CHARADE (1963)

charade (1963)
Romance and suspense ensue in Paris as a woman is pursued by several men who want a fortune her murdered husband had stolen. Whom can she trust?
4 out of 5 stars

Regina “Reggie” Lampert (Audrey Hepburn) is the unhappy wife to a man she knows almost nothing about, beyond the fact he’s rich. But before she can get a divorce, her husband’s murdered body is thrown from a train, and when she returns to their Parisian apartment, the place is completely empty and even her clothes have been taken. The funeral’s a quiet affair: just Reggie, her best friend, her best friend’s little boy, and the police officer investigating her husband’s murder. That is, until three strangers arrive. One-by-one they make damn sure her husband is dead while making threatening overtures towards Reggie. Later that same day, Regina’s summoned to the US Embassy by CIA agent Batholomew (Walter Matthau), who tells her the trio of strangers were her husband’s double-crossed accomplices in a gold theft, and they now think she has the money. In fact, everyone seems to think she has the money, except for another fortuitous stranger, that charming man she met skiing (Cary Grant), but their meeting may not have been a coincidence…

As Reggie, Hepburn displays all the luminosity that made her a superstar. She was beautiful, of course, but what made her such a wonderful screen presence was her ability to convey an entirely innocent, yet keen, intelligence. When one thinks about it, she always played intelligent young women that were overlooked or misjudged by older men. And while Reggie may not be the most intelligent character Hepburn played, she’s not a screaming wimp, and she who takes bites out of Cary Grant, not the other way around.

As the handsome stranger who may, or may not, be helping her, Grant is far more timid than usual. It’s reported that he had misgivings about playing the romantic lead to a 33-year-old Hepburn as he turned 59 (for once, it’s not just his suits that are grey). To reconcile this matter, the screenplay was adjusted to allow him to express these concerns, and both characters make reference to their gaping age-chasm. The surprising result is a dynamic that feels fresh and exciting, with Hepburn pursuing a reluctant Grant, luring him into her hotel room to use her shower, sitting in his lap, and flapping her big doe eyes at him. Grant, for his part, could still do his thing pushing 60. His charm was always relaxed and effortless, and he never could run properly anyway.

As CIA agent Bartholomew, Matthau’s on oily form. This isn’t the lovable schlub of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974), as Bartholomew is a smarmy git, with his lack of grace nicely contrasted by Grant’s class. Of the three crooks on their trail, James Coburn gives the most nuanced and naturally threatening performance, using his size and a relaxed Texan drawl to put menace into every word. George Kennedy is sadly giving too big of a performance to be truly threatening as a hook-handed maniac. The performance only makes sense as a comic one, so you can see how he ended up in The Naked Gun (1988) and its two sequels, and it’s easy to forget he won an Academy Award for Cool Hand Luke (1967). As the last member of the trio, Ned Glass is giving nothing much else to do than sneeze memorably, and Martin Balsam would do it much better in Pelham.

Charade has been referred to as “the best Hitchcock film that Hitchcock never made”, but then so has Cape Fear (1962), and indeed anything made by Brian De Palma. So how does Stanley Donen fare against the Master of Suspense? Well, it has to be said, not especially well. The director, best known for Singin’ in the Rain (1952) and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), doesn’t really have the thriller chops to convincingly deliver suspense. He just can’t use the camera like Hitch could. But then, other than De Palma, who could?

Maybe one can blame the director, and maybe one can’t, but the score by Henry Mancini simply doesn’t know when to be energetic, so “exciting” action scenes have the score of a tense sleuthing scene, rendering them inert. Charles Lang’s cinematography is also caught somewhere between the technicolour 1950s and the gritty late-1960s. The results are some excellent night-time and exterior scenes, but clashing, overlit set-bound interior scenes. However, one thing that Hitch rarely had that Charade has in spades is locations, locations, locations. Paris is real and alive, certainly not recreated on a Hollywood backlot. Of course, being a film of it’s time there’s the occasional back-projection shot, but that’s par for the course.

Maybe one can blame the director, and maybe one can’t, but the score by Henry Mancini simply doesn’t know when to be energetic, so “exciting” action scenes have the score of a tense sleuthing scene, rendering them inert. Charles Lang’s cinematography is also caught somewhere between the technicolour 1950s and the gritty late-1960s. The results are some excellent night-time and exterior scenes, but clashing, overlit set-bound interior scenes. However, one thing that Hitch rarely had that Charade has in spades is locations, locations, locations. Paris is real and alive, certainly not recreated on a Hollywood backlot. Of course, being a film of it’s time there’s the occasional back-projection shot, but that’s par for the course.

What really sings is Peter Stone’s script. It’s got as many great exchanges as North by Northwest (1959), and if the film were just slightly better, they would probably be more fondly remembered. It’s in these character exchanges that Stone, Donen, Hepburn, and Grant all shine, and were this just a romance it might even be a better film. Donen knows how to do this stuff, of course, as he did it so marvellously in Singin’ in the Rain. As it is, the plot of Charade is interesting enough, but what makes it better than most is its ending. The final act is obvious, but it’s testament to Hepburn and Grant’s charm that you will it on nonetheless. And no review of the film would be complete without mention of Maurice Binder’s absolutely mental title sequence design. So there, I’ve mentioned it.

Despite the inconsistent cinematography, this print by Criterion is a joy to behold. I’ve seen this film a couple of times before, both in the absolutely awful print available to stream on Amazon Prime Video. To me, it’s always felt like a forgotten gem. Maybe not a diamond, but some kind of semi-precious stone that doesn’t deserve to be left to history. Criterion have rescued it for the ages with another of their absolutely flawless restorations. They are doing a public service here.

So, is it “the best Hitchcock film that Hitchcock never made”? Probably not. It’s not even the best Stanley Donen film that Stanley Donen did make. But it’s definitely an enjoyable, heartwarming, charming, diverting, strangely off-kilter caper, which is at least as good as the less-well-known Hitchcock’s like, oh, I don’t know… To Catch a Thief (1955).

USA | 1963 | 113 MINUTES | 1.85:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH • FRENCH • GERMAN • ITALIAN • SPANISH

frame rated divider criterion
Click to buy through our Amazon affiliate link

Blu-ray Special Features:

  • New, restored high-definition digital transfer, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition. As beautiful as expected from Criterion. Honestly, they spoil us all.
  • Audio commentary featuring Stanley Donen and screenwriter Peter Stone. Donen and Stone are in sprightly form, producing a relaxed conversation between two old men. If you’re a real devotee of this film, you’ll probably get a lot out of this commentary. It’s a lot better than a lot of the bored commentaries we’ve all had the misfortune to listen to, and since there is no documentary on this release, this is your only real way to learn more about the film from the people who made it.
  • The Films of Stanley Donen: A selected filmography, with an introduction by Donen biographer Stephen M. Silverman (DVD only).
  • Peter Stone’s career highlights (DVD only).
  • Original theatrical trailer.
  • English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing.
  • PLUS: A new essay by film historian Bruce Eder.
frame rated divider

Cast & Crew

director: Stanley Donen.
writer: Peter Stone (based on ‘The Unsuspecting Wife’ short story by Peter Stone & Marc Behm).
starring: Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn, Walter Matthau, James Coburn, George Kennedy, Dominique Minot, Ned Glass, Jacques Marin & Paul Bonifas.

criterion - read more
Written By
More from Tom Trott
THE BIG CLOCK (1948)
After murdering someone, a magazine tycoon tries to frame an unknown, innocent...
Read More