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Friday Film Review: Charade

Charade (1963)

Genre: Romantic Suspense

Grade: B+

Witty, sophisticated, and elegant – this falls under the category of “they don’t make them like this anymore.” The pairing of Hepburn and Grant isn’t my favorite – he does look a little long in the tooth for her – but … damn, he’s Cary Grant and he always looks good.

Regina Lampbert (Audrey Hepburn) comes home to Paris from a holiday in the French Alps with the intention of divorcing her husband, Charles Lampert. Only when she arrives at their apartment, she discovers that it’s completely empty and her husband is gone. I mean really gone as she is told by police Detective Grandpierre (one of my favorite French actors, Jacques Marin) who informs her that her husband has been murdered while trying to leave the country for South America. Before Charles left, he auctioned the contents of their apartment but nothing worth the $250,000 (modern estimate $10,000,000) he got is found on his body or among the few possessions he had with him. When Grandpierre questions Reggie about Charles, it becomes obvious how little she knew about him, his life before she met him or who might want to kill him.

Later that evening Peter Joshua (Cary Grant), a man Reggie met and briefly flirted with at the resort, comes to the deserted apartment to offer his condolences. At Charles’s funeral, three strangers Tex, Scobie and Gideon (James Coburn, George Kennedy, Ned Glass) appear and all take the time to confirm that Charles really is dead. Another stranger hands Reggie a letter from a Mr. Bartholemew (Walter Matthau) of the American Embassy who, when she meets with him, tells her that he’s with the CIA, the three men at the funeral are after money they think Charles stole from them and, now that they think Reggie has it, she’s in danger of being killed as well. Reggie is more than willing to hand over the money but the problem is – she has no idea where the money might be.

To take her mind off the danger, Peter takes her out to dinner – where she’s threatened by two of the men – and then home where the third one shows up. Reggie thinks Peter is on her side but as events occur, and everyone seems to be double crossing each other, she begins to wonder. Can she dodge the killers and find the money before she ends up dead too?

From the opening sequences, the film gives a feel for what you’re going to get: suspense, a mild (for today) level of violence that’s more implied than actually shown, beautiful scenery and lots of playful, rapid fire banter between stars Grant and Hepburn. It’s also got a fantastic Henry Mancini musical score and slightly groovy 1960′s intro titles. Givenchy keeps Hepburn stylishly garbed (she even makes mittens look chic) but poor Grant barely makes it through the movie with one intact suit due to fights, games in the shower and ice cream cone mishaps.

And oh, the locations. The French Alps provide the intro but then it’s off to Paris where it looks just as I think it should. Slightly rainy, gorgeous old buildings, Notre Dame, the Palais-Royal Gardens, Les Halles and what looks like a French hotel with loads more charm than a Holiday Inn off an Interstate, even if you do have to use a creaky old elevator in it. I also wonder what an apartment the size of what is supposed to be the Lampert’s would run you these days.

The script is wonderful and turns the usual leading man/woman dynamic on its head as Reggie is the predator in their relationship while Peter attempts to fend off her advances. He doesn’t put too much effort into it as its obvious he’s starting to fall for her but the change from the original script – which Grant had turned down because he thought it made him look like a skeevy, old perv – not only salvages this pairing but makes it sparkle. There is one thing that’s always bothered me slightly and that is that at the end of the film, when Reggie’s learned the value of questioning everyone’s identity, she’s so easily distracted from it by the mere mention of a marriage license. Still these two have such lovely bantering dialog throughout the film – sophisticated and without bathroom humor. Why is this out of style or so hard to do these days?

Along with the romance, there’s a nice balance of comedy and tension that carries through the movie. The humor is more deadpan and low key rather than slapstick and more evident in some places than others but it’s pretty much in every scene. When Reggie and her French friend Sylvie discuss Reggie’s decision to divorce Charles because she doesn’t love him, Sylvie argues that’s not a good reason and Reggie counters that just because she left the US to escape American Provincial doesn’t mean she’s ready for French Traditional. Then there’s the darling scene where Peter steps fully clothed into the shower in Reggie’s hotel room and delights her with his comic antics and comments on his drip dry suit and waterproof watch. But director Stanley Donen knows when to switch on the suspense and danger such as when Tex terrorizes Reggie with nothing more menacing than a book of matches, Peter is leaping from balcony to balcony high above the streets of Paris or fighting Scobie on top of the American Express building or when Reggie attempts to evade the villains in the French Metro, the Colonnade and the Theatre du Palais-Royal. In that final sequence, even the footsteps ratchet up the suspense.

Despite how much I adore it, I have to say that there are plot holes and issues. I can’t recall if it’s explained how Peter knows the three men after Reggie or how Charles managed to elude them for so many years. Reggie’s phone conversations with Tex, Gideon and Scobie are surprisingly civilized and I don’t care what Mr. Bartholomew says, there is no way I’d stay in the same hotel with three men I knew were willing to kill me or leave my hotel key with the somnolent desk clerk when I went out. And though the manner in which Charles concealed the money is plausible and inventive, the way in which it’s stored would decrease the value in the real world. Still, the film sweeps me along as I’m watching it and most of these things don’t come to mind until after it’s over.

“Charade” is smart, elegant and doesn’t play down to the lowest mentality. It deftly juggles several genres from comedy to thriller to romance. I’m not much into parlor games but even I’d enjoy playing “pass the orange while not using your hands” with Grant and delight in being dressed by a master of French fashion design. If you haven’t ever seen it, avoid reading sites such as the Wikipedia article or some of the plot synopses at IMDB as they give away some of the twists and turns that help make “Charade” so much fun to watch.

~Jayne

Another long time reader who read romance novels in her teens, then took a long break before started back again about 15 years ago. She enjoys historical romance/fiction best, likes contemporaries, action- adventure and mysteries, will read suspense if there's no TSTL characters and is currently reading very few paranormals.

23 Comments

  1. cate
    Apr 20, 2012 @ 06:25:40

    I love this film, it’s 60′s chic at it’s best. For me it’s the cinematic equivalent of reading OK or HELLO – and falls into the same catagory as Arabesque(Peck & Loren,and The Thomas Crown Affair(McQueen & Dunaway)….The score is fab – I’m a huge Mancini fan anyway – And if Cary Grant was starting to pass his “sell by” date as a romantic lead by this time – Who the hell cares – he was gorgeous at any age.

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  2. Kate Hewitt
    Apr 20, 2012 @ 06:57:16

    I first saw this movie when I was about twelve and have adored it ever since. Like you said I love how it switches from comedy to thriller to romance, all so very deftly. And even though Cary Grant is a bit too old he’s still roguishly charming and I think he and Audrey Hepburn make a terrific pair.

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  3. Marguerite Kaye
    Apr 20, 2012 @ 07:31:50

    I love everything about this film. Love, love, love it. And now I want to watch it again.

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  4. Jayne
    Apr 20, 2012 @ 07:39:07

    @cate: I especially love Mancini’s scores for the original Pink Panther movies.

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  5. Hannah E.
    Apr 20, 2012 @ 07:54:49

    This is one of my absolute favorite movies. I never get tired of watching this one. And I couldn’t disagree more about the pairing of Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn; I feel like they had perfect chemistry.

    As for why this sort of movie is out of style, I think it’s just too understated for younger audiences to appreciate it. The humor is too subtle (or maybe too innocent?) and the suspense too mild. I tried to show this movie to my younger siblings and my ex, and they thought it was boring and not funny. They didn’t “get it.”

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  6. JoanneL
    Apr 20, 2012 @ 08:00:29

    Jayne! Did you use ‘groovy’ in your review? Thank you for that grin and for a reminder that I haven’t watched this favorite movie in ages.

    Givenchy & Hepburn were a match made in heaven. (has anyone, before or since Hepburn, used sunglasses to express so many emotions?) As a young girl I thought all Paris apartments were like the one that Charles cleaned out – très décevant.

    Great review, thank you.

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  7. Jennifer Estep
    Apr 20, 2012 @ 08:05:16

    I love this movie too because it has a little bit of everything: romance, mystery, and action. Plus, Hepburn and Grant have wonderful chemistry.

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  8. Stephanie Doyle
    Apr 20, 2012 @ 08:39:51

    Loved this movie! It’s one of those any time it comes on AMC I have to stop and watch.

    Loved the setting, loved the clothes, but oh the banter… I miss really witty banter.

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  9. cate
    Apr 20, 2012 @ 08:41:51

    @Jayne: The Pink Panther – genius film ! Score/script/acting & direction perfection !
    Here’s another opne for your netflix queue then Jane – if you’re hitting a 60′s gloss period – Two for the Road. Audrey Hepburn & Albert Finney. It’s a dramedy about a marriage – and a road movie – and Hepburn’s last film before she went into temporary retirement. The director’s Stanley Donen – so ’nuff said

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  10. Amy Kathryn
    Apr 20, 2012 @ 08:44:27

    I love Audrey in a caper…How to Steal a Million is another favorite. I do have the same niggle about the ending but who cares when the overall film is such a winner.

    Imagine my delight when we checked into our hotel on our first trip to Paris to find that it was used in Charade…Hotel St. Jacques on the Left Bank. I am not admitting the existence of any photos of me doing my best Audrey in the elevator or stairwells…..

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  11. LeeF
    Apr 20, 2012 @ 08:56:29

    I think I love your review almost as much as the movie. You have touched on all the aspects that make this such a special film. Thanks for giving me something wonderful to hum in my head all day.

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  12. Jaci Burton
    Apr 20, 2012 @ 09:47:39

    I loved this movie as a kid, and still love it today. I thought Hepburn and Grant were gloriously romantic in it, and loved everything about Paris. And Hepburn’s fashion made me swoon. So did the music. I don’t know why I don’t own this movie. I need to rectify that. Thanks for the reminder, Jayne! :-)

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  13. Estara
    Apr 20, 2012 @ 10:50:53

    This is one of my very favourite Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn movies and you’ve explained the highlights very well. The nerve-wracking at the Theatre Royal is one of the few thriller sequences that really scare me to bits (but then I’m not much of a mystery, thriller or horror fan in the first place).

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  14. Cara
    Apr 20, 2012 @ 15:54:09

    YAY! This is one of my all-time favorite movies. Only, I actually kind of adored the age gap between Hepburn and Grant. In fact, that may have been the start of my long-standing love for May/December relationships in romance…

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  15. Jayne
    Apr 20, 2012 @ 16:59:51

    @cate: I’ve watched “Two for the Road” and found it has too much drama for my comedy – even with the early scene of them not knowing how to work the mosquito netting in their country hotel room. I do recall a dress she wore in a party scene with large, metallic reflective discs hanging off it all over and thinking that only Audrey Hepburn could have pulled off looking this good in a dress so ugly.

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  16. Jayne
    Apr 20, 2012 @ 17:14:18

    @Amy Kathryn: I love “How to Steal a Million” and did a review of it back in September 2009. Lovely, witty fun.

    How much of the Hotel St. Jacques did they use? Does it still look much the same as in the film? I think I’d have to vogue like Audrey with sunglasses as well.

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  17. Nora
    Apr 20, 2012 @ 17:52:55

    It’s hard to find an Audrey Hepburn movie not to like (with the possible exceptions of Green Mansions and Paris When It Sizzles ). I adore Charade, and I love how Grant worked his discomfort with his and Hepburn’s age difference into the script.

    Two for the Road is one of my all-time favorite movies. Yes, it has some raw and dark glimpses into married life, but it was a real departure from Hepburn’s usual light romantic comedies. Plus, it’s the film where she broke from her usual Givenchy and and wore Mary Quant and Paco Rabanne and Courreges and Pucci. The move is great for the clothes alone.

    Also, Two for the Road is one of the lovely Jaqueline Bissett’ s very first movies. She was probably the only woman in the world who could outshine Hepburn when they’re in the same frame. My only issue with Hepburn’s fashion/looks in the movie is how painfully thin she is in some scenes.

    Finally, the Maxwell-Manchesters! High comedy all around. “Do you still want a child?” “Yes, just not that child.” A sentiment we can all no doubt relate to.

    But, back to Charade, it’s an utter delight, a palate-cleanser for our ugly times, a dollop of meringue after a heavy diet of CGI thrillers and dark political plots and hopeless Apocalyptic scenarios.

    How to Steal A Million is another delight — light but smart and witty, and such gorgeous people back when people still looked like themselves.

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  18. Amy Kathryn
    Apr 20, 2012 @ 23:22:27

    @Jayne: They used the elevator and stairwells and some exteriors. If I recall right, there was a plaque about the use of the hotel in the film and I have a postcard of Audrey in costume on site.

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  19. Blythe Gifford
    Apr 21, 2012 @ 09:00:09

    My favorite movie of all time. Why can’t they write ‘em like that any more? Sigh.

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  20. cate
    Apr 21, 2012 @ 11:02:14

    @Jayne: Yep – no Givenchy for this film, I think she was dressed by Mary Quant & Paco Rabanne .

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  21. Katherine
    Apr 21, 2012 @ 12:23:12

    I have such great memories of watching this movie as a teen with my parents in the living room. I always had a crush on Cary Grant, and this movie made me crush harder on him. Thank you for reminding me of this movie – I’m going to find a copy ASAP.

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  22. Fiona McGier
    Apr 23, 2012 @ 15:02:44

    Re: Hannah E. asking why they don’t make these kinds of movies anymore, they do, but they use current actors and ruin them! Charade was remade in 2002 with Thandie Newton and Mark Wahlberg as “The Truth About Charlie”. It wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t very good either. Luckily for me, the copy I rented had that movie on one side, and flip it over, it had the original Charade on the other side. My family watched both, and we all decided that the original won hand’s down! I feel like such a hypocrite, because I usually deplore large age-gaps between the hero and heroine, but come on, it’s Cary Grant! I have to agree with Dian Cannon who married him when he was old and she was young…it’s Cary freaking Grant! Phew!

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  23. James
    Apr 17, 2013 @ 04:26:49

    Although this movie was made at the near end of Cary Grants movie career and he felt quite old playing beside Audrey Hepburn, i still think the movie was really good. It had a young James Coburn in the cast who was excellent. Overall i wouldn’t say it was Cary Grants best film if we are honest, but it is far more entertaining than most movies made today. That is the one great aspect of older movies with stars like Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn from this past era, even the story wasn’t crash hot, that fact they were in it, made the movie.

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