Genre: Romantic Suspense
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.