Charade (1963)

True confession: I’ve seen some dogs with Cary Grant, but I never saw Charade. Maybe I was saving it for this past weekend, to cheer me up while I recovered from my second COVID booster. A little jaunt to Paris with the lovely Audrey Hepburn modeling a succession of elegant coat dresses and pillbox hats, and those oversized sunglasses that helped define the Holly Golightly look (along with the little black dress), capped off by the mature Cary in a playful mood, turned out to be just the ticket.

I settled down on the sofa with a cup of tea and was instantly drawn in, what with the jazzy, syncopated Henri Mancini score playing behind the titles designed by the great Maurice Binder, of James Bond fame. But then I got distracted. Walter Mathau’s, James Coburn’s and George Kennedy’s names spun by. I didn’t know those guys were in Charade!

Kennedy had only recently left the service, having enlisted in 1943, served under Patton in the infantry, earned two Bronze Stars in the Battle of the Bulge, then up and reenlisted when the war ended.Herman Scobie,” a ruthless guy with a short fuse who had a hook instead of a right hand was an early role for him. 1967 would be his big year: The Dirty Dozen and Cool Hand Luke both came out. He won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his performance as “Dragline” in the latter. (Little-know others in that movie, since we’re playing the game: Dennis Hopper as “Babalugats,” Wayne Rogers as “Gambler”, Harry Dean Stanton as “Tramp”).

Mathau seemed to be in a bad-guy phase, movie-wise. He used a whip on Burt Lancaster in The Kentuckian (1955) and got beaten up by Elvis Presley in King Creole (1958). Knowing him as Oscar Madison, though, I wouldn’t have believed he was a fake spy—I mean agent—were it not for the suspicious mustache. He had yet to grow into a loveable curmudgeon.

Coburn was close to the peak of his career, coming off The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Great Escape (1963) when he made Charade. But for a bad decision, he could have kept riding that wave; Sergio Leone wanted him for Fistful of Dollars, but Coburn asked for too much money and the role went to a lesser-known actor, Clint Eastwood.

But who’s that balding little guy with him? The name Ned Glass meant nothing to me, but “Leopold W. Gideon” sure looked familiar. Turns out he was a character actor who played in a number of shows and movies I watched growing up, including Get Smart, Hogan’s Heroes, The Monkees and Julia (he was nominated for an Emmy for one episode of that show). His big breakthrough came with West Side Story (1961), where he played “Doc.” Before that, he played a series of uncredited parts in movies with titles like I’m from Missouri (1939), Callaway went Thataway (1951) and Stop, You’re Killing Me (1952). North by Northwest (1959) where he played the uncredited role of the ticket collector, broke that streak.

Grant and Hepburn were entertaining enough, I enjoyed the costumes and the scenery, but it’s the minor characters who kept me watching.

A Foreign Affair (1948)

Satire was always Billy Wilder’s favorite weapon, from his first American hit—he wrote the screenplay for Ninotchka (“Garbo laughs!”)—to Some Like it Hot and The Apartment. Even his darker pictures are interspersed with humor. Who can forget the chimpanzee’s funeral, complete with Erich von Stroheim in white gloves playing “Toccata and Fugue in D-Minor” on the organ, at the beginning of Sunset Boulevard?

Set in postwar Berlin and hyped as a comedy (“It would make a cigar store Indian laugh…”), A Foreign Affair is full of lighthearted touches. A pair of enlisted men cruising the streets on a tandem bicycle, armed with chocolate, posterlooking for fräuleins, prim Iowa congresswoman Jean Arthur attempting to ward off her would-be seducer’s (John Lund) advances by opening one file cabinet drawer after another and, when finally cornered for a kiss, reciting “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” in a valiant effort to quell her own passion.

But there’s Marlene Dietrich, sultry as ever, performing in the Lorelei Club—a postwar version of the seedy nightclub where the German actress was introduced to us in The Blue Angel (1930). “Falling in Love Again,” the melancholy song composed for her in that film by Friedrich Hollaender, feels positively upbeat when compared to the numbers Hollaender composed for this one.

They had a touch of paradise, a spell you can’t explain. For in this crazy paradise, you are in love with Pain. — “Illusions”

We’ve already gotten an aerial viewmore ruins of the bombed-out German capital from the congresswoman’s plane, and seen various characters picking theie way through the rubble at night. Still, we’re unprepared for the bitterness that undercuts the jaunty tune of “In the Ruins of Berlin” or the sado-masochistic kick of “Illusions.”

Wilder, an Austrian Jewish emigré whose family had been murdered by the Nazis, had no reason to sympathize with the plight of ordinary Germans struggling to survive amid the devastation, and yet despite the laughter, A Foreign Affair leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. ‘What do you think it was like to be a woman in this town when the Russians swept in?” Dietrich’s character asks the congresswoman. “I kept going. It was living hell. And then I found a man, and through that man, a roof, and a job, and food and – and I’m not going to lose him.”

Not surprisingly, the film was withdrawn from circulation, its “rotten taste” denounced on the floor of the House of Representatives. “Berlin’s trials and tribulations are not the stuff of cheap comedy, and rubble makes lousy custard pies.” But as Steven Bach tells us in his biography of Dietrich, the actress was featured on the cover of Life and was  generally seen as having stolen the show.

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The Lavender Hill Mob (1951)

What a sweet comedy.

Alec Guinness plays a self-effacing clerk, Henry Holland, who oversees the manufacturing of gold ingots for a London bank. Fastidious to a fault, unambitious, he seems destined to remain in his underpaid position. We see him coming home at night to the boardinghouse where he rents a room, reading crime stories to an elderly spinster in the drawing room while she knits. But then a new lodger arrives, a rather flamboyant character, Alfred Pendlebury (Stanley Holloway): an artist who manufactures cheap souvenirs for the tourist trade.

Jot it down as a picture that you will find it best to see when your mood is mellow and your sense of righteousness is slightly askew. For here again is a frolic that, like “Kind Hearts and Coronets,” indulges a serene and casual tolerance for undisguised lawlessness in man.

Bosley Crowther in his New York Times review.

The chumminess between Holloway and Guinness as they plot to steal a truckload of gold from Holland’s employer and melt it down at Pendlebury’s foundry to produce miniature Eiffel Towers for export to Paris brought to mind the affectionate scheming of Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder in The Producers. The humor is gentler here, but there’s a similar zaniness to the plot, and the caper ends in much the same way.

The Lavender Hill Mob was shot on location in postwar London, and you can still see the damage. Rationing was still in effect in 1951, and the smog hung heavy over the city. Escapist romps like this one were a specialty of Ealing Studios. The humor is not as black as Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), but the charm is impossible to resist.

Destry Rides Again (1939)

Destry Rides Again doesn’t take itself too seriously. Destry posterThat’s got a lot to do with the director, George Marshall, who went from making traditional Westerns during the Silent era to making comedies with Laurel and Hardy (among others) in the 1930s. Here he assembles a quirky cast, actors you wouldn’t expect to see in the same picture.

Jimmy Stewart plays himself, as always: sweet, uncomplicated, as decent as they come. You’d expect Marlene Dietrich to eat him for breakfast. The character she plays, Frenchy (those naughty Frenchwomen, even one with a German accent!), chews up the little Russian (Mischa Auer) in the first ten minutes of the film. He’s highly susceptible to her charms, and she convinces him to gamble away his pants, just for yuks. His wife is not too pleased about it, when he comes home.

Lily Belle : Hey you! Give me those pants. And from now on, leave my husband alone.

Frenchy : I don’t want your husband, Mrs. Callahan – all I want is his money. . . and his pants.

Lily Belle : And how’d you get ’em? By making eyes at him while you cheated, you gilded lily!

Frenchy : But Mrs. Callahan, you know he would rather be cheated by me than married to you.

Fresh from playing a Russian ballet master opposite Jimmy Stewart in You Can’t Take it With You (1938), Auer delivers a delightful performance here. What’s a Russian doing in the old West, alongside a “French” dance hall chanteuse? Who cares! auer stewart dietrichMarshall makes this ensemble piece sparkle. I like Jimmy Stewart’s folksy sheriff’s deputy better than the congressman he went on to play that same year in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. He’s less uptight, succumbing to Frenchy, surprising himself, and you like him better for it. Supposedly the two stars had a brief romance on the set. Nobody could resist Dietrich.

Marshall directed a remake with Audie Murphy in the title role in 1954. Skip it and watch one of the eleven episodes of “I Love Lucy” he directed instead.

Return of the Pink Panther

If you’re only going to watch one Pink Panther movie, this is the one I’d recommend. You get more of Peter Sellers than in the original installment, Chief Inspector Dreyfus’s tics and twitches are at just the right calibration, and Cato has really hit his stride.

There’s the usual slapstick, with perhaps a tad too many pairs of pants getting ripped, but the bit with the lightbulb popping up in the Swiss hotel room, and the scene where Clouseau and the bellboy are hiding in the sauna are nicely done. You also get Clouseau saying “minkey,” “phoehn,” and “rheume.”

But the best part’s the costumes. Peter Sellers’s Englishman’s parody of a Frenchman was never better than the telephone repairman, complete with goatee and espadrilles in his ticky tacky truck. The bumbling cleaner who vacuums up a parrot: we see it coming quite a ways off. It’s still hilarious.Lounge Lizard 2 And nothing tops the swinger putting the make on the suspect’s wife in the hotel bar.

Christopher Plummer doesn’t have much to do as the presumed jewel thief. He’s not as suave as David Niven, who played Sir Charles Lytton the first time around. There are a few nice touches in the scenes he’s in, like having  the theme from Casablanca playing on the piano when he arrives in the fancy hotel in Lugash (the scene was filmed in Morocco) and giving him characters reminiscent of Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet to play against when he is there.

Oh, and you get the pink panther animation over the titles, along with the Henry Mancini score. What’s not to like?


For a Cary Grant fan like myself, the prospect of watching him and Katharine Hepburn together was not to be missed this Memorial Day weekend.  “Holiday” was made in 1938, the same year as the pair’s much better known romantic comedy, “Bringing Up Baby.” This one’s a romantic comedy too, but it’s got an edge. A sad undercurrent that lends the film depth.

Hepburn plays Linda Seton, the older sister of the woman Grant’s character (Johnny) loves. The Setons are a wealthy family with the usual skeletons in the closet. In this case, it’s a younger brother with a drinking problem. Ned Seton has given up his love of music to go into business and his quiet self-destructiveness broke my heart.

It’s New Year’s Eve, and Linda has just realized that she’s in love with Johnny.katharine-hepburn-cary-grant-holiday-black-gown-2 She’s too high-principled to steal him away from her sister — nobody does high-principled better than Hepburn — even though we can see that she’s just his type.

So Linda asks Ned to pour her a glass of champagne.

“What’s it like, to get drunk Ned?”

He considers this seriously. “How drunk?”

“Good and drunk.”


“How is it?” Linda persists.

“Well…” He pauses to refill his glass. “To begin with it brings you to life.”

“Does it?” she asks, brightening to the idea.

“And after awhile you begin to know all about it. You feel… important.”

“That must be good!”

“Yes.” He beckons her closer. “And then pretty soon the game starts.”

“What game?”

“A swell game. A terribly exciting game. You see, you think clear as crystal but every move, every sentence is a problem. It gets pretty interesting.”

Linda’s face falls as understanding dawns. “You get beaten then, don’t you?”

“Sure, but that’s good too. Then you don’t mind anything. Not anything at all. Then you sleep.”

“How long can you keep it up?”

“A long while. As long as you can last.”

“Oh, Ned. That’s awful.”

“Think so? Other things are worse”.

“Where do you end up?

“Where does everybody end up?” He says this matter-of-factly. “You die.  That’s alright too.”

Shades of the bitter disillusionment of “Dinner at Eight,” which George Cukor also directed from a stage play. The romance is lovely, right up there with “The Philadelphia Story” (another Cukor gem). But the dialogue lends this film a darker tone.

Many thanks to E. H. for recommending it to me.

The Witness (A tanú)

Czeslaw Milosz, the Polish poet and Cold War dissident, explored the writer’s dilemma under Stalinism in The Captive Mind.

In the field of literature [socialist realism] forbids what has in every age been the writer’s essential task — to look at the world from his own independent viewpoint, to tell the truth as he sees it, and so to keep watch and ward in the interest of society as a whole.

Telling the truth could land you in jail if you were an Eastern European artist in the 1950s. Many compromised with the regime, betraying their ideals, along with their friends and associates. Worse still, acting the part of a loyal servant of the regime became natural. As Milosz warned, “After long acquaintance with his role, a man grows into it so closely that he can no longer differentiate his true self from the self he simulates, so that even the most intimate of individuals speak to each other in Party slogans.”

Honesty was impossible if you wished to survive. Your vision, the meaning you found in the world, could only be conveyed if it conformed to the party line. But in Péter Bacsó’s brilliant satire, The Witness, released in 1969 but banned in Hungary for ten years, the truth surfaces through black humor.

Kallai Ferenc plays a poor schlemiel, József Pelikán, a dike keeper  who is promoted by the Communist authorities into a series of positions for which he is totally unqualified. 090318-witnessHere he is, being arrested by the standard-issue secret police agents in their leather trench coats following the disastrous opening of his Great Socialist Fun Park.

One disaster leads to the next. The orange grove he oversees produces a single orange, which one of his children eats before it can be presented to the leader. Pelikán hastily substitutes a lemon at the ceremony, daring the assembled dignitaries to show him up in front of the crowd: “The new Hungarian orange. It’s slightly yellower, it’s slightly sharper, but our own.”

After each failure, Pelikán is thrown into prison, but others are persuaded to confess to his mistakes and he is given another chance to mess up. Eventually he learns why the authorities have taken such a kindly interest in his case. He is now complicit with the regime, and must show his gratitude by serving as a witness at the show trial of a former colleague from the Resistance.

The man has been accused of espionage, a charge that Pelikán has difficulty believing. There’s nothing suspicious about him, he protests.

“The suspicious thing about spies is that they are not suspicious,” his handler assures him.

“I’m not suspicious and I’m not a spy,” says Pelikán.

“How do you know?”

The hapless Pelikán stubbornly maintains his friend’s innocence. “Show me one man in this country whom I won’t be able to turn into a guilty person in five minutes,” his handler retorts.

Persuaded at last, Pelikán is given the script of his testimony to critique. Several aspects strike him as implausible, including the part where the so-called traitor jumped into the Danube and started to converse with some enemy frogmen. His objections are overruled, however (the scriptwriter claims artistic license). Pelikán is taken to a drama coach, who trains him to understand his character’s motivations so he can perform with genuine feeling. He is dressed for the part — “I’ve got it! Worker circa 1950,” the costumer exclaims — but cannot go through with it at the actual trial. Even with the judge prompting him, he refuses to stick to the script.

Meanwhile, the entire town is under water because nobody is manning the dike. People are floating by in boats loaded with their household possessions, including livestock. Pelikán and his family are in a tree, surrounded by rising floodwaters, and he is still spouting his testimony, the lies and slogans, oblivious to the reality that he is about to drown.

Kind of amazing, that Bacsó was allowed to make this picture in the first place.

Kind Hearts and Coronets

Gosh, is there any role Alec Guinness couldn’t play? From the highly-principled (but tragically misguided) Colonel Nicholson in “Bridge on the River Kwai” to George Smiley in the 1970s TV serializations of John le Carré’s novels, to his delightful turn as Professor Godbole in “Passage to India,” the man was a cameleon. And that’s without mentioning his memorable performances in “Great Expectations,” “Lawrence of Arabia,” and “Doctor Zhivago.” (He preferred not to be remembered for his recurring role in a certain George Lucas science fiction trilogy, so I will not name it here…)

In “Kind Hearts and Coronets” he plays eight members of the eccentric D’Ascoyne family, most of whom are dispatched by the last in line to the family title, the young Louis Mazzini (played by the superb Dennis Price).  First to go was the snooty playboy, Ascoyne D’Ascoyne, followed by the daft-but-likable Henry D’Ascoyne. Then we meet the tedious Reverend Lord Henry D’Ascoyne — and here is where Guinness really hits his stride.Next we have him as Lady AgathaLadyAgathaGuinness and Admiral Lord Horatio D’Ascoyne, followed by General Lord Rutherford, who is felled by an exploding jar of Beluga caviar. “Used to get a lot of this stuff in the crimea. One thing the Russkies do really well.”

One thing the Brits used to do VERY well was black humor, dry with a twist. Criterion released a remastered version of “Kind Hearts” in 2006, but it’s gone out-of-print. Rent it at your local library or DVD store, and be sure to watch the interview with Sir Alec.


Most of the guys I knew in college thought this was the funniest movie ever. It was definitely a guy thing, clever in a sophomoric, British boys school sort of way. Not unlike Monty Python, in fact. The bit with the nuns on the trampolines in particular.

I’ve got to admit, I found it funny as well. Not laugh-out-loud funny (except for the bit with the nuns on the trampolines), but it was satisfying, seeing Dudley Moore play the kind of poor schmuck he excelled at, watching him being outsmarted time and time again by Peter Cook’s devil.

He wasn’t a bad guy, Peter Cook’s devil. George Spiggott (the sophomoric humor…) was more of a practical joker than a truly evil being. You couldn’t help enjoying yourself in his company, even though you knew you shouldn’t.

Things go wrong when he’s around, but they go wrong for other people. A paper bag full of cans and bottles breaks, spilling some poor lady’s groceries on the sidewalk. A pigeon poops on some guy’s head. Wasps invade some flower childrens’ picnic.

So what? For once it’s not your life that’s going wrong. It’s Dudley Moore’s, or the grocery bag lady’s or the flower childrens’ and we’re not talking about major catastrophes here, folks. These are minor annoyances. It’s okay to laugh. Nobody gets hurt.

And Peter Cook cracks me up as the devil.

Palm Beach Story

You have to pay attention to this one. The opening, for example: why is Claudette Colbert tied up in the closet and simultaneously dashing off to be married? Why is the groom (Joel McCrea) frantically changing clothes in the taxi? All this is going on as the credits roll, and you’re inclined to forget the confusion once the film begins. That would be a mistake.

Don’t let the eccentric little man played by Robert Dudley slide under the radar, either. Here he plays the Wienie King, a millionaire with a heart of gold, and he gets off some great lines:

Cold are the hands of time that creep along relentlessly, destroying slowly but without pity that which yesterday was young. Alone our memories resist this disintegration and grow more lovely with the passing years. Heh! That’s hard to say with false teeth!

Before he ended up a character actor in Hollywood, Dudley was a dentist from Cincinnati. Quirky little guy in a big hat. Adorable!

It’s not just him, though. Everyone’s a gem in this picture, even walk-ons. Colbert’s character wants to get a divorce. She hails a cab and asks the cabbie’s advice on where she can get both the divorce AND a rich husband. Palm Beach is just the place, he tells her. “This time of the year, you got the track, you got the ocean, you got palm trees. Three months – and you leave from Penn Station.”

Once at Penn Station, Colbert hooks up with a wild group of aging hunters, the Ale and Quail Club. I can’t begin to describe them, but here’s the trailer.

Next up is the loopy multi-millionaire, John D. Hackensacker, III. Believe it or not, he’s played by Rudy Vallee (and no, he doesn’t sing). I think he was the model for the yacht-owning guy that Tony Curtis parodied in “Some Like it Hot.” Sturges uses him to make fun of the Rockefeller set:

John D. Hackensacker III: Do you happen to remember how much tip I gave the taxi driver?

Gerry Jeffers: Well, I didn’t see the coin, but from his face, I think it was ten cents.

John D. Hackensacker III: Tipping is un-American.

Some aspects of “Palm Beach Story” are dated, and if you’re not paying attention you’ll miss a lot of the fun. Not my favorite Sturges film (that would be “The Great McGinty”), but well worth watching.