(On TV, October 2018) I wasn’t expecting much from mid-1960s comedy How to Steal a Million except that it starred Audrey Hepburn, but I quickly grew charmed by the result. Hepburn plays the daughter of an art counterfeiter, trying her best to avoid her father’s handiwork from being discovered by appraisal experts. To this end, she befriends a burglar and quickly finds herself planning a museum heist. The plot is good enough to allow Hepburn to play her ingenue best (in her mid-thirties!), bouncing off Peter O’Toole’s charm and the fatherly attention of Hugh Griffith. Hepburn being her usual lovable self, the film unfolds at a pleasantly breezy pace, once again reuniting her with Paris and haute couture. It’s not necessarily one of Hepburn’s best movies, but she delivers here a quintessential performance: Funny, charming, intensely likable and more than cute. As a result, How to Steal a Million is the kind of film that isn’t necessarily listed as an essential 1960s film but packs a lot of entertainment. It’s perhaps best approached as a happy discovery.
(On Cable TV, March 2018) It does take a while before Charade comes into focus. It begins strangely, with a contrived meet-cute at a ski resort in the Alps that turns into an even stranger succession of events once the heroine comes back to Paris to find out that her husband has died, a large amount of money is missing, and three strangers really hated her ex-husband. The artificiality of the setup is almost overpowering, and even the comforting presences of Audrey Hepburn as the widow and Cary Grant as a mysterious free agent aren’t quite enough to unpack the heavy-handed setup. But as the deaths and double-crosses being to pile up, Charade does acquire a nice velocity, and even answers the questions raised in the first act. Hepburn is adorable as the endangered heroine, despite being too young for the role. Meanwhile, Grant is terrific as someone who may or may not be friendly—he’s occasionally very funny (ha, that shower scene!), and his last grimace of self-revelation at the very end is like seeing a split-second callback to the classic comedies early in his career. Also noteworthy as supporting roles for Walter Matthau, George Kennedy and James Coburn. Great scores and visual design by Henry Mancini and Saul Bass round up an impressive crew. Surprisingly not directed by Alfred Hitchcock, Charade is increasingly endearing the longer it goes on, and satisfyingly blends romance, comedy and suspense. It’s well worth watching. Just make sure to give it more than thirty minutes to make sense.
(On Cable TV, December 2017) My issues with big Hollywood musicals (especially in their classic pre-seventies period) are simple. They feel interminable, often because (being frequently adapted from endless Broadway musicals) they take narrative breaks during their songs. The song starts and unless it’s a toe-tapper, it’s just as possible to go get a snack and come back in time for the conclusion of the song, at which point nothing will have changed. When the musical is good, it usually gets better toward the end as there is (finally!) some dramatic movement. So it is that much of My Fair Lady is underwhelming, especially at first. The Pygmalion plot being presented piece by piece, we frequently have to stop in order to let the characters have their say and present themselves. Audrey Hepburn is cuteness personified as a coarse commoner being groomed into becoming a passable member of London’s high society, while Rex Harrison is his own brand of fun as a highly self-confident phonetics professor. The film’s big insight that manners make the woman is cogently put, but it does take a while to get there. The film does get better midway through, as the comedy of manners training finally takes off and the female lead is tested in her introduction to high society. The subplot about her family does drag, and My Fair Lady becomes less interesting the more it remembers that it had to deliver a romance in addition to the class comedy. But ultimately, the charm of the lead actors eventually wins out on the way to a predictable conclusion. The film can be watched today and only feel slightly stuffy—the period setting does help a lot in breaking the film out of its production date. While I’m reasonably satisfied with the end result, I still wish it would have been shorter.
(On Cable TV, July 2013) The problem with not having seen some classic movies is that after finally watching them, you wonder what took you so long. Breakfast at Tiffany’s is essential viewing for at least two reasons: First up would be Audrey Hepburn, as beautiful and lively in this film as she has been in 1961. Photos of her in her “little black dress” may be iconic, but you have to see the film to understand what made her a star. The second reason to see Breakfast at Tiffany’s would be her character, Holly Golightly: As the incarnation of a newly-created character in American culture (the single young girl, enjoying life in the city), Holly would end up being the template for decades of similar characters all the way to Sex and the City’s lead characters. The impact of the film is considerable even today, and that’s partly why it can’t be missed even today. (The showcase party sequence still feels surprisingly modern.) Ironically, the film also deserves to be seen for the ways in which it undermines its own cultural legacy: Golightly may have been made an object of admiration and imitation by latter generations of single women, but the film fairly clearly underlines the desperation of her life, meddling with the mob and borderline-prostitution in order to make ends meet, her bubbly facade barely concealing a child-like mind barely able to cope with her current situation. A read of Truman Capote original bittersweet novella only serves to highlight the very thin veneer of fun that the film puts over a rather sad situation: it’s hard to watch the film’s happy ending and feel that it won’t last very long. (It’s also hard to watch the film and not cringe at Mickey Rooney’s crudely stereotypical portrayal of a Japanese character: While that kind of thing may have been acceptable half a century ago, it’s the one single thing that most damages and dates the film.) For all of these reasons, and probably a few more than I’m forgetting, Breakfast at Tiffany’s remains essential viewing well into the twenty-first century.