CHARADE spun into theaters late in 1963 to become one of the year’s big hits, 113 minutes of Hitchcock-inspired hokum, directed with aplomb by Stanley Donen, the chatter-laden story & screenplay frothed up by Peter Stone. Can’t-lose casting in the leads, a swell roster of secondary players, a classic theme tune from Henry Mancini. Comedy, romance, suspense—and Paris.
Behind Maurice Binder’s colorful geometric opening credits, a take-off on those Saul Bass created for Vertigo and North By Northwest, Mancini’s music pulses a bossa nova beat blended with the giddy lilt of riding a carousel. The instantly hummable tune is a kind of smooth, danceable bookend to John Barry’s signature 007 throb that was jazzing up moviegoers that same year. The credit starter fits with director Donen’s intention to homage Hitchcock. *
We know we’re in for a posh puzzle right from the introductory scene at Mont d’ Arbois, a jet-set ski resort in Megeve, Switzerland, where within a minute Audrey Hepburn, outfitted by Givenchy, is parrying a flirt with Cary Grant. Their banter and manner clue that what follows is not meant to be taken seriously, even if four of the five main supporting cast end up being nastily killed.
‘Regina Lampert’ (Audrey) has just lost her husband. He was murdered, but not missed much, as they were on the outs and the guy was a rotter; just how much of one revealed by the mysterious sextet of men who insert themselves into Regina’s confused state of affairs. Suave ‘Peter Joshua’ (Cary) is affable, and ‘Hamilton Bartholomew’ (Walter Matthau) appears concerned. But ‘Leopold Gideon’ (Ned Glass) is an oily shrimp, lank-limbed ‘Tex Panthollo’ (James Coburn) is arrogantly slick, and ‘Herman Scobie’ (George Kennedy) is a hulking brute with a steel claw for a right hand. Only French police Inspector ”Edouard Grandpierre’ (Jacques Marin) seems to be on the square, if mildly exasperated—Gallic fashion—by everyone else.
Shot in the chilly fall of ’62, released in December of ’63, the posh $3,000,000 escapade helped take audiences distressed minds away from the JFK assassination: its breezy mix of genres (mirth & murder) ended up grossing $18,700,000, the #8 success from the year. Hepburn filmed it back-to-back with another City of Light romp, Paris When In Sizzles, with William Holden, but that was held back until spring of ’64, when it sadly tanked.
Sleek, well-done fun, and with that gem cast, the film’s polish and charm cannot be dismissed; it holds sentimental value for many fans, though it’s maybe generated a wee much over-praise from modern reviewers, with some write-ups so gushy you’d think it’s more iconic than the Eiffel Tower. I’m (he whispered) in the minority on this one, in that I don’t love it, but just simply like it: we hope that’s okay. With all the elements to enjoy, I find myself wishing I’d seen it way back when, to have more of an emotional attachment to it (almost as if the self-mocking script insists I should). Jeez, we feel guilty for even thinking this, let alone risking heresy in sharing it, but the Audrey-Cary to & fro too often feels forced, the bright lines coming so-clever/so-fast, they barely have time to breathe. The villains, while not as good-looking, are more enjoyable, with Coburn’s swaggering leer and the neat rooftop rumble between Grant and George Kennedy. So we give it 3¼ stars instead of 4: don’t toss me in the Seine.
Mancini’s supremely elegant main theme was Oscar-nominated for Best Song (Johnny Mercer lyrics), and while the great James Van Heusen/Sammy Cahn lament “Call Me Irresponsible” took the trophy, Mancini’s piece is nearly as redolent of the period as the theme for a certain British spy who was coming onto the scene at the time.
PETER: “Do we know each other?” REGINA: “Why, do you think we’re going to?” PETER: “How would I know?” REGINA: “Because I already know an awful lot of people, so until one of them dies I couldn’t possibly meet anyone else.” PETER: “Well, if anyone goes on the critical list, let me know.”
* Donen had directed Hepburn in Funny Face and Grant in Kiss Them For Me: both in 1957, but neither film went over. He scored better that year with Doris Day in The Pajama Game, and aced another with Grant in ’58, Indiscreet. Also from 1958, his Damn Yankees was damn good, though not a homer at the cash box. After a series of duds, all in 1960 (Once More With Feeling, Surprise Package, The Grass Is Greener–again with Grant), he needed a hit, and putting the two stars together—veritable walking symbols of style—secured it. The 59-year-old Grant was a bit skittish about the quarter-century diff with Hepburn, who was 33, and the script reflects it, having him comment on his age and letting her make more of the moves. Really, though, if you’re the type of tiresome twit/twittette bothered by such things, please go find a tunnel somewhere.
A few years later Donen put Gregory Peck and Sophia Loren into another Hitchcock-type outing, Arabesque, then in 1967 he aided Hepburn on one of her best performances, in Two For The Road.
Charade was reworked in 2002 as The Trouble With Charlie (aka ‘Death by Title’), starring Mark Wahlberg, Thandie Newton and Tim Robbins, directed by Jonathan Demme. It cost $60,000,000 (20 times as much as the original), but fooled audiences into less than $7,100,000 worth of curiosity. Thandie Newton I can see, but Mark Wahlberg in for Cary Grant is the sort of image that calls for a reaction shot that could only be delivered—by Cary Grant.