Published on May 24th, 2014 | by Clint Davis
Summary: A fun mystery romp with genuine chemistry between Grant & Hepburn. 'Charade' comes off as a bit sexist today, but has an otherwise innocent vibe.
NR | 113 min.
Director: Stanley Donen | Screenplay: Peter Stone
Starring: Audrey Hepburn, Cary Grant, Walter Matthau
Studio: Stanley Donen Productions | Distribution: Universal Pictures
Onscreen couples don’t get much classier than this. Throw Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant together in a film set on a broken-down farm in Dust Bowl Kansas and they’ll make it look like Xanadu. The fact that Charade places the pair in France, wearing Givenchy and smoking cigarettes means you can consider this film Miles Davis.
This romantic thriller-comedy is a hip early-’60s romp with elements of whodunit and charm to spare–thanks especially to Grant. When Charade was produced, the legendary leading man was nearly 60-years old, while his co-star was just over 30. The story goes that Grant was immediately interested in Peter Stone’s screenplay but didn’t like the idea of coming off as a lecherous old man pursuing a woman half his age, so he suggested that Hepburn’s character be the romantic aggressor. When you’re Cary Grant, you can do such things…
The film’s plot winding plot features a lot of twists and turns, but doesn’t manipulate the audience with illogical reveals, especially when the mystery is solved. The elegant Regina (Hepburn) is vacationing in France when she receives news that her husband has been killed under mysterious circumstances. While at a ski resort, she meets a recently-divorced charmer named Peter Joshua (Grant) who quickly becomes her confidant/de-facto protector once the reason for her husband’s demise becomes clear. A team of undesirables begin following and confronting Regina about a large sum of missing money that was in his care, which they claim belongs to them. Loyalties and motives switch every few scenes while our heroine struggles with whom to trust.
Movies that rely on plot twists are often victims of their own cleverness. Stone’s script is extremely well done though, full of language that delicately creates intrigue while not confusing the viewer. One of my biggest pet peeves is when the final reveal is a complete gimmick that even the most attentive viewer couldn’t possibly see coming–that’s not the case with Charade. From the very beginning, everything you need to solve the mystery is on the screen, making it all the more satisfying at the end. But one vital thing to keep in mind when watching this film is that everyone lies.
Director Stanley Donen was a master of big productions, making his name with timeless musicals like Singin’ in the Rain and On the Town. Here, he trades in showstopping numbers on large set pieces for gun-toting spies in claustrophobic hotel rooms. The original score by Henry Mancini is total ’60s cool with a very tense bit of music accompanying a memorable chase through the subway near the film’s close. These production elements are all spot-on but Charade‘s costumes steal the spotlight. The men are decked out in three-piece flannel suits and Hepburn looks perfect in outfits by Givenchy that still look fashionable. Her bug-eyed sunglasses have now become passe but in 1963, they made her the best-dressed actress in film.
My favorite part of Grant’s performance is how it proves he’s not afraid to look silly. There’s a great scene where, while flirting with Regina, he hops into the shower still wearing his suit for a funny routine. It would have been easy for the leading man to play it cool but it’s another testament to the actor’s charm that he could successfully play a comedic role. Also, the supporting players are suitably menacing and Walter Matthau especially stands out as a concerned CIA agent.
I wasn’t completely enamored with Charade though, as I couldn’t help but view Regina’s character as a typically sexist image of pre-1970’s women. She was shown as a helpless girl who, mere hours after her husband dies, is already throwing herself into the arms of another man–and no matter how many times she’s manipulated by Grant’s character, still is smitten by him. Additionally, she’s terrorized by all the men in the film, yet still relies on them every step of the way to get out of her predicament. I think it’s fun to imagine Katherine Hepburn being cast as “Reggie”, wearing pants and eventually shooting Peter after one too many lies…probably would’ve been a bit too dark.
Accepting that sexism was par for the course in early ’60s cinema, Charade is a very good film that’s both entertaining and smart. Donen proves a versatile director and Stone writes a mean script but let’s be honest, it’s all about Cary Grant’s easy charm and Audrey Hepburn’s badass frames.