CHARADE (1963) – Universal Pictures – Rating: ★★★½
Color – 113 minutes – 1.85:1 aspect rato
Produced and directed by Stanley Donen
Principal cast: Cary Grant (Peter Joshua), Audrey Hepburn (Regina Lampert), Walter Matthau (Hamilton Bartholomew), James Coburn (Tex Penthollow), George Kennedy (Herman Scobie), Ned Glass (Leopold Gideon).
Screenplay by Peter Stone
Director of Photography: Charles Lang, Jr.
Music: Henry Mancini
The word “Hitchcockian” appears in movie reviews and synopses from time to time. It means (perhaps self-evidently): to evoke the themes and/or styles employed by Alfred Hitchcock in his films. If you google the phrase “Hitchcockian movies” you will find many different lists of films that supposedly fit this description. I thought it would be interesting to take a look at some of these movies, and see if they are deserving of the moniker. One film that appears frequently on such lists is Stanley Donen’s Charade. One review calls it “the best Hitchcock movie that Hitchcock never made,” and while the diction might be questionable, the sentiment is not.
The movie opens in the French Alps, where Regina Lampert (played by Audrey Hepburn) is vacationing. Regina tells a friend that she is planning to divorce her husband. Then, in an awkwardly staged scene, she meets a man named Peter Joshua (Cary Grant). The scene is edited in a very standard back-and-forth style, cutting between the two constantly. It is very unlike Hitchcock (and unlike Donen, for that matter). Here are two very accomplished stars of the screen, both of whom Donen had worked with before. Clearly they could hold their own in a longer-take two shot. Maybe the cutting was dictated by technical issues. Fortunately this is the only scene in the movie that stands out for the wrong reasons.
When Regina returns to Paris, she discovers that the planned divorce is unnecessary because her husband has been murdered. Several men are introduced in the next segment of the movie: a French policeman, a man who works for the CIA (Walter Matthau), and three men who are all thugs to a varying degree (James Coburn, George Kennedy, Ned Glass). And Cary Grant’s character turns up again, offering to help Regina. Apparently Regina’s husband stole some money ($250,000 to be precise) and these men all want it. The movie title is apt, because many of these people are not who they first appear to be. Deception is the name of the game, all in an attempt to acquire the missing money. Of course the money is eventually found, in a surprising manner, and of course Grant and Hepburn fall for each other along the way (how could they not?).
Performance: Cary Grant was 60 when he made this movie, and already contemplating retirement. He was definitely conscious of his age, and conscious of the quarter century separating his age from Audrey Hepburn’s. And yet he does things in this movie that it is hard to imagine him doing for any other director, including Hitchcock. Clearly Grant and Stanley Donen had a good working relationship. Above you can see an image of Grant playing the “pass the orange” game with a rather buxom, stony-faced woman. The scene could have been brief, but Donen lets it play out to great effect. Cary Grant makes this scene work because he fully commits to it; the look on his face here says it all. There is a later scene in which Grant steps into a shower fully clothed. It is hard to imagine Hollywood’s best-dressed man ruining a good suit for laughs, but again the scene works wonderfully. Audrey Hepburn was no longer the gamine of her early films by this time; she is glamorous, cosmopolitan, every bit a woman. Grant and Hepburn have a palpable on-screen chemistry, something that can’t be faked. It’s a pity this is the only time they worked together. Matthau, Coburn and Kennedy are all solid in roles that came very early in their film careers.
Hitchcock connections: Cary Grant starred in Suspicion, Notorious, To Catch a Thief, and North by Northwest. Ned Glass (who plays Leopold the sneezer in this movie) shared a memorable scene with Cary Grant in North by Northwest. (Grant’s character attempts to buy a train ticket, and Glass is the suspicious ticket vendor. He asks Cary Grant’s sunglasses-wearing character “Something wrong with your eyes?” To which Grant replies “They are sensitive to questions.”) Paul Bonifas, the stamp collector who buys the valuable stamps, then gallantly returns them to Audrey Hepburn, was in Hitchcock’s World War II propaganda short Aventure Malgache.
Academy awards: This movie received one Oscar nomination, for best original song, “Charade”, by Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer.
Hitchcockian? So why is this movie compared to the films of Alfred Hitchcock? The blending of suspense and humor would be a primary reason. Stanley Donen once said that he screened three Hitchcock movies during pre-production of this film, so clearly there was a conscious attempt to emulate Hitchcock on some level. The appearance of Cary Grant in the leading role is enough to remind one of Hitchcock. They had collaborated on four films together, the most recent (North by Northwest) just 4 years prior to this movie. Charles Lang, Jr.’s gorgeous color cinematography is also redolent of Bob Burks cinematography for Hitchcock on movies like To Catch a Thief. Which is not to say that Lang was an imitator; he was a genius in his own right. Lang and Burks were both adept at making a foreign city look dazzling on the screen, making the locale a co-star in the movie. Some have said that Peter Stone’s script is Hitchcockian. I think rather it could be called “Grantian.” Stone’s witty screenplay is full of repartee that was tailor-made for Cary Grant, and which Grant loved to utter, regardless of the film or director.
In what ways does Charade differ from a Hitchcock movie? There is a strong romantic current in this film, which is much more in the style of Stanley Donen than Hitchcock. Romance was often understated in Hitchcock’s movies. The tone of this movie is light; even though several dead bodies are seen (some quite graphic by 1963 standards), the tone never becomes too ominous or threatening.
And the verdict is…yes, this film is Hitchcockian, but most importantly, it is a Stanley Donen film, and a delightful one at that. Just imagine Donen’s Singin in the Rain or Funny Face, and substitute murders and mayhem for the song and dance numbers, and you’ve got a good idea of this movie’s tone. Stanley Donen’s name is not known and revered as much as the “auteur” directors of his time, but his body of work is incredibly strong. This movie has a broad appeal. It is a feast for the eyes, with Audrey Hepburn looking gorgeous in her Givenchy clothes,Cary Grant dapper as always, and fantastic art decoration, all photographed by the great Charles Lang, Jr. The story is well-paced, balanced and entertaining. What more can you ask for?
Definitive edition: Universal released a bare-bones blu-ray in 2013, and while it has no extra features the price is definitely right. Criterion’s blu-ray edition from 2010 has an above average commentary track with director Stanley Donen and screenwriter Peter Stone, and a very nice looking print.