Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant are two names that are synonymous with glamour, sophistication, and the very best in romantic comedy. While it would seem an obvious choice to cast the two, who shared similar improvisational acting styles and status as box-office favorites, together Hepburn and Grant only costarred in one film, 1963‘s cold-war thriller, Charade. While CIA agents, Nazi gold, and murder may be a far cry from the romantic comedies that both actors built their careers upon, the duo exude such elegance, wit, and chemistry throughout the film that cinema buffs can’t help regretting that they didn’t recapture the same magic in another collaboration. A prime example of cold-war suspense and Hepburn and Grant at their finest, Charade is a must-see for classic and modern film fans alike.
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The story begins as Regina, ‘Reggie’ Lampert meets debonair Peter Joshua during a ski trip. While the pair share obvious chemistry, any chance at romance is held at bay when he learns of her crumbling marriage. Upon returning home to Paris, she is stunned to learn that her husband was killed when an unknown assailant threw him from a train. It is then revealed that her husband was wanted by the US government for his part in the theft of two million dollars in confiscated Nazi gold bullion. Making matters worse, her husband’s accomplices return in pursuit of their share of the gold and will stop at nothing to get it. In the midst of this chaos Reggie enlists the aid of and embarks upon a romance with Peter, who possesses dangerous secrets of his own. The pair are then drawn into a web of theft, deception, and murder as they struggle to get to the gold before the thieves can.
Often referred to as ‘the best film that Hitchcock never made’, Charade has all the suspense of a Hitchcock thriller with an added bonus of romance and humor. The elaborate murders, Macguffin item that holds the key to the stolen gold, and final character reveal create a twisting plot that serves as a perfect nod to Hitchcock. Even the use of the director’s favorite leading man, Cary Grant, follows in the tradition of the ‘master of suspense’. What sets Charade apart, however, is the way in which the story refuses to take itself too seriously. Even in the midst of its most tense moments, the script still finds humor in the absurdity of the characters and the outlandish situations that they find themselves in. The spyjinks work so well in large part due to the light tone with which they are approached as everything from the bodies that continue to pile up to sparks that fly between Hepburn and Grant are viewed through a lens of dry humor. Through this humor, audiences can enjoy the ride without completely suspending their disbelief assured that both they and the characters are in on the joke.
The film also outdoes Hitchcock in the sheer fun of its romance. While Hitchcock’s films are known for melodramatic portrayals of love at first sight, Reggie and Peter’s relationship progresses over the course of the film. The film also doesn’t shy away from love’s inevitable conflicts as its leads bicker and argue throughout their adventures. By showing a more gradual progression of a relationship and including such mundane details as lovers’ spats the film adds a level of authenticity to the romance, which viewers can see shades of their own relationships in. Finally, falling in love has rarely looked so outright fun as it does in Charade. Just like many offscreen couples, Peter and Reggie build their relationship on a foundation of laughter as they tease, banter and joke with one another every step of the way. Through Grant and Hepburn’s sparkling chemistry the relationship maintains a playful sexiness that avoids both the histrionics of many classics and the immaturity of many modern rom-coms. Suspenseful, sexy, and with a tongue firmly in cheek, Charade is a blend of cinema at its most entertaining.
The uniformly excellent cast weave a web of intrigue, suspense, and romance that will keep viewers guessing until the film’s final frame. James Coburn, George Kennedy, and Ned Glass by turns tingle the spine and tickle the ribs as villains Tex, Scobie, and Gideon who would be far more formidable if only they could stop fighting amongst themselves. Walther Matthau infuses his CIA agent with dry humor, adding a level of humanity to what easily could have been a stock role. Even while surrounded by a talented cast Hepburn and Grant shine like the stars that they are. Grant strikes the ideal balance between sophistication and warmth in his role as Peter, leaving little wonder as to why Reggie falls for him even as she learns his many secrets and lies. Hepburn is nothing short of a delight as the well-meaning but scatter-brained Reggie, and proves that she can tackle drama and comedy with equal skill. The scenes that the pair share are some of the best in romantic comedy as they play with both gender and genre conventions as Hepburn aggressively pursues the much older and more worldly Grant, who in turn switches sides as often as he switches his ‘drip-dry’ suits.
Packed with enough twists and turns to keep even the most seasoned viewer guessing, Charade is a vintage thrill ride that can still hold its own in the modern era of gritty filmmaking. Harkening back to an era in which suspenseful did not necessarily mean bleak, the film strikes a perfect balance between edge-of-your-seat drama and frothy romantic comedy. With all the thrills and romance of the greatest suspense films and plenty of laughs along the way Charade is a film that many a director wishes they had made.
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