Director: Stanley Donen
Cast: Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn, Walter Matthau, James Coburn, George Kennedy
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“You know what’s wrong with you?” “No, what?” “Nothing.” That’s the sound of Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant colliding in Charade, and the result is as enjoyably glamorous as cinema gets. The 1963 caper sees Hepburn play Regina Lampert, whose husband, Charles, is murdered in Paris, causing a bunch of sinister men to descend, looking for the thousands of dollars he left behind. Also on the scene is Peter Joshua (Grant), who may or may not be one of the good guys.
It’s a delicious hook for a movie: take two of cinema’s most attractive people and get them dance around each other in a game of uncertainty and deception, and get them to do it on location in France. Slip in some designer clothes and a slinky score by Henry Mancini and the result is a film that dances along to a charming beat – no wonder, then, that it’s directed by Stanley Donen.
The late, great filmmaker director and co-directed some of the big screen’s best-loved musicals, and here, his understanding of choreography and timing is precisely on-point: his camera waltzes and taps its way through the winding paths and shifting rhythms of a surprisingly difficult piece. Part comedy, part murder-mystery, part romance and part spy thriller, Charade is the kind of movie that, in the wrong hands, could end up a mess. Donen’s lightness of touch, though, is a perfect fit, enabling the film to seamlessly shimmy between humour and dark threats.
And yet, beneath that confident, slick surface is a wonderfully complex script from Peter Stone and Marc Behm. They turn a straight-forward screwball flick into a brilliantly layered maze of identities. At the heart of it is Grant, who goes through name changes like Hogwarts goes through Defence Against the Dark Arts teachers: his character even has two first names as his moniker, just to underline his elusive, unknowable status. Charade is described as the best Hitchcock movie Hitchcock never made, but Donen’s film builds upon Grant’s work with old Alfie; four years after North by Northwest cemented him as the innocent hero on the run, Charade harks back to his earlier days of Notorious and Suspicion, when Hitch brought out the debonaire man’s darker side.
He’s matched every step of the way by Hepburn, who is radiant in the lead role. Unleashing her whip-smart comic delivery, she slips from grieving wife and angry avenger to innocent widow and doe-eyed charmer, swooning, suspecting, shadowing and smiling all at once. Like Grant, it’s a dizzying tour de force of how to switch through one’s personas; these are two Hollywood icons play two people putting on an act, never letting us be entirely sure who’s lying and who’s being sincere.
They’re supported by a rogue’s gallery rogue’s gallery, from Walter Matthau and George Kennedy to an intimidating James Coburn, each one bringing equal parts comic relief and chilling suspense – the perfect backdrop to compliment the stunning shots of Parisian landmarks, and the beautifully lit showdowns in shady corridors and extravagant theatres. The result became the biggest box office hit of Donen’s career, in a career full of timeless hits. A departure from his glitzy, song-and-dance showstoppers, Charade is a reminder of his versatility and magnetic style of storytelling – it’s testament to how magnetic it is that we can tell the actors are having as much fun as we are. You know what’s wrong with it? Nothing.
Charade is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.
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