The Truth About Charlie

Oct 30, 2002 at 12:00 am

The Truth About Charlie is a mystery — more or less, in some aspects more than others. Most of its characters are not who they seem to be. And if that has a whiff of Hitchcock about it, then you might just be on the right track, as long as it leads to that relatively rare bright turf in the oeuvre of the Master of Suspense: airy, romantic fluff like The Trouble with Harry (1955). The titular Charlie (Stephen Dillane), his motley crew of cronies and his wide-eyed, innocent widow, Regina Lambert (Thandie Newton) — who seems to survive them all a shade too easily — are whipped up of light stuff. Charlie follows their lead, duplicitous and skin deep — but oh, what lovely skin.

This is more a what-is-it rather than a whodunit. You may not care who killed Charlie and threw him from his train; or where the cash is; or who Joshua Peters (Mark Wahlberg) actually is. Director Jonathan Demme’s (Beloved) brightly colored and occasionally blood-splattered veil of mystery may be this picture’s secret red herring.

So what’s going on here? Some cinematic sleuthing clues us in. Demme opens Charlie in Paris with some swinging ’60s sounds — and tips us off that this film is his take on Charade (1963) a romantic comedy thinly disguised as a thriller by director Stanley Donen (best known for his musical comedies, Funny Face, also set in Paris, and Singing in the Rain).

Exhibit two: Charles Aznavour, first in the black-and-white bloom of his relative youth in a flash from French Hitchcock disciple, director François Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player (1960) and then serenading in the weathered flesh. Aznavour sings us into the fade out. Credits roll over Truffaut’s flower-strewn grave.

What we might have here is a self-indulgent cinematic dessert that only film aficionados can completely appreciate. The Truth About Charlie? Demme, two degrees removed from Hitchcock through Truffaut, has transformed Donen’s picture into an affectionate parody, a gorgeous visual love letter, whispering sweet Technicolor nothings to the masters of ’60s cinema.

James Keith La Croix writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].