This is an expanded version of a piece that appeared in the original 2004 Criterion DVD release of Charade.
Stanley Donen’s Charade occupies a special place among sixties thrillers. In an era of spy films resplendent with macho-driven eroticism (the James Bond series), cynicism (Michael Caine’s Harry Palmer series), or farcical irreverence (Casino Royale; the Flint movies, with Charade costar James Coburn), it was the only successful take on the genre to place a woman at its center.
This concept, which boldly separated Charade from its rivals, is established in the opening minute of the movie. In place of a hero on the case, we are introduced to the innocent Regina Lampert (Audrey Hepburn), who suddenly, unexpectedly becomes involved with murderers, thieves, and spies. She is as bewildered as the audience by the mysterious and bizarre turns events take in the story, and in this sense Charade is almost the distaff answer to North by Northwest, in which Cary Grant portrays the innocent cast adrift from a safe, predictable life. Here, Grant is the not so innocent Peter Joshua, who is trying (or is he?) to help Regina navigate the unknown waters into which she has been thrust.
But Charade has a different feel from other thrillers of the time beyond its unconventional female focus. The Bond films were distinctly new creations in the early 1960s, built around newcomer Sean Connery’s fiercely sexual persona and his buxom, mostly unknown female counterparts. In Charade, the glamour of an earlier era of Hollywood shines through, particularly with the presence of its two leads. Grant had been a major star for more than twenty-five years when he and Donen decided to collaborate on what would be the last of four movies together. He was one of the few genuine matinee idols whose appeal wasn’t merely nostalgic by the early sixties. Similarly, Hepburn was one of the last female screen stars to emerge from Hollywood with a recognizably glamorous style, and one of the few whose allure was undiminished. Their pairing gives Charade an elegance almost more akin to that of a fifties romance than a sixties thriller. (Indeed, even if Reggie weren’t running for her life through half the movie, one might well want to watch it just to see these two hauntingly beautiful people interact amid the splendor of Paris—a pleasure that Donen does not deny us.)
The film’s morality is also rooted more in the fifties than the sixties. When Charade appeared in 1963, the range of “acceptable” behavior for movie heroes and heroines was changing. In the two Bond movies released to that point, Connery had already bedded more women without benefit of marriage (or, in some cases, knowledge of first names) than Grant had in thirty years of screen exploits. In this relatively permissive environment, Charade had a gentle sexual agenda that seems sweetly nostalgic four decades on, involving romance and, in its denouement, matrimony. In fact, it may well be the most successful non-Hitchcock picture ever made to mix murder, mayhem, romance, and marriage in one screenplay. The mystery at the center of its action is diverting enough, and executed in an entertaining fashion, but the real mystery for the viewer is how the twisting, turning plot will allow Regina Lampert and Peter Joshua to get together.
The on-screen coupling of Grant and Hepburn allows the film to cleverly comment on and play off of their screen personae. Grant’s had been formed in the thirties, when he worked with such actresses as Sylvia Sidney, Loretta Young, and Mae West, mostly portraying sophisticated, self-actualized men, often with a strong independent streak. Hepburn (born in 1929) was, of course, young enough to be the daughter of such leading ladies, and of Grant (born in 1904). She’d made her name in the fifties, playing romantically distressed child-women in the company of older leading men, such as Humphrey Bogart, Gregory Peck, and Fred Astaire. By the time Hepburn appeared in Charade, she was thirty-four but still quite youthful—audiences would reflexively think of her as a half decade or more younger than Grant—and once their characters become romantically interested in each other, there’s hardly a scene in the film that doesn’t include some reference to the difference in their ages.
But all of that is mere attachment to the core of the movie, which resides in Hepburn and her character. From the first scene, in which she laments the unhappy state of her marriage—not knowing that events have already been set in motion that will make that issue academic—Reggie is the focus of the narrative and the film’s emotional drive. The sequence where she arrives at the apartment she and her husband have called home to find it stripped of its contents, down to the bare walls, overflows with grief, panic, and confusion, all radiating from her. And through all the action, mystery, and comedy of the scenes that follow, she maintains this hold on the audience.
Another important aspect of Charade’s appeal is the fun it has at the expense of the thriller genre. Beginning with the opening close-up of a gun (quickly revealed to be a water pistol) aimed at Regina, we know we’re seeing a film about deception, the layers of which multiply as the plot evolves. Charade is laced with a dark sense of irony throughout: “I already know an awful lot of people. Until one of them dies, I couldn’t possibly meet anyone else,” she says early in the film, brushing off Peter Joshua in a wicked moment of foreshadowing.
Charade was Grant’s last film as a romantic lead, and his third to last movie before retiring in 1965. In turn, it signaled the beginning of the end of Hepburn’s gamine phase. For Donen, Charade was one of the high points in over a decade of successes, when he reigned as a top producer-director with such films as Singin’ in the Rain (1952), Funny Face (1957, also starring Hepburn), and Indiscreet (1958, with Grant), and it was his biggest box-office hit. (Looking at Charade in the context of Donen’s earlier work, you find echoes of one of his least-known films, the 1952 Love Is Better Than Ever, another genre bender of a picture—a Damon Runyon comedy with a heavy dose of estrogen—starring Elizabeth Taylor and Larry Parks.) Its plot caught the public’s taste for espionage thrillers at just the right moment, but its quirky humor, irony, and casting have attracted new fans over the decades. Charade continues to resonate and reveal new bits of wit and sophistication with each viewing.
Bruce Eder is a longtime journalist, film writer, and audio/video producer whose work has appeared in the Village Voice, Newsday, Current Biography, Interview, and Oxford American. He is a frequent contributor to the Criterion Collection and has recorded audio commentaries for more than two dozen movies.