I don't get to play charades much but when I do play with my family or friends, it's always an enjoyable evening as guests or family try to guess my acting out words or actions or famous people. It's a light-hearted game that usually brings laughs and groans. But when looking at the deeper meaning of charade, it's a sad word. Charade means deception or fake.
CHARADE (1963) directed by Stanley Donen is pretending to be a Hitchcock thriller, a cinematic love letter to NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959). Although the plots are very different, both films have Cary Grant in the lead; a case of many mistaken identities; plenty of sexual innuendo between Grant and Audrey Hepburn; a trippy title sequence by Maurice Binder (who did many of the James Bond opening credits); and many moments of suspense.
Donen had primarily made musicals like SINGING IN THE RAIN (1952) and SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS (1954)) early in his career but in the 1960's he made two Hitchcock like thrillers with CHARADE and later ARABESQUE (1966) with Gregory Peck and Sophia Loren playing the Cary Grant/Eva Marie Saint type roles. CHARADE doesn't have the great subtext and set pieces Hitchcock's great string of films in the 1950's had but the screen play by Peter Stone is smart and confident and clever with plenty of red herrings. There's an interesting musical score by composer Henry Mancini (THE PINK PANTHER films and BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S). Besides the dream team of Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, CHARADE showcases some supporting actors that would become very familiar to moviegoers for the next three decades - Walter Matthau, James Coburn, and George Kennedy. And did I mention the film is mostly filmed in Paris?
CHARADE revolves around the dead husband of Regina Lampert (Audrey Hepburn) and the missing $250,000 he stole from the U.S. government and four war buddies in 1944 during World War II. Charles Lampert is murdered and thrown from a train in the first seconds of the film. At his wake in Paris, three of the men cheated out of their cut of the money show up to confirm Lampert is dead: the behemoth Herman Scobie (George Kennedy); the squirrely Leopold Gideon (Ned Glass); and the smooth-talking Tex Panthollow (James Coburn). They quickly turn their attention to Regina who they're convinced knows where the missing loot is. Regina has a partial ally in the mysterious Peter Joshua (Cary Grant) who has taken a keen interest in her and her predicament. First, Peter shows up during her French Alps vacation. Later, he attends the wake as well. But is Peter's interest in Regina friendly or is he the fourth partner in crime looking for his share?
Regina receives a call from Hamilton Bartholomew (Walter Matthau) with the U.S. Embassy who discloses that her deceased husband was part of an OSS mission with four other men, ordered behind German lines to deliver $250,000 to the French Underground. The men decide to steal the money from the U.S. government but their plans go awry when they're ambused by the Germans. Lampert escaped with the money and left the others to be caught or killed. Bartholomew, representing the U.S. government also wants the money back. And he warns Regina that the fourth man may be the one who killed her husband, a man called Carson Dial.
As the hunt for the missing quarter of a million dollars gets more intense, Regina begins to fall for Peter. But can she trust Peter? Each time Peter is left with one of the three conspirators, they end up dead. Is Peter Carson Dial? CHARADE'S finale ends with a clever reveal of where the $250K is hidden and Regina being pursued into an empty Paris theater by the fourth man, Carson Dial.
It all sounds like pretty heavy stuff but director Donen keeps the style light and fun punctuated with brief episodes of violence. There's a scene in a Paris jazz club where Grant and Hepburn, getting to know each other, play a game where they have to exchange an orange from their neck to another patron's neck that is very avant garde and unusual. Grant has a few comic scenes that he pulls off with his usual expertise. CHARADE even has a French Police Inspector Edouard Grandpierre (Jacques Marin) who is a mixture of Clouseau and Hercule Poirot for some comic relief.
CHARADE is a great title for this thriller. Several characters are pretending to be people they really are not. Is Cary Grant in cahoots with the war veterans trying to recover their piece of the $250K or is he working on his own? Hepburn's dead husband turns out to be a former OSS agent, something he never told her. Even Hepburn's marriage was a charade as her dead husband turns out to be someone totally different than she thought.
As good a romantic lead as Cary Grant was, he does begin to show his age a little bit in CHARADE. I call it the Robert Redford syndrome where an actor who has played the handsome romantic lead for most of his career starts to look his age and still tries to play romantic roles with younger actresses. Redford tried it in HAVANA (1990) and INDECENT PROPOSAL (1993) and it didn't work. Grant manages to pull it off with Hepburn and their age difference isn't too bothersome. But Grant realized his romantic lead days were setting. He made only two more films after CHARADE and retired from films in 1967. Grant and Hepburn have great chemistry which overcomes their age difference. For me, Audrey Hepburn is the female equivalent of Cary Grant - sophisticated, beautiful, and charming.
Director Donen sprinkles the film with Hitchcock references. Donen uses high angle shots throughout the film and the finale has Audrey Hepburn chased into an empty theater that echoes of THE 39 STEPS (1935) and THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1956). Even the motif of the wrong man that Hitchcock used over and over his flip flopped in CHARADE as it's the woman, in this case Hepburn's Regina, who is mistakenly implicated in her husband's chicanery.
"Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery," English writer Charles Caleb Colton once said. Ultimately, CHARADE is much more than a Hitchcock imitation. While borrowing the style of the master of suspense, CHARADE stands on its own as a unique thriller starring two of Hollywood's reigning stars - Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn.