Sunday, December 1, 2013

When we play our Charade

Charade (Donen, 1963) celebrates its 50th Anniversary this week, and over the years, it has earned a reputation, oft-repeated, as “the best Hitchcock film Hitchcock never made.”  Now, I love Charade, and not just because it’s the best postage stamp film ever.  It’s an irresistibly entertaining comedy-thriller, with wonderful Paris locations, great lines of dialogue, and a fizzy, playful tone, all fueled by incredible chemistry between Cary Grant & Audrey Hepburn (their only film together). 

But I’ve always hated that Hitchcock meme because it shows a fundamental failure to understand what the great Sir Alfred was all about.  For while Charade is enormous fun, it really isn’t about anything except thrills and laughs and clever reversals.  And while Hitch certainly employed all those things, he was far more reflective, and far more subversive.  His is the cinema of sex and psychology, of paranoia and pursuit, of fever dreams and salient nightmares.  His humor was darker, his action laced with malevolence.  He showed a real fear of institutions and a suspicion of normalcy, with his characters regularly haunted and hounded out of their routines.

Hitch lived with the moniker “The Master of Suspense”, which often served as a back-handed compliment, since it appreciated his technical craft while also relegating him to a genre hack, a niche and unserious talent.  He certainly made worse films than Charade, but I’m hard-pressed to think of many that were as lightweight.  Charade is a delicious soufflé.  But Hitch was filet mignon.  So “the best Hitchcock film Hitchcock never made” should reflect his artistry and pathology, not just his deceptive smoke & mirrors.  Something by Chabrol, perhaps.  Or Polanski or Suzuki.

But we’re here about stamps, and the statute of limitations on spoilers is why I can call this marvelous confection the greatest postage stamp movie in history—because the big twist of the film is the fact that postage stamps play an important role at all.  Throughout the film, the key characters, good and bad, are looking for a missing $250,000 and the only clues to its whereabouts are the contents of a travel bag, which are itemized several times in the film

Police inspector: “One wallet, containing four thousand francs; one agenda...; one ticket of passage to South America; one letter, stamped but unsealed...; one key, to your apartment; one comb; one fountain pen; one toothbrush; one tin of tooth powder.  That is all.”
Of course, we eventually learn that the envelope actually contains three incredibly rare and valuable stamps, a discreet and portable way to move the fortune.  I won’t discuss the specifics around the stamps in question (which were conceived especially for the movie), primarily because I couldn’t do it any better than this detailed and illuminating blog post about philatelic values and the real-life counterparts to this narrative McGuffin.  Definitely check it out.
But the movie is very clever about disguising what is ultimately a preposterous resolution.  Early in the film, our damsel in distress Reggie (Hepburn) has the following chat with Jean-Louis, the young son of her friend Sylvie:
JL: When you get your divorce, are you going back to America?
R: Well, don’t you want me to stay?
JL: Yes, of course, but if you went back and then wrote me a letter...
R: ...You could have the stamps!  I’ll get you some here, ok?
This is before she learns her husband is dead or about the money and the bag, and it’s a throwaway exchange but a nice way to seed the idea of stamps being important later on when Jean-Louis goes to the stamp mart (which is obliquely mentioned in the agenda).
Similarly, the film is coy about how it shows the envelope, mixing it in among the other assorted items and, when more closely inventoried by Reggie and her mysterious ally (Cary Grant), dismissed quickly out of hand.  More emphasis is placed on the contents of the envelope, an innocuous letter to her, than the envelope itself—a sly little head fake by screenwriter Peter Stone.   We only get two brief looks at the stamps before the big reveal, one when baddies James Coburn & Ned Glass examine the bag's contents, and another when Audrey & Cary revisit the clues.

"Everybody and his Aunt Lillian’s been through that bag, including me...I’ve been into it at least once a day.  Somebody would have seen it."
"It’s there, Reggie.  We’re looking at it right now.  Something on that bed is worth a quarter of a million dollars."
Of course, it defies credulity that the French police, a member of the US treasury department, and 3 criminals (not to mention our heroine) would not notice that something was unusual about 3 stamps on a single envelope for a domestic mailing, or that none of the stamps are French and all are from different countries!  But that’s the genius of a McGuffin, which is simply a vehicle to keep the plot moving.  And one of the beauties of Charade is that it has terrific pacing while also allowing lots of room to let the romance breathe.  It’s also a very funny movie without ever losing its sense of genuine menace, and Cary’s allegiances are always jumping back and forth (hero or villain?) believably.  And of course, the stamps are a great 11th-hour twist, but not the only one.

So approaching the climax, the final entry in her husband’s agenda brings Cary & Audrey to the Jardin des Champs Elysees.  They don’t know what they’re looking for so they split up and Cary tails the last remaining heavy, Tex (Coburn) as he wanders among a cluster of vending stalls.  Suddenly, both he and Tex have a wordless epiphany, punctuated by lots of quick close-ups of stamps.  

As they both return to grab the stamps from the travel bag, we return to Audrey still at the garden, who runs into Sylvie.
R: Sylvie! What are you doing here?
S: I’m waiting for Jean-Louis. 
R: Oh, what’s he up to?
S: He was so excited when he got the stamps you gave him this morning.  He said he’d never seen any like them.
R: I’m glad.  What’s all this?
S: The stamp market.  It’s there every Thursday afternoon.  That’s where Jean-Louis trades his stamps.
R: Good Lord, where is he?
S: What’s the matter, Cherie?
R: The stamps!  They’re worth a fortune!
Having gone to quite a number of philatelic conventions in my time, all the production design and displays in this sequence are very convincing, so I suspect the stamp mart is a real thing (though one I've never sought out in the 3 times I've traveled to Paris).

 When they finally find Jean-Louis, it’s too late:

R: (taking a bag of stamps from him): What’s this?
JL: A man gave me all those for only three.
The vendor has closed his stall, so they find him in what appears to be his home (with philatelic items scattered everywhere)

Stamp Vendor: I was expecting you.  I know you would come.  Look at them, madame.  Have you ever in your entire life seen anything so beautiful?
Reggie: I’m sorry, I don’t know anything about stamps.
SV: I know them as one knows his own face, though I had never seen them.  This one, a Swedish four shilling called Da Gula Fyraskillingen, printed in 1854.
R: What is it worth?
SV: Oh, the money is unimportant. 
R: I’m afraid it’s very important.
SV: Well, in your money, perhaps $85,000.
R: And the blue one?
SV: Oh, it’s called the Hawaiian Blue.  In 1894, the owner was murdered by a rival collector who was obsessed to own it.
R: And what is its value today?
SV: $65,000.

SV: Ah, the best for last.  Le chef d’oeuvre de la collection.  The masterpiece.  The most valuable stamp in the world.  It’s called the Gazette Maldave.  It was printed by hand on colored paper and marked with the initials of the printer.  Today, it has a value of $100,000.  I’m not a thief, madame.  I knew there was some mistake.
R:  You gave the boy a great many stamps in return.  Are they for sale now?
SV: Let me see, 350 European, 200 Asian, 175 American, 100 African and 12 Princess Grace commemorative.  Which comes to 10 Francs.  And don’t forget these. (hands her the stamps from the envelope)
R: Thank you.  I’m sorry.
SV: Oh, no.  For a few minutes they were mine.  That is enough.

I’ve always loved this exchange for a number of reasons.  It shows a stamp enthusiast who is passionate and learned, but also has enormous integrity.  It views stamp collecting as a portal into history, intrigue, and craftsmanship.  And the cheap bag of stamps is a very familiar fixture at stamp stores, showing that it’s a hobby that’s accessible to even the most modest amateur and not just a pastime for the effete and elite.  

One other thing about the value of the stamps (beyond what the link above breaks down): Nothing is said about how sticking the stamps on the envelope potentially devalued them.  $250K may be the cumulative sales price, but would the US be able to recoup the money now that the stamps are affixed to something?  Or will some intern have to soak the envelope in water to slide the stamps off and allow them to carefully dry separately again?

Some other details: The stamp vendor mentions a Princess Grace commemorative stamp, and in the stamp montage, you can actually see one (from Monaco).  Other stamps on display include pictures of Lincoln & FDR, Charles De Gaulle & Louis XIV, and the 1960 Winter Olympics (in Squaw Valley, CA).  No US stamps are depicted, but there are ones from France, the Congo, Madagascar, French West Africa and French Equatorial Africa.  Incredibly, on display is even one stamp I’ve used in my own hobbying, an Eiffel Tower stamp from 1939, which I used to supplement this one-sheet for The Lavender Hill Mob (which is also one of Audrey Hepburn’s earliest film appearances).

Another thing I love about Charade is that it’s a film that loves the City of Lights without indulging in the stereotypical Paris porn like so many American movies do (Exhibit A: Donen & Hepburn’s previous collaboration, the musical Funny Face).  There's some wonderful Parisian street scenes and plenty of atmosphere without relying on the cliche locations.  Even when it does feature a tourist spot like Notre Dame (also visible in that stamp screen shot), it’s as a self-referential joke.

Donen is one of my favorite directors and has always had a wonderful eye for movement in his legendary musicals, and that skillset serves him well here, in a thrilling rooftop fight between Cary and a hook-handed George Kennedy, and also in the climax under the stage of the Comédie-Française, a masterclass sequence of using sound and movement to enhance suspense.  All before that final surprise happy ending, and Cary's last line of the film: "Well, before we start that, may I have the stamps?"

Donen doesn’t have a stamp (yet), but Cary & Audrey both do.  They are Scott # 3692 and 3786 respectively.  The flavorful score is by Henry Mancini, whose stamp is Scott # 3839 (Charade is even mentioned on the stamp itself).  All 3 postmarks are on the reverse side of my one-sheet postcard that opened this article.  The Hitchcock stamp from the Legends of Hollywood series Is # 3226 and the one from the Golden Age of Television is # 4414o .  Obi-Wan Kenobi is Scott # 4143i from the Star Wars issue.

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