I’d like to be embarrassed by how Charade managed to shock me with every single plot twist. I mean, it’s a romance. It was the 1960s. I figured I was in for something enjoyable, but, well, predictable. I guess it’s a testament to how tightly Peter Stone wove the screenplay, a story he was bent on telling. Ironically, when Stone originally wrote Charade’s screenplay, it was promptly rejected by every studio in Hollywood. Only when Peter rewrote the story as a novel, was it deemed good enough for serialization in Redbook and the once nay-saying studios were suddenly interested in movie rights. Peter was then able to resell the original script back as an “adaptation” of his own story. And so the charade that is Charade began.
With an origin story steeped in such pretense, it’s no wonder that the film is layered with subtle deceptions, itself a self-referential pantomime. The film almost masquerades as a Hitchcock film, and is often referred to as “the best Hitchcock film Hitchcock never made.” Actually, it was directed by the guy who did Singin’ in the Rain and many other musicals, Stanley Donen. Released in 1963, Charade stars Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn in a story half romantic comedy, half gruesome thriller. Without revealing too much, Hepburn plays Regina Lampert, a wealthy UN translator who, while hitting the Swiss slopes with her friend Sylvie, decides she’s going to divorce her wealthy husband. They’re just not in love. She’s miserable! On returning to their Paris home, however, she finds a divorce is no longer necessary, as her husband has recently been tossed out of a train and murdered; but not before he sold all of their possessions, took all the cash, and made a last ditch effort to flee by night to South America (as husbands tend to do). At the oddly-attended funeral, Lampert receives a letter from a CIA supervisor who tells the now homeless, Givenchy-wearing widow that her husband had stolen money during the war from the U.S. government. A lot of money. And they would like it back. While under the iron fist of a demanding and angry home government, Lampert learns there are other men who want the money and will kill her to get it. Turning to Peter Joshua (Grant), a dapper man with a wit to match, Lampert gets caught in a tangled game of trust and mistrust as Joshua straddles the line between hero and villain.
Part of the brilliance of Charade that Matthew Dessem illustrates in a great blog post at The Criterion Contraption is the play on assumed identities within the Hollywood system. The film is expertly cast, most notably with Cary Grant as Peter Joshua. Once told by an interviewer, “Everybody would like to be Cary Grant,” the man himself replied, “So would I.” It’s hard to deny that the man is beloved. Seven years after Charade, Frank Sinatra (of all people!) would present Grant with an honorary Oscar for simply, as he put it, “being Cary Grant.” That’s not to say the Bringing Up Baby charmer hasn’t had more bastardly roles (e.g. Notorious), but that’s what makes this particular one so compelling. Though it may seem a charade that Grant should take the romantic lead of a movie filmed during his 59th birthday, it’s no stretch to imagine that a near 3-decades-younger Audrey Hepburn would fall for Cary Grant even with threats of thievery and murder tainting that cleft-chin image. Add in some expertly timed Grant dialogue and we’re right with Hepburn, willing to overlook a few grisly murders if it’s this guy who did the strangling.
On a broader level, even the combination of the thriller and romantic genres within the movie seems to be some sort of game of identity, a film that wears two rapidly switching masks. After decades of genre conditioning that rarely crossed borders, Charade is a true Hollywood romance, with all the hope of love and marriage. Yet the film opens with the wide-eyed corpse of Mr. Lampert, face gashed with bloody lacerations in a gravely ditch where he was hurled from a train. From there, deaths happen in violent spurts with static shots of murders that pull repeated gags in the unsuspectingly dark comedy.
While film makes itself off plays of appearances, there are of course, plenty of internal tricks to be had. Within the frenzy of false or confused identities there is more, a message or idea that one need not be a murderer or a conman to play these games. In Charade, relationships themselves are charades. From the beginning, the Lamperts’ empty and unsatisfying marriage shows a couple that knew absolutely nothing about one another -- not one detail great or small. Every other relationship follows suit. Friendships decades-old are tested and questioned. Then there is Grant and Hepburn’s burgeoning love and the question of whether it is or isn’t real -- it it’s genuine or one-sided. This is where thriller and romance collide, in a way that shows the risks and uncertainty of love.
Despite the failed and distrustful relationships, Charade is not a romance that undermines love. If anything, it’s a rightfully wild and dangerous depiction of what love is. Love is an acceptance of uncertainty, an extension of trust that opens oneself to all the tricks of life’s charades. There is a scene when guns are pointed, lives are on the line, and Reggie Lampert is in the face of two loaded barrels. Peter tells Reggie to trust him and she asks only why she should. He’s got nothing and in a moment of rare transparency he tells her that there is no logical reason for her to ever trust him, and it’s true. Trust doesn’t come with logic; it comes with love. For Reggie, it doesn’t matter that the man is decades older, that there’s the unbearable but undeniable chance he’s only in it for the money, that the warm hands she’s held may have been warmed with other blood. All that matters is that she loves him, whoever he is, and with that the charade is off. After all, when persona doesn’t matter, neither does the game because it’s not the love of the man as much as the feelings he brings with him. Those are always real.
Kristen Bialik works in public relations in Milwaukee, WI. When she’s not doing that, she’s trying to learn Korean, trying to write short stories, or trying to scheme up ways she can work for Conan O’Brien in Burbank. They’re works in progress.