Paris, 1963. After her husband dies in a mysterious accident, Regina Lampert (Audrey Hepburn) encounters a number of sinister folk at the funeral who make strange, veiled threats. It seems Reggie married a man she hardly new. Her husband stole a cache of Nazi gold during World War Two alongside three cronies. An American treasury agent (Walter Matthau) explains these three men never got their cut and are desperate to recover it, by any means. Into Reggie’s life strides Cary Grant as a mysterious stranger who protects her - or so it appears - from villainous rogues including a cocky Texan (James Coburn) and a brute with a mechanical arm (George Kennedy). The young widow is smitten, but this charmer changes his name every five minutes. Is he Peter Joshua? Adam Canfield? Alexander Dyle? As Reggie uncovers clues leading her closer to the missing fortune, and falls deeper in love, can she trust him?
Described by one critic as “the best Hitchcock movie, Hitchcock never made”, Charade was a change of pace for musical maestro Stanley Donen. A huge hit in its day, this remains a dazzling comedy-thriller distinguished by impeccable ingredients. Peter Stone’s witty, well-crafted screenplay keeps the quips coming (“You can’t even be honest about being dishonest!”), while weaving a compelling mystery with thrills and surprises hidden all the way. Donen’s visual panache features inspired use of colour in costume, lighting and set design and he delivers dynamic set-pieces (particularly Grant’s rooftop battle with Kennedy) worthy of Hitch himself. He also creates a palpable sense of menace, which is rare in a ‘frothy’ comedy-thriller, aided by splendidly shifty performances from Coburn, Kennedy and Matthau. When Tex pins Reggie against the phone box you genuinely believe he’s going to hurt her.
The gorgeous Parisian locales provide a perfect backdrop to one of cinema’s starriest pairings: dreamy Audrey Hepburn and sexy-past-sixty Cary Grant. Being a movie icon makes it unlikely we’ll buy Grant as anything other than a hero (Ah, but what about Suspicion (1940)?). Yet he skilfully juggles physical comedy and devilish charm with hints of steel, keeping us on our toes as to whether he’s friend or foe. A consummate actor - arguably the starriest of all movie stars - it’s shameful he never won an Oscar. “All I want for Christmas is to make another movie with Audrey Hepburn”, Grant remarked shortly after the film’s release. Sadly that never happened. Uncomfortable over the age difference between himself and his leading lady, Grant only signed on after Peter Stone rewrote the script so that Regina chases him and not vice versa. Hepburn - who won a BAFTA for her performance - always shared great chemistry with her leading men (the sole exception being Humphrey Bogart in Sabrina (1954)) due largely to her own disarming nature. The scene where Regina spills wine on Adam’s suit was inspired by a real incident where Hepburn spilled win on Grant at a party.
There is a playful duplicity at work that extends to several in-jokes. The man recounting an anecdote in the embassy elevator is Peter Stone, but dubbed by Stanley Donen! Later on a marine appears onscreen dubbed by Stone. The property list police hand Regina is marked 5/4/63 - Hepburn’s impending birthday. Jonathan Demme tried to extend this playfulness, paying tribute to the French New Wave, in his ill-judged remake The Truth About Charlie (2002). Thandie Newton just about passes muster as a Hepburn substitute, but Mark Wahlberg for Cary Grant? Please. There’s also a Bollywood remake out there called Chura Liya Hai Tumne (2003), which this writer hasn’t seen but will wager includes more songs.
Universal’s failure to include the necessary copyright information on the actual print means there are an awful lot of dodgy, public domain discs of Charade lurking around. If you have a multi-region DVD player go for the definitive release - the region 1 DVD from Criterion. There’s a lot for movie fans to savour in Charade, from Maurice Binder’s stylish, proto-Bond credit sequence to Henry Mancini’s wonderful score, so you’ll want the best possible presentation. Stanley Donen returned to thriller territory with Gregory Peck and Sophia Loren in Arabesque (1966). A lesser movie, but still oodles of fun.