Charade (1963) A woman’s husband is killed, drawing her into a web of mysterious characters and intrigue. Director/Stanley Donen, Writer/Peter Stone, Cinematographer/Charles Lang, Music/Henry Mancini, Titles/Maurice Binder, Cast: Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn, James Coburn, Walter Matthau, George Kennedy.
Often called one of the best Hitchcock films that Hitchcock never made, Charade is a masterful mix of murder, spies, and romance. Bruce Eder describes the film as a unique thriller with a female lead amidst the male fantasy-dominated surge of spy thrillers in the early-to-mid 1960s.
The stars literally aligned to bring Peter Stone’s first screenplay, Charade, to the screen. The script was written with Cary Grant in mind, and Stone hoped to land Donen because he knew the director would give the story its essential Parisian flavor. After a brief snag in turn-around, the project came together to become the classic it is today. As Peter Stone and Stanley Donen mention in their commentary on the Criterion DVD, the cast and crew were able to blend mystery and suspense with humor -a mixture that many imitators failed at because they often let their films stray too far into exaggeration. Charade is a greatly satisfying film that succeeds, I believe because, beyond the style, plot twists, and witty dialog, are characters that evoke empathy by their sincerity to the emotional arc of the story. The dangers and the romantic chemistry feel real. Hepburn and Grant carry the range of the script perfectly. Writer Peter Stone remarks that old movie performances often seem like dated products of their time, but that the cast of Charade brought vulnerability that is timeless- a quality that adds to the film’s longevity.
Arabesque (1966) A university professor is asked to translate a cipher, drawing him into a web of international intrigue. Director/Stanley Donen, Writer/Peter Stone, Cinematographer/Christopher Challis, Music/Henry Mancini, Titles/Maurice Binder, Cast: Gregory Peck, Sophia Loren, Alan Badel.
Writer Peter Stone and director Stanley Donen teamed once again to create Arabesque. Hoping to capture lightning in a bottle twice, Arabesque brought together a similar alchemy of intrigue, style, humor, European locations, and stars. The film reunited some key artists that gave Charade its intoxicating allure. Donen and Stone were joined by composer Henry Mancini (The Pink Panther) and title designer Maurice Binder (James Bond series). Sophia Loren and Gregory Peck replaced Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant in the feature roles.
The film is highly visual. Like The Ipcress File, there is a clear effort to push the photography in interesting ways. To echo the plot/character twists and the overall theme of duplicity, many scenes are filmed as reflections- in water, windows, TV screens, on metal, in fish tanks, through chandeliers, and most often- in mirrors. When characters were not photographed in reflection, they were often shot in frames within frames. Though some viewers may feel the approach is too heavy-handed, the photographer in me loved it. Christopher Challis (A Dandy in Aspic, Kaleidoscope, A Shot in the Dark) won the BAFTA award for Best Cinematography.
Another element to the film’s highly stylized look is the costume design by Christian Dior. Sophia Loren is absolutely ravishing, and one can understand why Peter Sellers (and generations of men around the world) had a crush on her! She plays a wonderful, albeit cartoony, woman of mystery, who generates much of the plot twists as her allegiances flip again and again, much as Cary Grant’s character did in Charade.
The baddie Beshraavi, played by Alan Badel, is equally cartoony (and almost a Peter Sellers homage with his thick-framed glasses and accent). Peter Stone loved to give his characters quirks. One of the very fun elements of Arabesque is Beshraavi’s erotic relationship with Loren as a foot fetishist- played out wonderfully in a scene where he presents her with a new collection of shoes to try on. Donen wisely ran these scenes fairly straight, giving the film playful nods to sexuality and style without falling into parody or slapstick.
Where the film fails to live up to Charade is, surprisingly, with its stars and with its script. Except for one memorable scene inside the zoo and aquarium, there is little sense of true danger or suspense in the story. Loren and Peck run through a number of well-choreographed and stylish escapes- including one on horseback from machine gun-toting baddies in a red helicopter! But there is ultimately not enough peril, or romantic chemistry, to sustain empathy from the viewer.
Stone had worked with Gregory Peck in Mirage, but it is clear that Cary Grant’s rhythm was stuck in the writer’s ear during Arabesque. Indeed, it appears that the role was meant for Grant. I’ve read that Gregory Peck would smile when he found the humor awkward and would say to the director, “Remember, I’m no Cary Grant.” Unfortunately, Peck could not deliver his scenes with the kind of sincerity, wit, or vulnerability that I think would have elevated the film greatly. Peck’s performance seems forced at times. Although the film never strays as far as exaggeration, Arabesque does lean toward style over substance. That said, however, I really enjoyed the film for its photography, costumes, the playful sexuality between Loren and Badel- for its Spy Vibe!
Mirage (1965) A man with amnesia struggles to learn his identity and to escape a web of murder and intrigue. Director/Edward Dmytryk, Writer/Peter Stone, Cinematographer/Joseph MacDonald, Music/Quincy Jones, Cast: Gregory Peck, Diane Baker, Walter Matthau, George Kennedy.
Peter Stone’s Mirage, released one year before Arabesque, played often on NYC area stations when I was growing up in the 70s. It's a much less stylish film, but it has a memorable tone of mystery. In the film Peck has amnesia and suffers from a reoccurring flashback of a man falling from a window in a high-rise office building. Like Charade and Arabesque, the dialog is still fairly snappy, but Peck handles the more serious tone of the film well. In one scene, Peck hires Walter Matthau as a private detective. It’s Mattau’s first case (he looks to be a bargain basement choice as a gumshoe), and the two share a fun moment of dialog that celebrates his inadequacies and the spy craze of the times:
Peck: Wouldn’t it be hilarious if you did know what you’re doing?
Matthau: Yeah. Then how come I don’t know what to do next?
Peck: Well, pretend you’re James Bond. He always knows.
Matthau: Hey, maybe we ought to get something to eat. I’m dying for a peanut butter sandwich.
Peck: Forget James Bond.
Peter Stone and Gregory Peck's thrillers, Arabesque and Mirage -both long overdue for DVD release- were included in the Gregory Peck boxset (released fall/2008). See the Spy Vibe website to hear Nicola Conte's "Arabesque."