Charade (1963)

Stanley Donen | 1hr 55min

With its elaborate action set pieces, exhilarating espionage plot, and a debonair Cary Grant calling back to his North by Northwest character, one might be forgiven for thinking that Charade is Alfred Hitchcock’s wish fulfilment of finally working with Audrey Hepburn. Working in tandem with these plot devices though is a screwball liveliness not typically associated with the master of suspense, sending Grant and Hepburn on a romantic rollercoaster through intimate entanglements and creative visual gags. Stanley Donen may not belong among the great auteurs, but in Charade’s airy, colourful comedy we can still see the mark of the classical Hollywood moviemaker and musical-lover, teasing out a light-hearted battle of the sexes amid conspiracies of fraud, theft, and murder.

It isn’t long after Hepburn’s Paris-dwelling American expat, Reggie, learns of her husband’s death that the treachery of his past misdeeds narrows in on her. Charles was not a man she knew terribly well or loved a great deal, but his death regardless leaves her as the benefactor of an illegal, secret fortune that three mysterious men are now pursuing. It would seem her only ally would be a suave, fellow American she has met in France, Peter – or is it Alex, or Adam? Grant switches identities so many times in Charade that we never really know where his loyalties lie, and yet there is an affable ease in his performance that constantly reassures us of his gentle fondness for Reggie, winning our trust even when his actions haven’t earned it. Narrative twists and developments come at us quickly, keeping us in the grip of Peter Stone’s thrilling screenplay, but when we see Grant shower with his clothes on in an act of playful humour, it isn’t hard to see why Reggie is so utterly charmed.

Grant combines his debonair screen persona with his comedy chops as the mysterious man who goes by many names.

Soon enough, the mystery of Charles’ murder escalates into an Agatha Christie And Then There Were None-type whodunnit, driving an uneasy tension through the steady elimination of suspects and a series of spectacularly staged confrontations. Though these stand-offs often unfold in wonderfully Hitchcockian fashion, Donen rejects studio sets in favour of real locations around Paris, creating striking backdrops out of authentic storefronts, skylines, and historical architecture.

Location shooting makes such a sizeable impact in this thriller, creating tangible backdrops of Paris’ architecture and streets.

Behind a shining neon sign on the roof of the American Express office, Grant engages in a physical struggle with one of Reggie’s mysterious stalkers, while Donen’s high and low angles dramatically underscore the sheer altitude and danger. Through the Varenne metro station, Donen suspensefully cuts between Reggie and her pursuer, turning the underground into a sprawling, modern labyrinth. Outside the Palais-Royal, a colonnade becomes a battleground between good and evil, with both sides shooting at each other from behind columns. Most resourcefully of all, the climax moves into the Théâtre-Français, where the orchestra pit, prompt box, and stage become an interactive terrain that both sides creatively wield against each other. Where Hitchcock often returned to iconic British and American monuments as the basis of his set pieces, Donen infuses Charade with an air of Parisian romance and peril, and balances it precariously on the edge of both.

Office buildings, subways, palaces, theatres – Paris’ landmarks become the location of various chases and confrontations, binding the narrative close to its cultural context.

Integral to this tension is the eclectic film score Henry Mancini pulls together, combining the syncopated rhythms of electric keyboards, percussion, and saxophones with orchestral hints of the James Bond-like theme. As we traverse Paris, a broader pastiche of continental cultures emerges in his soundtrack as well, incorporating instruments and harmonies from Eastern European and Latin musical traditions. With the discovery that the conspiracy surrounding Charles’ hidden fortune has its roots in World War II espionage, the international flavours of Mancini’s soundscape progressively reflect the film’s broadening scope, building out its lively, capricious setting.

A thin strip of light shone across the interior of Reggie’s home stripped bare, isolating her in the frame.
Glorious high angles inside the hotel corridors where Reggie is staying, shaping smart compositions with the use of its arched doorways and lighting.

This is not to suggest that Charade lacks focus though, as Donen has sharp intent behind his choices of camera angles and lighting, carving out images of loneliness and intrigue from elegant compositions inside French interiors. So too does his tightly paced editing do well to follow the exhilarating action of each set piece, spill one crucial epiphany forth in a rapid montage, and in the very final shot, land a brilliant punchline in a split screen grid, playing on Grant’s multiple identities. Donen’s mix of calculated storytelling, screwball antics, and authentic location shooting makes for a fascinating blend of tones, and yet he skilfully integrates all three into Charade with enchanting ease, embellishing what could have been a more serious genre film with pieces of his own buoyant affect.

A 9-way split screen landing a punchline with the film’s ending, displaying Grant’s multiple identities throughout the film.

Charade is currently streaming on Mubi, Kanopy, and Binge, and is available to buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.

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