I wrote this for a special screening of Charade (1963) at the Indianapolis Museum of Art.
Charade (1963) is one of those films that has almost everything going for it. The cast is littered with Academy Award winners: Audrey Hepburn, George Kennedy, James Coburn, and Walter Matthau. Costume designer Hubert de Givenchy and composer Henry Mancini also brought home Oscars. Cary Grant and director Stanley Donen both deserved them many times and eventually got honorary ones.
Many of these are household names today, at least in households with a few film fans. At the showing on Feb 17th for the Winter Nights Festival, Sandy McLendon will be discussing Givenchy and his fashions.
There is another, less-known, but vitally important contributor to Charade, and he was also an Oscar winner. Writer Peter Stone’s screenplay is a work of art. The plot is fairly commonplace: five soldiers stole a stash of gold from the US government in WWII. One of them stole all of it, and, years later, the rest are ready to kill each other to get it.
This could be the basis for a predictable episode of Columbo, but instead Stone keeps the audience guessing throughout. One of his best tricks is to sprinkle the plot development in small doses throughout the film. For years, writers have struggled with this problem. When too much plot (often called exposition) is discussed early in the film, then the audience is bored, the pace grinds to a halt, and there is no mystery to unravel for a long period of time.
The James Bond films long ago threw in the towel on this problem, having the character M explain the mission to Bond in a customary long scene early in the film. In his Austin Powers films, creator Mike Myers parodied this practice by calling his M character Basil Exposition, since that was really his job.
Stone does no such thing in Charade. Indeed, the first shot in the film is of a dead body being thrown from a train. It is some time before we realize that this body had been the husband of Regina Lampert (Hepburn).
Slowly, we find out, in small hints, that he was one of the WWII soldiers, and we meet the other men who are after the money. Her trouble, which the audience shares, is that everyone has a stake in the game, so that means everyone is lying to everyone else.
The audience has to listen carefully to everyone to decide which clues are lies and which lies are clues. The plot twist at the end is so carefully set up that many audiences, unfamiliar with the film, will gasp when the killer is exposed. And afterward, there is still one more twist.
This is a difficult task for the screenwriter. Sometimes, he can turn in a story with great dialogue and characters, but the killer’s identity is completely transparent. Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief (1955) has this problem. Despite the fact that Cary Grant and Grace Kelly have a delightfully funny romantic interplay, there is no mystery in the film at all. The plot hinges on the identity of a jewel robber imitating Grant’s style, and the ultimate revelation is so obvious that most viewers had long since guessed it.
On the other side of the coin, the mystery can be too complex. When the writer tries too hard, the limits of plausibility are stretched, and sometimes the entire plot structure becomes laughable because there are simply too many twists. This failing comes out strongly in The Dark Hour (1936), which has a final scene with two characters both confessing to the same killing, piling on twist after twist, until no one can believe either of them.
Stone was able to balance the need for mystery and plausibility, but he was also a master at witty dialogue and plot developments. Cary Grant helped get him the job for Father Goose (1965), which, as a wacky comedy, was a change of pace for both men. Stone won the Oscar for the screenplay, saying this in his acceptance speech: “My thanks to Cary Grant, who keeps winning these things for other people.” Stone went on to write the book for the stage musical 1776, which was made into a film in 1972 and continues to be revived today. His chief task was to create a sense of tension in a story that had an ending the audience knew beforehand: it was required to end with the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Stone kept the audience wondering how the committed but obnoxious John Adams could get Congress to adopt the Declaration, with endless obstacles, interpersonal problems, and political hassles in his way.
A few years later, Stone wrote a suspenseful screenplay for The Taking of Pelham 123. As in Charade, Stone was able to create an intricate web of characters carrying out a complex plot, while at every point it was completely plausible. It is no surprise that both Charade and Pelham 123 have been remade, although neither film compares favorably with its original.
In later years, Stone turned increasingly to stage work. He was working steadily until his death in 2003, with two shows that premiered after his death. Another writer helped finish his adaptation for the musical Death Takes a Holiday, which opened last year and is currently playing off-Broadway.
Hollywood is a place that usually ignores the importance of good writing, even though every actor and director will admit that a good film starts with a good script. Peter Stone’s work was consistently excellent. He created a legacy of classics, revivals, and remakes that continues to dazzle audiences.