Charade is a fine bottle of 1963 French romantic-comedy that has aged with the same charm and class as its leading man and lady, Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn. From the opening titles, you know you’ve got yourself a winner: directed by Stanley Donen, music by Henry Mancini, title cards by Bruce Binder, Audrey in Givenchy, and Cary being … well, Cary Grant.
A real 90-pointer.
Even just mere minutes into this cleverly executed caper, it is obvious that Grant and Hepburn are, not only in top form, but have a natural magnetic chemistry that makes it a wonder they’d never worked together before. Hepburn– spunky, witty and wonderfully dressed in Givenchy couture–is a total natural alongside the slightly acerbic, been-there-done-that silver fox Grant. Beautiful Regina “Reggie” Lampert (Hepburn) is on the run following the murder of her husband, and seeks the help of the American Embassy in Paris. Walter Matthau is the CIA agent who takes in interest in her situation, especially since her husband was murdered over the matter of $25,000 that is supposed to be ‘government money’. The mysterious but charming Peter Joshua (Grant) also takes a personal interest in Reggie … and she finds herself increasingly attracted to him (who can blame her?) and suspicious of him.
She’s also being chased by a band of craggy thugs who also want the money– money that Reggie has no clue as to the whereabouts of. Her innocent ignorance about the money inflames the situation, and she finds herself trapped in a dangerous cat and mouse game– with plenty of twists, turns, and yes, sex, thrown in.
It’s sexy, stylish, smart, and in the words of one film critic, the best Hitchcock film that Hitchcock never made.
The script itself is solid enough, but what absolutely sells the film is the Hepburn/Grant chemistry, who slam dunk the film in spite of their 26-year age difference. (To fix the age issue, Hepburn’s character is portrayed as the pursuer, alleviating Grant from coming across as a lecher.) Then there’s the terrific roster of strong character actors. Most memorably, a deliciously glib Walter Matthau and a remarkably young James Coburn as a wise-cracking Texan crook. “She bat them long lashes at you,” he tells Grant, in laughing derision, “and you fell for it like an egg from a tall chicken.”
That line, for the record, is flipping hilarious.
As is the film: quick, black comedy is smartly woven seamlessly between the action, successfully toeing the line between farce and action/drama. The likeably smarmy Matthau fires out the one liners (“last time I sent out a tie, only the spot came back”) while Hepburn and Grant make marvelous sparring partners. (“How do you shave in there,” she quips of his famous dimpled chin, while he answers each query about the roster of women in his life with the standard response “yes, but we’re divorced”).
There are plenty of laughs– belly laughs, at that– but the viewer is also intensely invested in the elaborate plot at hand which gives the film a gravitas that is surprisingly heavy. It is an accomplishment owing much to Donen’s deployment of such Hitchcockian elements as Red Herrings (the Matthau and Grant characters) and Maguffins (an elusive $250,000), and gorgeous cinematography (the legendary Charles Lang).
Bottom line: Charade is a devilishly versatile film; an exercise in chemistry, comedy and contextual sex. It has the singular blessing of being enjoyable over dry martinis with the most serious of serious film snobs as well as over hot-buttered popcorn with pajama-clad gal pals.
P.S.: Audrey + Espionage = Fashion Nirvana