Hollywood's latest charm offensive

Can you improve on a classic? Director Jonathan Demme obviously thinks you can. His remake of Stanley Donen's Charade replaces Cary Grant with Mark Wahlberg. David Benedict predicts disaster
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The Independent Culture

"Get a grip. Casablanca... I know it's kinda famous, but it was made in 1942 – that's ancient history. The plot device is nice, but it's dated. And those leads... hell, she's pushing 30 and he's over 40! They just don't match the demographics, guys. We're talking remake. Get me Will Smith. Where's Winslet when I need her?"

OK, I confess. That dialogue is, mercifully, pure invention. But there's nothing studio executives like more than a remake. Why go to all the trouble of selling 'em something new when an old title can do all the work for you? That explains the 11 movie versions of Jane Eyre and the countless Count of Monte Cristos. Universal even released a skating version (honest) called The Countess of Monte Cristo with Sonja Henie, the former Olympic gold medallist turned, er, actress. You'll be glad to hear that it bombed, proving that sometimes there is justice.

Such trifles aside, no sane director would countenance messing with a true screen masterpiece. Would they? Don't be so sure. Back at Universal, Jonathan Demme is in post-production on just such an enterprise. Mary Parent, co-president of production says, "In many ways, The Truth About Charlie returns Jonathan to the kind of suspenseful film and filmmaking that he was known for earlier in his career... he's found a thriller that's right up his alley." You bet he has. It was made in 1963, it was called Charade and it is the best comedy-thriller Hitchcock never made. Director Stanley Donen hates the Hitchcock parallel, yet he does put in his own cameo appearance in a lift scene at the American Embassy. But it isn't his voice you hear. That belongs to screenwriter Peter Stone, who stands beside him.

Their sleek, chic, sophisticated little gripper starred Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn. Demme's version – and I hope you're sitting down for this – features Mark Wahlberg and Thandie Newton. Now, I'm willing to concede that the former was good playing young, dumb and well-hung in Just a Schlong at Twilight... sorry, Boogie Nights; but Vanity Fair's cover headline – "Mark Wahlberg Is Hollywood's New Leading Man" – is going it a bit. His recent Rock Star disappeared damn quick, and as for invincible star power, I have four words to say, and they are Planet of the Apes.

Wahlberg is undeniably cute – his notorious Calvin Klein shoots proved that he was a great clothes horse – but nothing else in his career suggests that he can hold a candle to Cary Grant, whose effortlessness beguiles and seduces in every shot.

Take the shower scene – which Grant initially argued for three days shouldn't even be in the film. Hepburn has exploited her woman-in-peril position to lure Grant to her hotel room. Because there has been an unfortunate murder in his bathtub, he finally accedes to her seductive suggestion that he should use hers. He calmly takes off his shoes, starts happily humming, turns on the water and proceeds to take a shower in full view... fully clothed.

Suited, soaking wet, cavorting about with the soap in front of bemused Hepburn, he's so secure in his screen persona that he can lark about to the point of being outrageously self-mocking and camp. It's a perfect illustration of his debonair flair. The scene quite literally shows how ridiculously engaging this man is.

Detractors argue that he rarely played anyone other than Cary Grant, which is not only inaccurate, it misses the entire point. Never happier than when in front of the camera, he appears so relaxed on screen that you are drawn beneath the smooth surface. His best directors knew that, which is why Hitchcock cast him a record four times. His transformation from Bristol-born Archie Leach into suave Cary Grant was a beautiful act, and in his best films he carries that act to matchless heights.

In Charade, a film deliciously obsessed with identity, everyone except Hepburn lies through their teeth. Grant is like a jazz singer, scatting away on a melody, never quite being what he seems. The more he purrs and pours on the charm in Stone's witty, twisty thriller-plot (written with Grant in mind), the more you find yourself in serious doubt as to whether or not he is the good guy.

Required to play ambivalence, nearly all other romantic leads wind up working too hard. They ooze smarm instead of charm – and the difference is a mile wide. Even at 58, Grant is so good at it that it's only afterwards that you fall to wondering about the age gap between him and Hepburn who was 32 at the time. There's a similar age gap between Harrison Ford and Anne Heche in the execrable Six Days, Seven Nights, but the erotic tension in Charade is far more playful and never distasteful, partly because Grant holds back and Hepburn does all the running.

Three years later, Donen tried to play the same game with the similarly-toned Arabesque (Stone even came in to do a script polish), but it simply isn't in the same league. Its actors are not inconsiderable – Gregory Peck and Sophia Loren – but they lack the Grant-Hepburn true attraction. Charade uses its stars like magnets, springing apart with suspicion and fear or glued together in love and adversity.

Hepburn, who had worked with Donen seven years earlier on the musical Funny Face and would do so again in Two for the Road, was always happy on his sets. "Stanley made me laugh," she once said, "and that, for me, was an enormous turn-on." That's the key. She's laughing, so she's relaxed. The tension is in the script, the camera, the editing, but not the actors. Dressed by Givenchy, she is the epitome of glamour, but the easy chemistry between the stars yields a sexual attraction that fairly smoulders.

Better yet, Stone's intricate plotting never allows that attraction to dampen. Hepburn and the audience keep switching sympathies, which only increases the tension. In a lousy thriller like Sliver (written by Ira Levin who penned A Kiss Before Dying and Rosemary's Baby, and therefore should have known better), the divorce between the careful build and the revelation of the final twist renders most of the preceding picture absurd. Stone, however, insists that you write mysteries to be seen twice, so that on second viewing you can see that everything works as it should, with no tricks being played. As a result, his twists are smart and funny, but they also reveal and deepen character. Can anyone name a recent thriller that manages that?

Doubtless, Demme – who is co-writing The Truth About Charlie – is going to give it a try, and his leading actor is bullish about playing pretender to Grant's throne. "I probably won't realise what it means until it's over and I get bashed for destroying a great part," he said. "But I'm really not scared of taking risks." Sorry, Mark, but I would be. Watching the original, no one in their right mind could possibly disagree with the exasperated Hepburn who fixes Grant with a frown. "You know what's wrong with you? Nothing."

'Charade' is showing this afternoon at 2.15pm, 3 and 7 Nov in the Cary Grant retrospective at the NFT, London SE1 020-7928 3232 www.bfi.org.uk/carygrant