It’s easy to yearn for the days where they made stylish, amusing films like Charade which were equal parts charm, class, and wit all stirred together to perfection. Those were the days when two stars as beloved as Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn could carry a picture no questions asked because people would turn out to see them no matter the story. And it’s true, though they were never in another picture together, there’s a wonderful chemistry that builds between them and never ceases from the outset of this lithe thriller.
From their first exchange up until their last, it’s hard not to delight in their every interaction, every word, every smirk. There’s a consistent playful patter bubbling up that’s at times suggestive but never loses its sensibilities. There’s a constant twinkle in the eyes of our stars interrupted every now and again by brief moments of sheer terror. Hepburn playing her elegant self but perpetually frantic while Grant exudes his general charisma that sees him through peril as well as innumerable comic situations (ie. an awkward game of pass the orange as well as showers with his clothes on).
Of course, it hardly hurts a bit that Charade has a surprisingly tense plot that while a little flimsy in some areas still manages to have a plethora of twists, turns, and about-faces to come off generally befuddling like many of the most enjoyable thrillers out there.
It all begins with a body getting tossed from a passing train. Regina Lampert (Audrey Hepburn) is on a vacation on a snowy mountaintop away from her husband with a wistful sense that her marriage is done for. Little does she know how right she is. She returns to her residence in Paris only to find all her belongings gone and her husband dead. The police believe it has to do with a missing $250,000 that Lampert was purported to have absconded with during the war. Their guess is that one of his old platoon mates let him have it so they could get the payload for themselves. All of this is news to Regie who was painfully ignorant of her husband’s affairs. And now with it all dropped in her lap, she doesn’t quite know what to think.
The police inspector (Jacques Marin) on one side questioning her and the Federal Agent Hamilton Bartholomew (Walter Matthau) frightening her out of her mind. The only real bright spot is her newest acquaintance Peter Joshua (Grant) and she’s bent on chasing after him before the people chasing after her catch up. Because life, even a spy life, is better with a companion.
Forget the fact that this film has often been attributed to Hitchcock. This is Stanley Donen’s creation and if nothing else it exhibits his admiration for the Master as well as his adaptability taking his own skills as a comedic and romantic director and adding a touch of the thriller to the mix.
He makes it work very well and paired with the typically jazzy score of Henry Mancini, a continually entertaining script by Peter Stone, and generally immaculate color cinematography by Charles Lang, Donen can’t miss. If it’s not the greatest film if only for the very fact that it doesn’t take itself all that seriously, Charade uses that very quality to its advantage with plentiful splashes of fun and romance.
Audrey Hepburn robed as per usual in iconic creations by Givenchy looks to play the huntress on the prowl. While on his own admission Cary Grant takes the passive role as the pleasant older gentlemen who nevertheless wears many hats and many names. Though Hepburn and Grant undoubtedly take center stage and rightfully so, that’s not to discount quality character actors like Walter Matthau, George Kennedy, and James Coburn filling in as the deceased Charles Lampert’s old war comrades each carrying a bit of a vendetta.
The surprisingly tense conclusion sweeps through the Parisian streets, subway stations, colonnades, and finally an abandoned theater. But, above all, Charade does well to neutralize its more intense or even grisly moments (at least by 60s standards) with its persistent charm. The type of charm that make those films of old so endearing much like the actors who starred in them.
It’s as if in the twilight years of the studio system some of the greatest names coalesced to gift the world another gem for the road. There certainly were signs of change with wistful mentions of Gene Kelly’s early classic An American in Paris or a passing remark about stamps commemorating Princess Grace’s coronation (which took her away from a brilliant film career). At 59 Cary Grant was aging gracefully but still near the end of his career with only two more pictures to follow. And Audrey Hepburn herself would finish out the 1960s with several notable classics and then she would all but conclude her illustrious career for good.With Stanley Donen still with us, he truly acts as one of the last strands connecting this generation with those Golden Years of Hollywood.
However, the most significant reality is that this film came out in December of 1963, a mere month after John F. Kennedy was assassinated near the Book Depository in Dallas Texas. That singular event more than any other was emblematic of the change that would surge through society and the world at large. That is the world that Charade was born into.
So if you were to use the unforgivable cliche at this point that they “just don’t make movies like they used to,” you probably would be correct because that’s close to the truth. Films like Charade are all but gone and when you actually consider the joy of watching Hepburn and Grant together, it really is a terrible shame, though it simply seems a testament to the rolling tides of change.
Still, there’s something truly magical that occurs when they’re together. They were an altogether different breed of star. Maybe it’s the way they carry themselves, dress, or speak. Maybe it’s the way they look at each other. Maybe it’s their quips. Maybe it’s something else entirely. But they’re two of the greatest we’ll ever know for the simple fact that they were so beloved. They made us love them and as a result, we buy into this entire film. We bought into their charade and enjoyed every last minute of it.