Charade

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.