“Heroin, Peppermint-Flavored Heroin”

CHARADE (1963; director Stanley Donen)

A romantic comedy that happens to also have brutal, violent murders in it. Sounds like perfect holiday season comfort food viewing to me.

With these amazing players and director Stanley Donen, there needs to be a major fuck-up somewhere for this to turn out bad—and there is no major fuck-up. I’m not sure if every puzzle piece in the plot fits together, but I can say that I don’t care. There’s too much sparkling dialogue here for one dwell on silly things like that.

The story: Audrey Hepburn is an American widow in Paris who had no idea about her dead husband’s criminal double-life and is now pursued by a gang of killers whom he cheated out of their cut of a stolen $250,000. Now, she’s just got to survive, figure out where the money is and keep the romance between her and Cary Grant believable. Plenty of twists and turns follow that only a real goon would spoil.

Many writers pile on Hitchcock comparisons here and I mostly disagree. Yes, it’s got the crime and suspense angle. It’s also got great surprise reveals in the plot. And it’s got Cary Grant. Still, the breezy rhythm is pure Donen. He handles the crime story with real snap, but it’s the romance that matters most. Even when all seems lost, Donen keeps it cute, not unlike in his great musicals. People wisecracking at each other is more important than people killing each other. Hitchcock’s danger and perversity are essential ingredients in his work and this film substitutes that with skillful sugar.

Unless the twenty-five year age difference between Hepburn and Grant bothers you. To the film’s credit, it jokes constantly about that. Also, Hepburn in the 1950s and 60s was constantly being swept off her feet by men twenty-five to thirty years older (some of her previous romantic leads include Gary Cooper, Humphrey Bogart and Fred Astaire). Her dalliance with Grant here is no more questionable than any of those. If the charming performances and fluid direction grip you, none of it matters.

About the only person who did a bad job on this film is whoever forgot to put a copyright notice anywhere on it. And you know what that means: It lives in the land of Public Domain, right next to His Girl FridayMy Man GodfreyThe Killer Shrews and Night of the Living Dead. So, if you grew up like me watching classic movies on late night television, this is one of those films that was in constant circulation on every UHF station, classing up those murky signals with its continental whiff.

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