dare confuse this installment with Daniel Craig’s. Please don’t). All you need to know is that Peter Sellers plays Evelyn Tremble (ie James Bond), Ursula Andress is Vesper Lynd (ie James Bond), Orson Welles is Le Chiffre, Woody Allen is Jimmy Bond…must I go on or do you get the idea? If you had any preconception that this was a Bond movie you were mistaken.

Our Man Flint (1967): James Coburn the tough guy from such classics as The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape landed his own headlining gig as a spy in his own right. See him in Charade (previously mentioned) and the continuing installment In Like Flint.

Murderers Row (1966): Dean Martin as super spy Matt Helm. Need I say more? Is it any surprise that he’s a dashing ladies man who also seems to like the high life and hitting the sauce. It grabs hold of the Bond phase like any good (or mediocre copycat) although it was based on a number of novels by Donald Hamilton. A number of sequels followed including The Silencers, The Ambushers and The Wrecking Crew.

Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997): Mike Myers as Austin Powers the most ludicrous, wacky, grooviest, and strangely perverse spy you’ve ever known. But his arch nemesis Dr. Evil is far worse. Pit them off against each other and you’re bound to have a stupid good time amid all the outrageous bits of parody. Oh yeah, check out The Spy Who Shagged Me and Austin Powers in Goldmember too. Groovy Baby!

Get Smart (2008): This is a public service announcement. No offense to Steve Carell or Anne Hathaway whatsoever, but please just go ahead and watch the TV show with the iconic duo of Don Adams and Barbara Feldon with Edward Platt. Mel Brooks and Buck Henry were comic geniuses and they knew a good fad when they saw one. Spies might come and go but “Shoe Phones” and “Cones of Silence” will never die. Would you believe? Because you should.

Bonus – Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) et al: It might not feel exactly like Bond and Indiana Jones is a big enough star in his own right but there’s no doubt that the special mixture of thrills, humor, and iconic status also falls on the mantle of Dr. Jones. Of course, it doesn’t hurt either that his father is played by none other than Sean Connery the guy who was in Marnie, The Hunt for Red October, and, yes, a few other movies.

This is only a few options so please don’t think you have a license to kill me for leaving something off. But hope you enjoyed this assortment of 10 classic flicks for every Bond lover.

Hard Times (1975)

Hard_Times_(1975_movie_poster)It’s hardly Charles Dickens, but still, Hard Times is a real tooth and claw street brawler.  We have Charles Bronson as our token taciturn drifter, tough and down on his luck during the Depression. James Coburn is Speed, a fast-talking promoter looking for a quick buck. Walter Hill’s film may not be pretty to look at, but boy is it a lot of fun! Everyone’s favorite supporting scene stealer Strother Martin makes an appearance as a sometime doctor who dropped out of med school. These three men are at the center of an evolving partnership that comes into being on the streets of New Orleans, that hopping town of jazz, juke joints, and bare-knuckle boxing. The latter is the most important for the men aforementioned because, with Speed as his manager and Poe as his ringside doc, Chaney looks to rule the ocean front with his grit and tenacity.

Bars, wharfs, cages, doesn’t matter. If you want him to fight he will, and he’ll win. Quickly any derisive jeers or chants of “old man” go to the wayside as Chaney is quick to pummel and beat back any man who is sent his way. But fighting isn’t all that important to him, it’s just a way to make a living. In fact, that really reflects his entire outlook on life. He has a gal pal (Jill Ireland) who he drops in on from time to time, but it’s nothing too serious, not for him.

He joins forces with Speed only when he’s good and ready. He’s not one to take orders or to allow others to make decisions for him. But it’s in the film’s climactic moments where he is forced into something that he could care less about. Speed’s in trouble with some local mobsters leaning on him. His only outlet is one last fight where Chaney will face off with some new blood in town brought in by the local businessman Chick Gandil.

Chaney is forced to put up all the money he has just to save Speed’s neck and he does it. He finishes the work too, only to walk away from that town in preparation for the next stage of his life as a man who’s never tied down or kept in one place for too long. He boards the northbound train with Speed and Poe grinning from ear to ear because they have never seen anything like him and probably never will again.

The Bronson and Coburn reunion is hardly The Magnificent Seven or The Great Escape, but it’s a trifle full with enough action to make it relatively enjoyable. After all, it’s two of the great action stars of the 1960s back together again so it’s bound to be at least watchable. That it is, and it does have its share of tense moments.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: The Magnificent Seven (1960)

themagnif1“Nobody throws me my own guns and says ride on. Nobody” ~ James Coburn as Britt

People always resonate with stories of valor, honor, and bravery. It doesn’t matter if it’s a war film, a tale of samurai, or a western. Thus, Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai rather seamlessly became The Magnificent Seven, one of the most reputed westerns of the 1960s.

In theory & practice, it has everything you want in a western from a stellar cast to thrilling gunfights matched by one of the most epic soundtracks ever coming out of the annals of cinema.

But although it’s script is not exactly taut, you can hardly accuse The Magnificent Seven of being superficial. Its characters and its narrative are too satisfying for such a claim. After all, who wouldn’t want to see such a company as Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Horst Bucholtz, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, Robert Vaughan, and Brad Dexter? You have “The King and I,” “The King of Cool,” and about every other figure you would want in a good shoot’em up. They were seven who fought like 700.

In not completely splitting with its samurai roots, this western deals in moral codes and issues of honor perhaps more closely than even many of the best known western. The main issue here is that this laconic and sleek gang is brought together to defend a small Mexican border town made up of farmers against a bandit and his band of marauders. What causes men such as these to take on such a dangerous and in many ways such a one-sided job? For some it’s money (because they have none), some want the excitement, and for others, it’s something different. But all that matters is they all go into this together – some of the deadliest guns prepared to duke it out.

themagnif3Into the valley road the seven rather like the light brigade, at first simply preparing to train up and prepare their little village of farmers to fight back against the brutal outlaw Calvera (Eli Wallach). But there’s something that happens over time. When you spend time in close proximity with people, eating their food and sharing their shelter, it’s hard not to build a bond — a connection that holds you there. At first, it seems of little consequence when the enemy gets beaten back, but everyone knows they will return with a vengeance.

Ultimately, the seven are betrayed and are given a clear choice. They can keep moving on or turn back the way they came. It’s just a small inconsequential town, but they cannot turn their back on it, even when they were betrayed. They grapple with what’s good, what’s right, and what’s rational, and then make their decision. It goes against all reason and yet into the valley road the seven together (eventually).

themagnif2And we get the final skirmish with guns blazing, bullets flying, and lives being put on the line. Here is a film where the final body count deeply matters. Not so much of the enemy, but of our heroes, because each one chisels out a little niche for themselves. Everyone has worth and importance even as they jockey for screen time and it pays off in the end. They fight with honor just as they die with honor. Perhaps it might seem futile, but not without significance. The little village is left in peace to live out their days in tranquility. Calvera’s final words echo in their ears: “You came back – for a place like this. Why? A man like you. Why?”

Elmer Bernstein’s score is masterclass. Majestic, grand, playfully prancing about, and at the same time eliciting a grin from any boy who has ever dreamed of the Wild West. Furthermore, there are so many characters to idolize, because this film made ensemble action films the style along with the likes of The Great Escape, The Professionals, and The Dirty Dozen to name a few. This has always been one of my father’s favorite film’s and I can completely understand why. It has gunfights, bad guys, and good guys, quips, and tricks. But at the most basic level, it’s a striking parable about moral codes, personal pride, and the sacrifice that goes along with such things.

4.5/5 Stars

The Great Escape (1963)

Based on true events, this film describes the heroic exploits of POWs in a German Stalag during World War II. With extreme heart and teamwork the men take upon the task of making a massive escape. Led by Richard Attenbourough, Steve McQueen, James Garner, and Charles Bronson to name a few, they begin their monumental task. Despite adversity, their plan slowly becomes reality and escape is imminent. When the time comes over 70 men get away in the night, escaping secretly across Germany. However, relief is quickly replaced by tragedy as many of the escapees are shot or captured. Through it all the Allies struggle courageously against the Nazis. By the end they may be a little battered but they certainly are not beaten. Besides a wonderful ensemble cast, this film has one of the most iconic themes and chase scenes of all time.

4.5/5 Stars

Charade (1963)

Starring the romantic pair of Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, with Walter Matthau, James Coburn, and George Kennedy, this film is considered the best “Hitchcock film” which the director did not make. While on vacation, Grant and Hepburn first meet briefly and then she returns to her home Paris. Hepburn goes there only to find out her husband, who she wanted to divorce, has been murdered. When meeting with a CIA man (Matthau), she learns that her husband and three buddies stole some money during a war but the three chums never got their shares. Upon meeting Grant again, he agrees to help Regina (Hepburn) and also says he is looking for the money. Through a series of events the three other men are all killed and everything seems to point to Grant. Hepburn runs for her life with Grant close behind and winds up meeting the CIA man. However, everything is not as it seems and after a shoot out Hepburn finally realizes the truth. Along with the thrills this movie has a nice score and a touch of playful comedy (including Grant’s many aliases including Peter Joshua, Alexander Dyle, Adam Canfield, etc.). Cary Grant was hesitant of playing opposite Hepburn since he was quite a bit older, but that is used nicely in the film as a source of even more comedy. Furthermore, Mancini’s score gives the film a 1960s spy vibe or I guess I should say agent… Hope you enjoy Stanley Donen‘s Charade.

4/5 Stars

The Magnificent Seven (1960)

544c6-magnificent_originalIn honor of my Dad’s birthday I wanted to review his favorite movie of all time.

Adapted as a western from Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, Yul Brynner is a hired gun who agrees to take a job from Mexican farmers protecting their village from bandits. Gradually, he enlists the help of old friends and new acquaintances who are all handy with a gun. Working with the village men, they are able to deter the bandits. However, the threat of the marauders returning has the villagers scared so they turn against their hired guns. In a fit of bravery, Brynner returns with the others fighting desperately to liberate the village. They are ultimately victorious, but not without causalities with four of the men dying. These men were the seven who fought like 700 and they did something seemingly ludicrous because it was the courageous thing to do. This great cast includes Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, Robert Vaughan, Horst Buckholz, Brad Dexter, and Eli Wallach. The score by Elmer Bernstein is one of the best. If you want to see a good western then look no further.

4.5/5 Stars