Welcome to I Spy, a new column at CutPrintFilm that delves into the history of espionage capers, from psychological thrillers, political-tinged potboilers, comedies and extravagant action-adventures escapades. For the maiden entry, we shall take a look at the 1963 Stanley Donen directed film, Charade.
By 1963, at the ‘ripe’ age of 59, Cary Grant was no stranger to spy films. His more popular, widely recognized efforts had been two Hitchcock ventures, each directed at different periods in the actor’s career: Notorious (1946) and North By Northwest (1959), both of which he co-starred with glamorous Hollywood starlets of their eras, Ingrid Bergman and Eva Marie Saint. Come 1963, his talents as a thespian were called upon yet again for an espionage adventure of sorts when screenwriter Peter Stone and director Stanley Donen adapted the short story The Unsuspecting Wife to the silver screen as Charade. Making her debut in the spy genre was megastar Audrey Hepburn, but rather than play second fiddle, her role was to be front and center, with Grant’s popping in and out intermittently.
Following the sudden, unexplained murder of a train passenger and a terrifically kaleidoscopic title sequence courtesy of the talented Maurice Binder, audiences meet Regina “Riggie” Lampert (Audrey Hepburn), who is vacationing at a ski resort with her nephew Jean-Louis and sister. Reggie is afflicted with a ferocious appetite, a sure sign, as she describes it, that things are not well. She reveals that her marriage has taken a downturn; love is gone, replaced by lies. Thus it’s time for a divorce. Amidst the sad news, she innocuously makes the acquaintance of a charming American, Peter Joshua (Cary Grant). Their meeting is short but sweet… Upon returning home to Paris, Reggie makes a shocking discovery: her lush condo is totally vacant. What’s more, Inspector Édouard Grandpierre (Jacques Marin) calls her in to announce that her husband, the man tossed from the train at the film’s start, is dead. The plot thickens ever more when the CIA gets involved, led by Hamilton Bartholomew (Walter Matthau), who claims that her late husband had partaken in a secretive WWII operation involving lots of American money, and with him dead, the CIA wants its refund. With Peter’s help, Reggie will have to find the money so many parties are after, including a trio of thugs who are ready to kill!
Cursory research on Charade revealed a succinct, surprisingly accurate quote from a review published upon the film’s release. Charade was described as the best Hitchcock film that Hitchcock himself didn’t direct. Characters taking on different personas to gain the upper hand in their quest for personal gain, and international intelligence agency trying to clean up its own dirty work whilst shoving details under the rug, and an innocent civilian caught in the middle of it all who has no choice other than to muster some courage and wits so as to escape looming dangers that take the shape of nefarious individuals working in unison that practice intimidation of the highest order. If that sounds a lot of North by Northwest, that’s because it is a lot like North by Northwest, including a major role for Cary Grant! Quick witted banter between the stars, a delicate juggling act between genuine thrills and light comedy, plot points that keep the audience guessing what happens next, this is the very sort of material the Master of Suspense perfected throughout his career.
All that having been made clear, as the saying goes, imitation is the best form of flattery. When the imitation pales in comparison, moviegoers and critics alike relish getting their pitchforks out and cry foul. This is not, thankfully, one of those instances. In fact, Charade is an excellent piece of entertainment, a lark that works its charm early and often, never letting go. Despite some plot points that come across as a bit miscalculated, most notably the romantic angle between Reggie and Peter given their flagrant age gap (in fairness, Grant himself was uneasy about this aspect and had some of the original lines changed to make it so that Reggie was more the pursuer than his character), Stanley Donen handles the frothy material with a confident and strong understanding of how to balance disparate tones. When Reggie is threatened by any of the thugs who purport to have been a part of the same WWII mission and want their share of the lost money (one of which is played eerily by James Coburn), the jokes take a back seat, one is fearful for her safety. The same goes for Peter, who, as it turns out, is in some fashion working for and against both sides, meaning he has to contend with the ruffians as well, which leads to the highlight action scene of the film wherein he and Scobie (George Kennedy) have a death-defying tête-à-tête on the roof of a building next to a bright neon sign.
While the film awards a fair share of its running time to explaining the CIA’s self-interest mission and the detailed backstory of the strange covert operation that has led everyone to Reggie’s doorstep, desperate for money they all believe to be theirs, the real reason to watch the film is the relationship between Reggie and Peter. In the 1950s and 60s, Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, despite being at different points in their careers, were international mega stars, beloved by audiences everywhere and regularly earning accolades. Their partnering is the stuff of magic, allowing their raw charisma and talent for lightness of touch to shine through. There is unquestionably an attraction between their respective roles, yet it is rarely played for in the tradition sense. They don’t exactly articulate their hearts’ yearnings for one another, nor is it a ‘opposites attract’ case where two people start by hating each other only to fall in love later. Charade finds a delicate sweet spot between those two extremes and preserves the balancing act from start to finish.
While witnessing Grant demonstrate a sharp tongue and relishing in quick witted banter whilst playing an supremely confident anti-hero will surprise no one, Hepburn more than holds her own. Frankly, she’s just as good at tossing one-liners and sarcastic comments as her co-star, proving her impeccable comedic timing. The role of Reggie itself is also worthy of praise for how human she come across as. She’s obviously someone with a head on her shoulders and possesses a charming, natural predilection for trying to keep the mood somewhat light with her sense of humour, yet she is very much aware of and appreciates the danger her life is currently shrouded in. It makes Reggie very human rather than what films of this nature often serve audiences, which aligns more with the classic ‘hero’s journey’ by which the protagonist is an emptier vessel through whom the viewer lives vicariously.
One plot twist leads to another, right up until the very end, but again, never exclusively for thrilling shock value. Sometimes the movie allows itself to have a bit of fun, which is arguably one of Charade’s strongest qualities: the tonal dissonance is never a hindrance to the finished product as a whole. Comparisons to Hitchock’s oeuvre were bound to happen at the time and surely still will when people look back and decide to give this film a chance. Given the film’s subject matter, structure and Cary Grant’s presence, is very difficult not to. Nevertheless, provided a film can stand on its own and be of quality, then it doesn’t matter however much it looks and sounds like another filmmaker’s work. Rest assured, Stanley Donen’s effort are more than just a charade.