by Jenna Pirrie editor-in-chief
Take suspense, add spies and romance, set them in Paris and push Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant to the front of the action. What do you get? 113 minutes of fantastic film all in technicolor.
Regina “Reggie” Lampert (Hepburn) is an American in Paris right after the death of her husband — whom we quickly learn she knew and liked precious little about. Hepburn’s portrayal here is classic Audrey: coy and flirtatious yet still classy.
Reggie learns that her husband was involved in the theft of an enormous fortune many years ago during WWII, which was hidden to be retrieved after the war — a fortune he later stole again from under his four accomplices’ noses. She is now the heir of that quarter of a million dollars, and her husband’s killers’ new target. Not coincidentally, several shady men soon pop up in Reggie’s day-to-day life, demanding to know where the money is.
“Peter,” played by the masculine Grant, seems to change his identity (and his name) every other scene. As Reggie is pursued by the men who might have been involved in her husband’s murder, Peter helps her stay one step ahead. But his constant name changes and Reggie’s own discoveries lead her to question his trustworthiness — and the possibility of his having a role in her husband’s end. Unfortunately, she’s also falling for him.
Reggie doesn’t know whom to trust, and neither do we, until the very end of this whodunit.
Given its modern status as a classic, “Charade” surprisingly received mixed reviews when it first aired. The New York Times in ’63 went so far as to include, in its disappointed review, that “[T]his light-hearted picture is full of such gruesome violence.” The film certainly has its gory moments — suffocation by plastic wrap is far from being a lighthearted event. But such moments are balanced by the wit scattered far and wide throughout the dialogue.
In the same way, the suspenseful moments of the mystery are balanced by the entertaining self-awareness of the script. And the stereotypical male–pleasing action and chase scenes — in which we learn that a hook for a hand is an effective weapon — are balanced by Reggie’s incessant flirtation in pursuit of Peter.
And amidst all the mystery, wisecracking and violence, “Charade” also has heart. Can love overcome charade? The film leaves that question hanging for much of its duration.
Charade tells a story about who people are underneath everything they say they are — and how well you can really know, or trust, a liar.
The film is also about femininity in a culture where women weren’t taught to take care of themselves, but often did anyway. It’s about double crossing and no crossing all at once – and figuring out where the charade really lies. And it’s about the importance of locking embassy doors.
Over the years, the movie has earned the oft-referenced label, “The best Hitchcock film Hitchcock never made.” “Charade” is for almost any taste in movies — and if nothing else, for the wisecracking swagger of Grant and Hepburn’s unleashed comedic sides and the wonderful chemistry between the two stars.
This piece is considered a “standard” article in our print edition.
Quintessential Classics: essential works of art that constructed genres and shaped our culture