Stanley Donen’s Charade is one of those classic movies so tied with its era that it’s hard to think anyone would ever be insane enough to remake it. Well, this happened twenty years ago in the form of The Truth About Charlie. Directed by Jonathan Demme of The Silence of the Lambs fame and starring Thandiwe Newton and Mark Wahlberg in the Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant roles, The Truth About Charlie scrounged only $7 million on a $60 million budget. Critics were aghast, classic movie fans were enraged, and everyone else opted to buy tickets for Jackass: The Movie.
No one talks much about Demme’s remake, but when they do the inevitable course they take is to compare it to Charade. And compared to Charade, that effervescent gem of a Hitchcockian thriller, Charlie is a dud. Newton and Wahlberg share no chemistry at all, the villains are all boring (you could accuse Charade‘s baddies of being cartoonish, but cartoonish leaves more of an impression than “the tall one with cardiovascular issues,” “the tough lady who randomly becomes sympathetic later,” and “that third guy”), and the attempt at a playful yet edgy tone is awkward rather than exhilarating. Charade balanced thrills, comedy, and romance, while Charlie tries all of these tones without being success at one, let alone competently blending all three.
It’s easy to pick Charlie apart as a remake, but I’m interested in another element of its conception. You see, Demme was not interested in a standard remake. While rewatching Charade with a group of friends, he pondered how while Donen was in Paris filming one of the last great Old Hollywood pictures, nearby young French New Wave directors Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard were rewriting the rules with their irreverent, energetic projects.
That’s when it hit him. Why not retell Charade using the techniques of the French New Wave?
For those unaware, the French New Wave was a movement lasting from 1958 to about 1970 mostly helmed by young film critics turned filmmakers. The movement rejected the conventions of traditional filmmaking and possessed a general countercultural spirit. Avant-garde editing, non-traditional storytelling, and an iconoclastic sensibility touching everything from social norms to politics prevailed. The influence of the French New Wave was immense, most notably spilling over into American film and resulting in the New Hollywood movement of the 1960s and 1970s. But by the early 2000s, even something as radical as the French New Wave had a touch of nostalgia to it, particularly for cinephiles. For some, it represents golden age of young, enthusiastic rule-breaking. No doubt Demme was among this lot.
Now, was combining an Old Hollywood classic with a New Wave sensibility an inherently dumb idea? Not necessarily. A similar approach was used for one of the French New Wave’s bonafide classics, Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player, which adapted an American hardboiled crime novel with cinematic playfulness. In fact, Shoot the Piano Player was Demme’s primary stylistic inspiration for The Truth About Charlie.
I suppose it would be helpful to lay out the stories of these two movies. An adaptation of David Goodis’ hardboiled crime novel Down There, Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player follows Charlie, a down on his luck pianist who works at a seedy bar. A mild-mannered, shy fellow, he’s drawn into a gang conflict when his criminal brother comes begging him for help. Charlie doesn’t want to get involved: he’s already on the run from his own tragic past and trying to deal with his burgeoning romantic feelings for a pretty waitress at the bar where he works. However, as it is with noir, the past isn’t so willing to lay down and die.
This synopsis makes the movie seem almost normal if you’ve never seen it, but don’t be fooled. Shoot the Piano Player is an odd duck of a film. It jabs at cinematic conventions (when Charlie has a woman in bed with him, he pulls the sheets over her bare breasts and says, “That’s how they do it in the movies”—Truffaut’s way of gently kidding cinematic standards of taste), injects silly comedy into otherwise serious scenes, stops the story for a weird music number, and de-glamorizes its noir protagonist by making him awkward with the woman he loves (he tries holding her hand but cannot—shades of Buster Keaton unable to take Kathryn Macguire’s hand in Sherlock Jr.).
If you’ve seen Charade, then you’ll already know the basic premise of Charlie, as it’s pretty close structurally. Chic young Reggie Lambert discovers her mysterious husband has been murdered and a trio of dangerous types are after money he stole from the US government. They think Reggie knows where the money is, but she hasn’t a clue. Along the way, Reggie is aided by a mysterious stranger named Joshua Peter who isn’t what he seems, and even though she can never be sure if he’s friend or foe, he is awfully cute…
The Truth About Charlie employs self-conscious techniques to emulate the experimental qualities of the French New Wave. For example, when Regina meets Joshua Peter, Demme cuts between panning close-ups of the two actors. During a conversation between Regina and another character, we get constant jump cuts, copying similar technique in Godard’s Breathless. Like Shoot the Piano Player, there is a musical number and weird comic interludes, though they’re not half as enjoyable. Somehow, they result in mood whiplash rather than the charm of spontaneity.
So why does Truffaut succeed with his experiment and Demme does not?
It could be the amount of plot each movie juggles—and Truffaut has the easier deal. Shoot the Piano Player is straightforward: man has a broken heart, man’s happiness with a good woman is threatened by criminal associations, man has to fight to protect his possible future. Anyone can get that easily, so Truffaut’s improvisational style works well. He can divulge into weird musical numbers and goofy slapstick without giving the viewer a headache. The shifting from comedy to action to melancholy drama might not appeal to every taste, but you can follow the movie without tearing your hair out in frustration.
Charlie tries to be playful, but its constant zooms and jump cuts and shaky cam and weird close-ups feel more like obnoxious film student antics than anything. The mishmash of tones feels awkward, like Demme was copying Truffaut’s technique without understanding what made it work. Beneath the clowning, thrills, and noirisms, there is a strong strain of melancholy throughout Truffaut’s movie. The protagonist’s broken heart gives the movie a sense of consistency, even when it’s being silly. Charlie just jerks the viewer between thriller boilerplate and awkward romantic comedy, with no beating heart beneath. There are attempts at drama, particularly during the climactic confrontation, but it’s sloppy and too little, too late. The climax might actually be the worst offender in that regard– shot exclusively in close-up for some reason, incredibly anti-climactic, and trying for pathos for a character the film barely bothered to build up.
Truffaut is also comfortable with just riffing on Goodis’ story, changing plot points at will. Considering how hard Charlie is trying to be playful in the French New Wave mode, it shocks me how closely it hues its screenplay to Charade, which is famous for how convoluted and twisty its plot is. Any time the movie stops trying to feel improvisational and then gets back to its central mystery, the plot screeches the momentum of the pacing to a halt. All the jump cuts and shaky cam in the world cannot make exposition interesting, not without strong characters and fine performances—and aside from Newton, the movie’s got nothing to work with there.
Demme’s adherence to Charade‘s screenplay also reveals another shortcoming, perhaps the biggest one of all: this does not feel much like a New Wave movie. Oh sure, Demme uses jump cuts during his expositional conversations, doing his best imitation of Godard’s Breathless. He has his abrupt musical numbers. He shoots handheld footage of Paris to give a “you are there,” cinema verite quality not unlike The 400 Blows or Cleo from 9 to 7. Agnes Varda, Anna Karina, and Charles Aznavour show up in odd cameo roles. But at its most basic level, the movie is a by-the-numbers romantic thriller. There is no sense of true, youthful experimentation like you had with the New Wave filmmakers. Compare Charlie to truly visionary New Wave works like Shoot the Piano Player and Alphaville, and it becomes plain how skin-deep the homaging is. It’s an homage to someone else’s homage.
It’s also half-hearted in its iconoclasm and iconoclasm was a huge part of the French New Wave. Truffaut maybe less so than, say, Godard—but Truffaut is still sending up Old Hollywood conventions in his film even while it’s clear he enjoys those movies. Demme doesn’t really jab too much at the Old Hollywood elements of Charade, besides deliberately making Wahlberg an “anti-Cary Grant,” deglamorizing Paris, or having Newton get nude in the shower (a “reversal” of Cary Grant’s fully clothed shower). As I’ve tried to make clear, Demme is more interested in the French New Wave part of the film than redoing Charade… but his attitude towards the French New Wave is reverential. One of the last images in the film is even a shot of Truffaut’s grave.
Does that kind of reverence have that much of a place in this style of filmmaking? The New Wave filmmakers did eat, sleep, and dream movies, but they were radicals at heart. They smashed idols or at the very least lampooned them, but Demme has made these iconoclasts idols in and of themselves. Is that a paradox? I genuinely don’t know– I don’t want to suggest that this means you can’t homage the French New Wave– but I think it does somewhat compromise the film’s desire to feel like those movies.
So maybe after all this rambling, what I’m trying to say is The Truth About Charlie is so much more than a crappier Charade. Its failure is far more interesting than that. And I have to afford it some respect—if you’re going to fail, then fail spectacularly.