Hepburn and Matthau (BIG SPOILERS)
I just had the pleasure of watching "Charade" for the first time in years, on DVD, with commentary by its director(Stanley Donen) and its writer(Peter Stone) in which the commentary is almost as fun as the movie. The two men "mock bicker" when not complimenting each other. Example:
Stone: This is my favorite scene in the picture. (Early; the funeral of Hepburn's husband.)
Donen: Good! You can watch it and go home.
Anyway, its worth a few posts, I think and this one's about the two scenes between Audrey Hepburn and Walter Matthau.
The claim to fame of "Charade" was Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, together for the first time. And in a romantic comedy thriller, yet(them's the best kind.) And Grant and Hepburn are a wonder to behold, with their cerebral yet oh-so-sexy romance anchoring a movie with plenty of murders and scene-stealing supporting actors.
Chief among which: Walter Matthau.
Donen said he saw Matthau's fine comic-dramatic performance in the great "Lonely are the Brave" a Universal Picture of 1962, and sought him to play Hamilton Bartholomew, who seems, in his two scenes with Audrey Hepburn, to be playing a fairly necessary movie role: "Exposition and comic relief."
Matthau and Hepburn get two meaty expository scenes, the first in Matthau's office at the American Embassy in Paris, the second toodling around the Paris Market section in the dead of night. In both scenes, Matthau gives Hepburn the very, very, very extensive backstory of who her murdered husband really was, who the three WWII vet thugs are who want her money, and how much money she has -- somewhere ("Look for it, Mrs. Lambert," warns Matthau, "look for it as hard as you can!)
Walter Matthau was the support to Grant and Hepburn in "Charade," but watching his first scene with Hepburn especially, I felt: Matthau is already a star here. He's deferring to a bigger established star(Hepburn), but Hepburn is graciously sharing the screen with Matthau, treating him as an equal and establishing a chemistry of line reading that suggests -- to me at least, that Young Pro Hepburn knew this Matthau guy was going places.
Indeed, in certain ways, Walter Matthau in "Charade" is actually more dynamic and funny than the star, Cary Grant. No doubt Grant is the icon here, but Grant did "Charade" near the end of his illustrious career, and he almost seems just a trifle bored in this film...with one foot out the door to the self-imposed retiredment that was only two films away.
Grant is great in "Charade" and fantastic playing with Hepburn(their polished British-plus-something-else accents sound great together), but Grant is comfortable in the film, low-key, well in confidence of his powers.
Walter Matthau is trying to prove he COULD be a star. In his first scene with Hepburn, Matthau alternates a certain American bureaucratic toughness with a kind of absent-minded light bumbler aspect. He literally changes from super-competent to rather embarrassing on a moment's notice.
Or a moment's facial movement. Walter Matthau -- like Jack Nicholson -- was one of those actors with 1,001 facial muscle and he could contort his face -- his eyebrows, his eyes, his mouth -- in a millisecond from one expression to another, usually(as here) to great comic effect.
Matthau offers Hepburn little sandwiches ("Liverwurst, liverwurst, chicken, and liverwurst") and chews as he spews exposition. Stanley Donen says that Matthau ate about 40 of those sandwiches for this scene's many takes, saying to Donen "Can I eat the sandwiches? I eat funny." And he does, talking through his chews.
Matthau also proves his comic timing here as he effortless "pops" a cork in the middle of this sentence:
"I am am running a department of overworked men with --- POP! -- underallocated funds."
And there is the great moment when Matthau stops his briefing to pull a photo of his kids off the desk: "and little Ham, Jr." This is a great diversionary tactic. Those aren't really Matthau's kids. That isn't really Matthau's desk. He's "stolen" this empty office to set up his scheme and to trick Hepburn(and the audience!)
Matthau early on in the office scene(filmed in a set built in a garage at the snowy ski resort that opens the movie!) stands by a mirror to try to wipe a spot off his tie. His face is reflected in the mirror and it is an old Hitchocck trick...a "visual clue" that this man is our VILLAIN. But we won't find out for a long long time. Right now, he's funny.
Donen and Stone on the commentary look at Hepburn in close-up coming into the office scene:
Then Matthau comes in.
Together: Not so beautiful! (Then Donen backtracks) Oh, that's not nice. Honestly, he's cute.
And Walter Matthau IS cute. No Cary Grant looks here(he had to become a star to get better hairstyles and photography), but he's rather endearing in his fumblings and very, very precise in his speech. Meanwhile, Audrey Hepburn, who I remembered as rather spindly and elfin, actually has a gorgeous face in this film, gorgeously made up and angled and shot. She is quite beautiful as she talks to Matthau, and it can't help but give a "charge" to the scene.
Donen and Stone point out that "Charade" was meant to put a woman in the center of a thriller and being chased by everybody, rather an inversion of "North by Northwest." Here, Cary Grant is sometimes(but not often) off-screen, and his status(good? bad? and who IS he?) off-kilter. Audrey carries more scenes, and in this American Embassy office scene, Audrey is the lead but Walter is her equal partner.
For the later, shorter scene in which Matthau further briefs Hepburn on the case over coffee, cigarettes and French Onion soup in the French Market, we get this moment when Hepburn misstates the phrase "CIA":
(Matthau and Hepburn face each other in intimate profile):
Hepburn: What does this have to do with the CIO?
Matthau: (Silence. More silence. Face contorting in light disgust. More silence, then:) CIA.
This moment is a master class in timing, with Matthau waiting a LONG time to pay off a short joke...and Hepburn helping him by waiting out the silence.
Then comes the moment when Hepburn discards the cigarette Matthau just gave her, starts smoking again and he stops his briefing in disgust:
Matthau: Why did you start another? That one was fine.
Hepburn says something about the plot, but Matthau isn't done yet:
Matthau: Do you know how much those things COST?
There is no way that Walter Matthau and Audrey Hepburn are meant to be romantic partners in "Charade," but they ARE acting partners in their two terrific scenes together(before the one at the end where Matthau is trying to kill her, terrific in a different way), and not only was it a pleasure to watch them, it was just a bit of a let-down(this time) to shift over to Cary Grant being so quiet and cool. But not THAT much of a let-down. Cary comes through time and time again with the great lines, the great look, the sudden action chops(for fights and running and such.)
Still, Walter Matthau does his part. Tons of exposition. Check. Comic relief. Check. And reasonably menacing at the end at the revealed mass murderer(though Matthau warned Donen to cut down on shots of him running: "I run funny, like a duck."
In "Charade," Cary Grant is starting his farewell tour, Audrey Hepburn is cementing her sixties superstardom(Breakfast at Tiffany's behind her, My Fair Lady and Wait Until Dark ahead)...and Walter Matthau is letting us know: watch this guy.