The surprise is a lost art in contemporary cinema. Further, when new films actually manage to pull off unpredictable twists and turns–see Christopher Nolan’s “Memento”–they tend to sacrifice relatable characters to better service their plot tricks. Stanley Donen’s 1963 film “Charade,” on the other hand, is both unpredictable and emotionally resonant. The dynamic between the main characters provides a human anchor as narrative surprises are unveiled, making the film both a thrill-ride and a substantive look at relationships.
Reggie (Audrey Hepburn) is the recently widowed wife of Charles Lampert, a World War II veteran whose body was found after being thrown from a train. C.I.A. bigwig Hamilton Bartholemew (Walter Matthau) informs Reggie of her husband’s secret life as a covert agent and that he was in possession of $250,000 of agency money, which Batholemew wants back. He also reveals that three of Charles’ former associates will come for the stash, putting Reggie’s life is in danger. With the help of a mysterious stranger named Peter Joshua (Cary Grant), Reggie has to find the money before her pursuers catch up to her.
Perhaps the most revered attribute of “Charade” is its clever script by Peter Stone, which allows for charming repartee between Hepburn and Grant. Stone brings out Grant’s seemingly effortless skills as a screwball comedian, which balance nicely with Hepburn’s effervescent presence. Reggie pushes herself upon Joshua in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, to which he responds drolly, as if he could help resisting her. It’s rare to find a screenplay that feels this well-tailored to its performers.
Balancing out the comedy and romance is a solid helping of violence, expertly executed by both the cast and the filmmakers. James Coburn, Ned Glass, and George Kennedy play the three goons chasing Hepburn, and each is perfectly slimy in his own way. Donen brilliantly stages a rooftop battle between Grant and Kennedy by shooting the action with rapidly changing camera angles that disorient you and allow no certainty as to who will win the fight. In addition, Henry Mancini’s music subtly underscores the scene with a sustained low note that imbues the viewer with dread. This, along with a chase through the subways of Paris as well as a tense standoff, elevate the film above being merely an amusing caper; they give dramatic weight to the otherwise lighthearted material.
The fights are only part of the movie’s technical brilliance. “Charade” moves briskly along from one plot twist to the next, all of which are set in beautifully realized Paris locales. The cinematography by Charles Lang, Jr. is functional, with noir-ish lighting peppered throughout. James Clark’s spry editing ratchets up the tension, especially during the climax of the film.
Stylistically, Donen draws on the suspense and romantic comedy genres, deriving inspiration from the films of one of his major predecessors, Alfred Hitchcock. One can observe the clear influence of “North by Northwest” and especially “To Catch a Thief.” In addition, “Charade” was made a year after the first Bond film and you can see traces of the iconic spy in Grant’s characteristically smooth performance, as well as the disturbing violence that occasionally pops up. Such elements distinguish “Charade” as a prelude to the then-burgeoning ‘60s spy-thriller genre.
“Charade” could be considered an anomaly in Donen’s career. This is the same director who collaborated with Gene Kelly on classic musicals such as “On the Town” and “Singin’ in the Rain.” But one nonetheless recognizes aspects of Donen’s prior films in the breezy elegance of the Grant-Hepburn dynamic, as well as his masterful staging abilities in the fight and chase scenes. “Charade” lends strong support to the idea that a director can do some of their best work outside of their comfort zone.