Tricky chap, balance. In cinematic terms, balancing romance, comedy, and suspense effectively is a particularly hard act to achieve. There’s a real danger of whiplash. Of course, if you have Cary Grant radiating charm (his default setting) and Audrey Hepburn, the very embodiment of elfin enchantment, the odds do tilt in your favour.
Charade opens with a body falling from a speeding train, before taking a scenic diversion to the French Alps. Regina (aka Reggie) Lampert (Hepburn) is unhappily married but has just decided to get divorced. Serendipitously, mere moments later, she has a flirtatious encounter with Peter Joshua (Grant), during which it transpires that they both live in Paris. She really should have bought a lottery ticket that day.
On returning home, Reggie finds her apartment stripped bare and encounters a police inspector. She discovers that the aforementioned dead body was her husband (talk about a quickie divorce) and that he had recently auctioned off everything in their apartment for a (highly convenient) sum of $250,000. Naturally, the money is missing and it fulfils the key role of the MacGuffin driving the plot.
Reggie goes to the US Embassy to meet CIA administrator, Harrison Bartholomew (Walter Matthau). She learns her husband was part of an OSS mission during World War II. The plan had been to return $250,000 in gold to the French Resistance, but they decided to steal it, with Reggie’s husband double-crossing the others. Bartholomew tells Reggie she is in danger and needs to find the money, fast.
Amidst all of this chaos, Peter Joshua has helpfully reappeared, offering Reggie a supportive and comforting shoulder. Well, if you can’t trust Cary Grant?
A series of perilous shenanigans ensue. Charade feels like a classic Hitchcockian thriller, laced with unusually high dollops of romantic comedy. The director is Stanley Donen whose background was in Hollywood musicals. Fittingly, he never puts a foot wrong, throughout the myriad twists and turns of the plot. The screenplay by Peter Stone (from his own novel) sparkles with witty dialogue.
Charade was the only time Grant and Hepburn worked together and it was the last great film of Grant’s career (he retired after making only two more films). He probably timed his exit well, Charade was released in 1963 and the age of the anti-hero was already dawning.
Elements of the plot don’t survive overly rigorous scrutiny (e.g. Parisian building security seems somewhat lax), but that rather goes with the territory. It scarcely matters, just buckle up and enjoy the ride. Charade may mark a cinematic fin de siècle, but it is a worthy ambassador of its glorious era.
Available on Blu-ray now