Often compared to the work of Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Donen’s Charade is an intriguing and inspired ‘60s film which, unlike other spy flicks from the era, is primarily focused on a female protagonist. While comparisons to Hitchcock are made due to the mixed genres of suspense, romance, and comedy, along with the casting of Hitchcock regular Cary Grant, Charade is a distinctly quirky thriller whose emphasis on lightness and wit show that it can hold up on its own. It also proves to be an excellent showcase for the great chemistry between its legendary leads, Audrey Hepburn and Grant.
At first glance the age difference between Hepburn and Grant might seem awkward, given that this was one of Grant’s last leading performances, while Hepburn was still in her prime, but Peter Stone’s witty and inventive screenplay is able to make light of it rather charmingly. Although the film’s slow and cumbersome pacing (evidenced in that dreadful rooftop fight scene) might initially turn off viewers looking for a pure thriller, the repartee between Grant and Hepburn and some solid twists and turns keep you on your toes as you try to untangle the web of deception.
While vacationing in the French Alps, Regina “Reggie” Lampert (Hepburn) meets a dashing stranger named Peter Joshua (Grant). When she returns to Paris deciding to divorce her secretive husband, she is informed that he was murdered due to mysterious circumstances, and all of their possessions are gone. She is summoned to the U.S. embassy by CIA agent Hamilton Bartholomew (Walter Matthau), who explains that her late husband was an agent in World War II, and had stolen $250,000 that was supposed to go to the French Resistance.
With the money missing, Bartholomew and three of her late husband’s former jilted partners, Tex Panthollow (James Coburn), Herman Scobie (George Kennedy), and Leopold Gideon (Ned Glass), insist Reggie has the money whether she knows it or not. At the same time, Peter contacts Reggie offering his help in protecting her and retrieving the money, and the two appear to develop feelings for each other. It soon becomes clear that Peter is not whom he claims to be, as he repeatedly changes his identity while admitting that he, too, is after the money. Reggie struggles with her feelings for Peter as she realizes that she does not know whom to trust.
Filmed on location in Paris, the film features an extravagant and colorful backdrop for the romance and action taking place. The dynamic chemistry between Grant and Hepburn is the main draw of the film, but Matthau, Coburn, and Kennedy offer great supporting performances, as well. Stone’s script isn’t the most focused, but there are some great lines in here that you’ll certainly remember. What should be noted are Maurice Binder’s dazzling opening animated titles, as well as Henry Manicini’s score and theme song, with the latter being nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song. Charade stands out among other films in the ‘60s spy genre, because it’s a far more cerebral and playful take compared to more macho and action-oriented efforts from the period.
Due to an unfortunate error caused by Universal not including a proper copyright notice in the film’s credits, the film entered the public domain immediately on release. This resulted in an inordinate amount of home video releases made from prints of varying quality. Since being licensed to Criterion, however, there is now a definitive way to see the film. For the Blu-ray release of Charade, Criterion has put together an amazing high-def transfer with an uncompressed monaural soundtrack that makes this the best way to see this film. While there is an audio commentary track with Donen and Stone, it’s a bit disappointing that there is little else in the way of bonus features.