Movie: Charade (1963)

I wonder how Audrey Hepburn would fare as a star today.  In addition to being beautiful and having considerable talent, she has a certain goofy charm.  And there’s something about a gorgeous woman who can break out into a huge, silly grin.  The closest modern-day equivalent I can think of is Zooey Deschanel, even if I don’t find her particularly attractive or charming.

1963’s Charade pairs Hepburn with Cary Grant.  As if that isn’t enticement enough to see this picture, it is a romantic suspense thriller in the mold of North by Northwest.  Mind you, this wasn’t directed by Hitchcock.  Stanley Donen helms this, having directed Hepburn in Funny Face six years earlier.

And yet this really wants to be a Hitchcock film.  There’s even a great opening credit sequence that I was shocked to see wasn’t done by Saul Bass. It is one hell of a spot-on homage.

Immediately after this, we see Hepburn at a Swiss ski resort.  She’s endlessly stuffing her face, depressed over her failing marriage.  That’s a pretty neat joke, and more believable than when I have seen other actresses with a similar build doing the same in other movies.

She and Grant meet cute almost immediately.  Needless to say, they make a great screen couple, despite the age disparity.  At least the script doesn’t shy away from that topic.  There’s one moment I especially like where she looks at his thick glasses and says she can’t believe he needs those.  A quick glance through them shocks her into mumbling, “Oh, you do…”

Upon returning to Paris, Hepburn discovers her husband, Charles, has died.  She also discovers he isn’t who he said he was.  Walter Matthau plays a government agent who shows her multiple passports the deceased had under various aliases.  Apparently, Charles and some fellow soldiers in WWII stole a great sum of money, but he made off with the loot.  He was likely killed by them to get their share.  Still, the money could not be found, so their next target will be Hepburn.

The gang of thieves is comprised of James Coburn, George Kennedy and Ned Glass.  Due to his advanced age, I refuse to believe Glass could have served at the same time as the others.  Setting that aside, he is unnerving because his bookish demeanor makes his steely coldness even more unexpected.  The other two also bring unique attributes to this mix: Kennedy with his brute physicality (and a hook for a hand!) and Coburn with his broad take on everything the name “Tex” conveys.

The first time we see these characters is when they make their entrance, one at a time, at the funeral of Charles.  Until the first of them arrives, the sole attendees are Hepburn, her friend, and a police inspector played by Jacques Marin.  Each of the villains performs a different test to see to ensure the man in the coffin is really dead.  Donen wisely keeps the shot wide during each of those “tests” so we can see Hepburn’s priceless reactions. 

Hepburn owns this movie, though she has a perfect foil in Grant.  This is a role where all of her best attributes are utilized: her grace and her goofiness, all the while clad in Givenchy in a way only she could wear it.  Even though I never found her sexually alluring, show me a guy who wouldn’t fall in love with her as she is here. 

My favorite moment is when she says to Grant: “You know what’s wrong with you? [pause] Nothing.”  Similar to the girl clinging to Dylan’s arm on the cover of The Freewheeling Bob Dylan, show me the man who doesn’t want a woman to say something like this to him.

There are a great many twists in Charade and I would hate to spoil any of them for the uninitiated.  It is a movie I recommend for anybody, and it is one of the few films that gets better each time I watch it.  It may not be Hitchcock, but it is in spirit, and actually surpasses some of the director’s efforts.

Dir: Stanley Donen

Starring Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn, Walter Matthau, James Coburn, George Kennedy, Ned Glass

Watched on Criterion Collection blu-ray