Upon the release of Charade in 1963, director Stanley Donen occasionally bristled at suggestions that his new movie was influenced by Alfred Hitchcock: "Who said it was only Hitchcock who had the right to make mysteries?" he retorted. Regardless of Donen's complaints, few words so accurately describe Charade as "Hitchcockian." Whereas Hitchcock frequently gave us stories where the central characters became involved in situations that they didn't completely understand (e.g., Cary Grant in North By Northwest and Robert Donat in The 39 Steps), Charade likewise gives us a central character (Audrey Hepburn) who doesn't understand why a group of dangerous men insist she knows the whereabouts of a quarter million dollars. Her life is soon turned upside down. Frequent Hitchcock star Cary Grant tries his best to help her, risking his life in the process. After starring in four movies for Hitchcock, Grant's presence alone creates one of the strongest links to Hitchcock.
Charade's most important link to Hitchcock, however, is the playful way that Donen and cinematographer Charles Lang use the camera. In the movie's very first scene, we see a hand holding a pistol extend from behind an umbrella. The camera holds on the hand until the gun's trigger is pulled--and a stream of water shoots out. (Until then, the gun certainly looked real.) This scene immediately announces that Charade is about deception. It pulls us into a world where nothing is as it seems.
Now available from The Criterion Collection, Charade can be appreciated in a letterboxed digital transfer created from the 35mm interpositive. Compared to other releases from The Criterion Collection, this one feels a little bit slight. The DVD does indeed contain several extras, but they're not as meaty as usual--a Stanley Donen filmography and introductory essay, a short article about screenwriter Peter Stone's career, and the original theatrical trailer. While Alfred Hitchcock movies in The Criterion Collection (e.g., The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes) receive serious audio commentary tracks by Hitchcock scholars, the audio commentary for Charade is turned over to Stanley Donen and Peter Stone, who speak extemporaneously and proceed to contradict each other throughout the entire movie. For example, Stone tries to tell us Audrey Hepburn was a large woman with big bones (!) before Donen quickly dismisses such nonsense. Meanwhile, Donen refuses to allow Stone to reveal any of the movie's surprises until the surprises are revealed on screen--as if anyone would really listen to the commentary without having already watched the movie. By all appearances, Donen has become somewhat crotchety in his old age. But Stone doesn't argue with him. He immediately defers to Donen on all issues.
Regardless of the bickering, the commentary does contain several valuable insights. For example, Donen and Stone reveal that Cary Grant was afraid he would look like a dirty old man if his character pursued Audrey Hepburn romantically. So Grant suggested that Hepburn should encourage the relationship: "I cannot chase this girl. In some way she must be chasing me." While Grant would turn 60 years old during the making of Charade, Hepburn was only 34. This would be Grant's last romantic lead. In addition, screenwriters of today would benefit from listening to Stone talk about writing mysteries to be seen a second time: this way audiences don't say, "Oh, you didn't tell me that or you didn't give me a chance to figure it out. You hid that part. That's cheating . . . . So you write as through you're showing it to people for the second time and being scrupulously fair with parceling out the information and clues," says Stone.
For all the main plot points, Donen and Stone do indeed play fair in Charade (although they stretch their own rules a little with the minor points). Particularly impressive is the location of the missing $250,000. They hide it right under our noses and they do so effectively. It functions like a Hitchcock MacGuffin. It simply exists in order to initiate the plot and bring the characters together, but it doesn't really matter what it is.
Audrey Hepburn is always a pleasure to watch, but here she's a little less substantial than usual. She complains that she's going to get a divorce, but she sounds like a bored teenager. Regina (Hepburn) conveys no sense of regret, no sense of disappointment. Not until she enters their apartment and finds all their "stuff" is gone do we get a strong reaction out of her. Until then, she's ultra-sophisticated but flighty. And soon afterwards, with her husband now cold in his coffin, she immediately starts chasing after another man (Grant). She requires zero mourning time. As a result, it's hard to really care about Regina. Hepburn would fare much better in the suspense genre once stripped of her glamorous image in Wait Until Dark (1967).
Cary Grant effortlessly slides into his role as Peter Joshua. His character seems like a logical extension of his Roger Thornhill from North by Northwest. As the camera follows Regina, it gazes at Grant like a smitten lover--which isn't surprising because that is Regina's role in the drama. While Peter Joshua resists her advances, complaining about their age differences, Regina pursues him relentlessly.
An excellent cast provides support for Grant and Hepburn. Walter Matthau plays a CIA desk jockey who offers Regina advice while George Kennedy, James Coburn, and Ned Glass push Regina for the whereabouts of the quarter million dollars.
Of all the movies made in the Hitchcock style, Charade is arguably the best; however, it's lighter than Hitchcock's films. At this point in his career, Hitchcock had taken a darker turn with Psycho and The Birds. Therefore, Charade functions like a throwback to Hitchcock's sophisticated romantic-thrillers of the '50s (e.g., Rear Window and To Catch a Thief). Charade isn't a great thriller, but it's a consistently enjoyable movie that provides equal doses of suspense and romance. And it showcases Cary Grant at his charming best.
Charade is available on DVD from The Criterion Collection in a new digital transfer created from the 35mm interpositive. The DVD contains several special features: audio commentary with director Stanley Donen and screenwriter Peter Stone; a selected filmography/essay by Donen biographer Stephen M. Silverman; and the original theatrical trailer. Suggested retail price: $39.95.