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Charade

22 May

The term Hitchcockian is one that has become familiar to most film fans. Such movies are defined by Wikipedia as “those made with the styles and themes similar to those of Alfred Hitchcock’s films” – few directors have had the honor of seeing a subset of movies named after them, Ford and Welles do spring to mind though. Charade (1963) slots neatly into this category, and has actually been referred to as the best Hitchcock movie Hitchcock never made. It’s easy to see why of course: the casting, the locations, the shooting style, the twisty plot and the presence of the MacGuffin. While these labels clearly attest to the quality of the film, I reckon they’re also a bit of a backhanded compliment to director/producer Stanley Donen and writer Peter Stone. Nevertheless, whatever way you approach it, Charade stands out as a terrifically entertaining piece of 60s cinema.

I love films which grab my attention right away, and Charade certainly does that. As a train speeds through a misty European landscape, an object is tossed from it. We get only the briefest glimpse confirming that it’s the body of a man before the screen dissolves into Maurice Binder’s hypnotic credits and Henry Mancini’s mysterious and romantic theme. Cut to a ski resort where Regina Lampert (Audrey Hepburn), a bored society wife, is contemplating divorce and flirting playfully with Peter Joshua (Cary Grant), a fellow holidaymaker. It’s all quips and witty one-liners, until Regina returns to Paris and gets some shocking news. The man who made an unscheduled exit from that train at the beginning was her husband, Charles, and she finds that not only is she a sudden widow, but her apartment has been emptied and everything sold off at auction. It had been assumed that Charles was a wealthy man, but in this movie it’s unwise to assume anything. There’s no sign of the proceeds of the sale, and there’s worse to come. Charles was a man with a past, many pasts perhaps as the police point out that he was the owner of a variety of passports. What becomes clear is that Charles was involved in criminal activities stretching back to the war, had stolen a fortune and taken on a new identity. However, that fortune is now being sought by his old accomplices (James Coburn, Ned Glass & George Kennedy), and they don’t much care what they have to do to get their hands on it. Regina finds herself all at sea in a world where her old certainties have been turned upside-down. Even so, it seems there are those prepared to offer assistance: a CIA employee (Walter Matthau) and Peter Joshua, who turns up in Paris too. And yet, nothing is so simple; names and identities are adopted and cast aside with the abandon of a vaudeville quick-change artist. Neither Regina nor the viewer can be sure who’s telling the truth at any given moment, while motives and loyalties shift from one scene to the next.

I guess it’s impossible for any film to exist, be it a work of serious intent or an unashamed piece of escapist entertainment, outside of the zeitgeist of the era in which it’s made. A film like Charade was made at a time when the world was poised on the cusp of hope and despair; huge changes were taking place and such an environment is by definition uncertain. Now I don’t want to make any pretentious claim that Charade was trying to be a statement about the upheaval taking place all round. Rather it’s just an observation that even the lightest pieces of entertainment can’t help but reflect to some extent the state of flux at that time. It’s this sense of never feeling confident about what may happen next, of how the plot may develop, that is one of the film’s great strengths. As viewers, we’re invited to follow proceedings through Regina’s eyes, and share in the confusion and trepidation she feels. Just when we think we’ve got a handle on who’s who and what’s what, the rug is yanked away from beneath us and the merry-go-round of doubt and suspicion whirls away once more.

It’s not hard to see how the comparisons with Hitchcock are made. The casting of Grant in a glamorous, light-hearted thriller immediately evokes memories of movies like To Catch a Thief and North By Northwest. Made at a time when Hitchcock himself was struggling with tone and mood, Charade has the kind of polished assurance which recalled his strongest cinematic period. Add in the locations, the suspenseful plotting, the smooth shooting style and the MacGuffin (in this case, the stolen money) and all the elements are in place. For all that, I think Stanley Donen and Peter Stone deserve more credit than to simply refer to the movie as a successful pastiche. Ultimately, it’s a different beast, never touching on (and to be fair, I don’t believe it was ever the intention to do so anyway) the darker places that even the frothiest Hitchcock fare contained. No, despite the superficial similarities, Charade should be judged on its own terms and goes its own way, even borrowing a little from Poe with the notion of the coveted fortune hiding in plain view. If anything, it might prove more fruitful to look at the movie in relation to Arabesque, where the writer and director tried, not quite so effectively, to emulate their achievement here.

Charade veers continuously between thrills, comedy and romance, a delicate balancing act for any script and the casting of such a movie is critical in determining whether or not it all comes off. In this instance, the choices are positively inspired. Grant was 59 years old and fast closing in on retirement. Much of his career had been spent honing the sophisticated, urbane persona he so successfully projected. He could, when necessary, play it dark and Hitchcock handed him a corker of a role in the rather wonderful Notorious, but it’s his later collaborations with that director which are closest to his role in Charade. Like the character of Regina Lampert, the viewer can’t be fully sure of what to make of Peter Joshua – his identity and allegiance constantly switch and every time we feel we have his measure he deceives us yet again. Grant’s performance is a marvelously relaxed affair, adjusting the tone with a deftness that’s a real pleasure to watch. He played well off Hepburn too, and the significant discrepancy in their ages is never glossed over in the script – in fact, this aspect is frequently the basis for some terrific, witty dialogue. Hepburn herself was the very personification of chic, and it’s hard to imagine anyone else pulling off the part of the slightly dizzy and vulnerable Regina quite so believably.

While Grant and Hepburn are the undoubted stars of the film, the support cast is strong and deep. Walter Matthau is deliciously unctuous, exuding a vague air of seediness. And then there’s the terrible threesome of James Coburn, George Kennedy and Ned Glass. Their first appearance during the funeral of Charles Lampert emphasizes the sinister humor that is always present whenever they are on screen. Coburn sneers expansively throughout, all swaggering menace and teeth. Glass is a barely contained package of neuroses while Kennedy snarls and sulks and stomps around like a petulant school bully. A word too for Jacques Marin as the Parisian policeman growing ever more morose as his investigation spins out of control under the weight of all the bizarre developments.

Charade was one of those films that suffered from a succession of frankly rotten public domain video releases. Gradually, things improved as official versions came on the market and allowed the movie to be seen in better quality. I still have my old DVD put out by Universal in the UK some years ago. It presents the movie quite well in anamorphic widescreen and a clean, attractive transfer. Since then of course Charade has become available in both the UK and the US on Blu-ray and I can see myself upgrading at some point. The movie is a fine example of slick 60s filmmaking, blending and balancing  the thriller, comedy and romantic aspects of the story to best effect. It’s a great favorite of mine, as elegant, smooth and stylish as its stars. It’s funny, exciting and timeless – even when the twists and hoaxes are familiar, the charm and panache just sweep you along. If you’ve never seen it, then you really ought to make a point of tracking it down.

 

 

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36 responses to “Charade

  1. Vienna

    May 22, 2014 at 6:26 am

    Great review as always. I love this film and the Parisian setting ( I’m off to Paris later this year and may try and find some of the locations). Great cast and almost a romantic swan song for Cary Grant. A lot of Hitchcock touches but the writer and director made it all their own – a light thriller with all the right ingredients.
    Love that shot of Audrey gazing into to Cary ‘s eyes.

     
    • Colin

      May 22, 2014 at 6:36 am

      Yes, I think the Hitchcockian label acts as a nice hook to draw in viewers but it does something of a disservice to Donen and the others.

      Hope you have a great time in Paris when you get there!

       
  2. Cavershamragu

    May 22, 2014 at 8:49 am

    Great stuff Colin – this is a firm family favourite – I fell for the identity twist the first time round but still enjoy it. I agree that that it is very much in the Donen / Stone style, with its elegance and wit and for the most part eschews that much more oneiric style we associate with Hitch, with very little of the heaviness (pun intended) that he brought to his films – I really wish Demme handn’t tried remaking it though was amused to see Stone using the ‘Peter Joshua’ name on its credits (but then on ARABESQUE he was credited as ‘Pierre Marton’ …)

     
    • Colin

      May 22, 2014 at 11:55 am

      It’s obvious enough why the Hitchcock comparisons are made but I actually think Mirage, another Peter Stone screenplay which you wrote about before, comes closer to the darker tone we associate with Hitch.

      I’ve never seen the remake. To be honest, I’ve no real wish to do so either.

       
      • Cavershamragu

        May 22, 2014 at 11:57 am

        It’s a potentially amusing idea as it is done in the style of the French New Wave nut has the wrong cast and is just a bit blah (and I love Demme most of the time). Yes, Mirage is much more like Hitch but then so was Dmytryk! And thank you for the very nice link too!

         
        • Colin

          May 22, 2014 at 12:02 pm

          You’re welcome, Sergio!

          “A bit blah” is kind of what I expected to hear the remake was. Charade is one of those movies where everything just comes together, and it’s practically impossible to replicate or reproduce that.

           
          • Cavershamragu

            May 22, 2014 at 12:20 pm

            In many ways I think people love CHARADE because it provides the thrills, humour and glamour we associate with Hitchcock but without the angst or that deep sense that there is something else deep beneath the surface given their extraordinarily complex and exact construction – here you can relax, marvel and enjoy!

             
            • Colin

              May 22, 2014 at 12:38 pm

              Yes, that’s a very good point. Even lightweight Hitchcock has an edge to it that has to be acknowledged. Charade has all the style and escapism but just makes you feel good. And that’s exactly the reason I watched it again the other day.

               
              • Cavershamragu

                May 22, 2014 at 12:54 pm

                Little titbit for you – the reason the film fell into the public domain was actually due to a screw up by the UK lab making the opening titles – they forgot to put tbe copyright notice on the screen and so it instantly became, in the US, a PD title! I think they have since been added back but appaently the damage was done by then …

                 
                • Colin

                  May 22, 2014 at 12:56 pm

                  That’s fascinating, and a little bizarre too. I always wondered how the whole PD mess arose.

                   
  3. chrisk

    May 22, 2014 at 9:14 am

    I could not agree more with your review of this movie. I too fell in love with it when I first saw it. I also like Arabesque. The casting for Charade was perfect. Best regards..

     
    • Colin

      May 22, 2014 at 11:56 am

      Yes, I like Arabesque too. It doesn’t work as well as this film but it’s still pretty enjoyable.

       
  4. le0pard13

    May 22, 2014 at 1:41 pm

    Wonderful look at one of my all-time favorite film, Colin. Perhaps my favorite Hitchcock film that wasn’t made by The Master. Well done.

     
    • Colin

      May 22, 2014 at 7:37 pm

      Thanks, Michael. I think it’s probably a well thought of movie by a lot of folks, and it’s easy to see why.

       
  5. Cavershamragu

    May 22, 2014 at 2:01 pm

    Not wishing to lower the tenor of the conversation, but this film also boasts the funniest shower sequence this side of PORKY’S!

     
    • Colin

      May 22, 2014 at 7:39 pm

      :) Yes, that’s a terrific scene, and it’s as good an illustration of the charm of the film as any I reckon.

       
  6. Jeff Flugel

    May 22, 2014 at 2:41 pm

    Great choice for a post, Colin!

    I love CHARADE, and think you make a very telling point that it’s perhaps time to stop labeling it merely an exceptionally adroit Hitchcock pastiche and simply give it its due as a superlative light, romantic thriller, a wonderful movie in its own right. Cary Grant is at his most Cary Grant-ish here, just effortlessly suave, mysterious and cool. I always want to dislike Audrey Hepburn for her studied chic-ness and status as a style and fashion icon, but she nearly always ends up charming me with her wit and vulnerability. This is probably my favorite of her movies. The Mancini score is also wonderful.

    I’m also awfully fond of ARABESQUE. It doesn’t have the tricky plot of CHARADE, but it’s ridiculously fun and stylish, and I’ve never seen Gregory Peck looser, funny and carefree on screen.

     
    • Colin

      May 22, 2014 at 7:49 pm

      Jeff, I know Hepburn isn’t to everyone’s taste, and I can see why, but I always liked her. I think even those who are a little ambivalent about her will enjoy her in Charade though.

      On the Hitchcock element, it’s clearly influenced by that style but I do feel it ought to get a bit more recognition as a top film on its own terms. If you can look past the Hitchcockian aspects the movie still bears up, which in itself tells me it has a quality of its own.

      Good to see another Arabesque fan too. it’s a nice change of pace for Peck.

       
  7. John M

    May 22, 2014 at 2:50 pm

    Thanks much for writing this, Colin. Terrific exploration of a very captivating film. Always been bothered when the Hitch auteuristas disparage it, almost as if they are protesting too much. Charade stands well in and of itself.Everything works — pacing, music, cinematography, script, acting, production design, etc. Stanley Donen had a way with France, no? Charade, Funny Face, Two For The Road. Don’t mean to keep repeating myself, but how not to — another excellent critique, covering every aspect of the film. Again, thanks!

     
    • Colin

      May 22, 2014 at 7:53 pm

      Most kind of you, John. I generally enjoy Donen’s movies – he had a real style to his filmmaking and his work is the kind it’s awful easy to revisit.

       
  8. vinnieh

    May 22, 2014 at 4:27 pm

    Excellently written review, I really want to see this movie again.

     
    • Colin

      May 22, 2014 at 7:56 pm

      Great to hear I got you in the mood to give it another look, Vinnie. I enjoyed seeing it again myself (then again, I always do) and also had fun writing it up.

       
  9. mikestakeonthemovies

    May 22, 2014 at 10:50 pm

    Watched this again last year with my sons who are catching up to me on film history. They loved it and for good reason. It’s a film that never fails to entertain. In our home James Coburn is always fun so he is an added bonus amongst a top cast.

     
    • Colin

      May 23, 2014 at 7:48 am

      Good to hear you’re getting the next generation into this kind of stuff, Mike.
      It’s very much a supporting role for Coburn but he makes the most of it, as do all the cast in fairness, and he’s always entertaining.

       
  10. Jerry Entract

    May 23, 2014 at 6:26 pm

    This film has 1960s written all over it, for me – it is a thoroughly well-done entertainment and Grant and Hepburn close to their best.

     
    • Colin

      May 23, 2014 at 6:37 pm

      Yes, it sometimes seems almost every decade has its own signature style, and Charade captures that early 60s feel perfectly.

       
  11. Clayton @ Phantom Empires

    May 25, 2014 at 12:51 am

    Would you believe that is STILL haven’t seen this one? I developed the “Hitchcockian” thing relatively late in life (excepting THE BIRDS and his silents), and over the years I’ve been picking away at the list of the actual Hitchcock movies and their various ‘inspireds’. This one has been on the tube a million times and I’ve just let it pass by, but after this review I’ll be watching it on the next run-by. Thanks, Colin!

     
    • Colin

      May 25, 2014 at 8:31 am

      Clayton, I think many of us have films which we’re familiar with by name but have never taken the time to watch. The kind of experience you mention is probably quite common – we see a movie appear in the schedules again and again, and we never seem to watch it. Perhaps the fact some titles pop up so often actually leads to our neglecting them – after all, they’re sure to appear again in due course.
      Anyway, I hope you enjoy it whenever you get the opportunity.

       
  12. Vienna

    May 25, 2014 at 8:40 am

    I ‘m watching CHARADE as I write this,and enjoying it all over again. Matthau is so convincing!
    Looking forward to the scene where Cary takes a shower!

     
    • Colin

      May 25, 2014 at 8:46 am

      That’s great to hear! Really, I don’t think there’s a false note struck by anyone throughout the movie.

       
  13. kristina

    May 27, 2014 at 1:37 pm

    such a great one, need to re-watch myself sometime!

     
    • Colin

      May 27, 2014 at 1:45 pm

      Definitely. It’s a marvelous way chill and just feel good about the movies, and life.

       
  14. Bruce H.

    June 26, 2014 at 4:48 am

    Another excellent review, Colin, and one of my all-time favorite films. I’m always a little surprised to find non-westerns here, but even a cursory viewing of the titles you’ve reviewed should dispel that notion. Anyway, I love how you mentioned the way “Charade” fits into its time so well, I’ve always marveled how it so deftly says “Early-1960s international optimism,” featuring Americans as translators, CIA spies, and even jet-setting dweebs living on questionable incomes. (Although it must be said, the amount of money everybody’s after is kind of paltry, even by 1963 standards, and not really worth all the trouble) “Charade” is just one of those movies that can be watched again and again, and even if you don’t pick up anything new each time the old stuff is so wonderful that you can’t help but come away feeling good about classic Hollywood movies and wishing they still made ‘em this good, or even tried.

    By the way, have you read the book “Charade” is based on? Actually they must have been written in tandem, both by Peter Stone, as the book has a 1963 copyright on it. It’s enjoyable enough, but misses greatness simply because it doesn’t feature Cary Grant, the greatest of all movie stars.

     
    • Colin

      June 26, 2014 at 7:28 am

      Bruce, I do focus primarily on the western but I like the site to reflect at least a little of my viewing habits. In other words, I watch and enjoy all kinds of movies, even if I don’t necessarily write something about them all. And actually, I think it’s important to watch a wide range of stuff – the more we see, the better our appreciation of cinema in general.

      No, I haven’t read the book. A quick bit of research suggests that it started out as a script that didn’t fly, became a novel, and then that was adapted into a new script in turn.

       

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