|Did audiences in 1963 really think Charade should have been an Alfred Hitchcock movie? Stanley Donen's name was right there in the Maurice Binder-designed opening credits, and he was no slouch, having turned his hand to a variety of sophisticated subjects now the musicals phase of his career was over, yet it was impossible then, and is impossible now, to mention Charade without reference to Hitch. The British Master of Suspense was an avid movie watcher, so presumably saw this, but his reaction to it went unrecorded, as after all this was a point in time when Hitchcock pastiches and rip-offs were ten a penny.
Indeed, you still get them now, be they from psycho-horrors like Psycho or Frenzy, or action-packed adventure thrillers like Foreign Correspondent or North by Northwest, the latter being one of his collaborations with Cary Grant. However, while film fans love the Grant/Hitch pictures, it is often Charade that gets picked out as a favourite above them - and this was a career that spanned Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday and Notorious, to name but three well regarded efforts. It was one of his final roles, he had a mere two films to make after this before surprising Hollywood by retiring from the screen gracefully, feeling he was too old to be convincing as a leading man.
But then, his co-star was considering retiring as well, for she did not have many movies left to go either. She was Audrey Hepburn, another Brit who had emigrated to Hollywood to make her fortune as Grant had, so they had that in common and to all intents and purposes they got along very well, the actor being in his silver fox years and still very desirable despite one of those age gaps between himself and his romantic interest. This did make him uncomfortable, and references to the practice stung him and probably led to that retirement aged sixty-two after the largely forgotten comedy Walk Don't Run, but he could still convince as a desirable gentleman.
After all, Audrey was not some ingenue when she made Charade, she had been around for a while and was in her mid-thirties when she made this, so it was not so outrageous to imagine she would find Grant attractive - he had some far more unbelievable screen relationships prior to this, though one of them, with Sophia Loren in Houseboat, had a passionate affair in its background between the two stars. Loren could have been Mrs Grant Number 4 instead of Dyan Cannon, though considering Dyan's issues with him subsequently she may have had a lucky escape, as he had his demons that were managed only by a couple of years of therapy (his final marriage was by all accounts a contented one).
So this was the background to Charade, which despite the Hitchcock comparisons remained a trifle when contrasted with what the British director might have made of it, that sense of a follower rather than a leader never quite leaving it. Maybe it was the near-constant stream of romantic jokes that the two main characters shared, the one-liners that while undeniably funny, meant you never quite bought the high stakes Hepburn's new widow is supposed to be enduring, it just looked like she was having too much fun to be in danger of murder. Yet there was something interesting going on with Grant's performance; he famously never played a villain because the public would have never believed him in such a part.
When Hitch cast him in Suspicion, where it was blatantly obvious Grant was trying to murder wife Joan Fontaine, the studio made him change the ending to clarify Grant had merely been misunderstood. With that in mind, Donen and screenwriter Peter Stone were onto something when they created a persona for him in Charade that was constantly shifting and difficult to pin down with any accuracy until the final minute of the film. Perhaps that was what kept fans returning to Charade: it was a puzzle box that kept you guessing, and on returning to it you could appreciate how clever everyone involved had been in sustaining the mystery for nearly two hours (though there would always be those who claimed to identify the baddie before the big twist in the finale).
The plot? Without giving too much away for first time viewers, Somebody murders Audrey's mysterious husband Charlie, throwing him from a train before those stylish credits and Henry Mancini's excellent theme have even started. Apparently, Charlie has left his widow a quarter of a million dollars, but she cannot see how or where, which leads a gang of sinister types, the peerlessly cast James Coburn, George Kennedy and Ned Glass, to demand she hand over the inheritance since it is stolen. However, they may be the ones who stole it, and CIA man Walter Matthau wants it back for the US Government, while Grant seems like a friendly enough, urbane man about Europe, yet we are kept in the dark as is Hepburn as to his true motives. This succeeded because we were only told precisely what we needed to know to keep the pot simmering, so if it was lightweight when you really boiled it down there wasn't much to it but the tricks. Though what smart tricks they were: you truly wondered about Cary Grant in a way none of his other movies achieved.
[Though famously a public domain title thanks to a copyright error, there is a Criterion release of Charade on Blu-ray, far preferable to the cheap, worn versions, with these features:
New, restored high-definition digital transfer, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition
Audio commentary featuring Stanley Donen and screenwriter Peter Stone (all the more precious since Donen's passing in 2019)
Original theatrical trailer
English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
PLUS: A new essay by film historian Bruce Eder.]