IT’S A GUESSING GAME OF MIRTH AND MYSTERY!
Sometimes you have to walk a difficult road to make something happen. When screenwriters Peter Stone and Marc Behm tried to sell their script “The Unsuspecting Wife” to the majors in Hollywood, they were rejected. Stone and Behm then turned the story into a novel and renamed it “Charade”. When the story was serialized in a magazine, all those studios that had refused the script suddenly came calling. Not much had changed, but it’s a matter of timing.
It certainly helped that the man who ended up buying the rights, Stanley Donen, was looking for a Hitchcock picture to make.
On a skiing holiday in south-eastern France, Regina Lampert (Audrey Hepburn) meets Peter Joshua (Cary Grant) by chance. She thinks nothing special of it until she comes back to Paris and is told by the police that her husband Charles has been found dead in an apparent accident. At the subsequent funeral, three strangers (George Kennedy, James Coburn, Ned Glass) appear and behave oddly. When Regina is summoned to the U.S. Embassy, she meets a CIA administrator, Hamilton Bartholomew (Walter Matthau), who tells her that Charles was a member of a team that had been parachuted behind enemy lines during WWII to deliver $250,000 to the French Resistance. But they had all agreed to steal the money and when Regina is shown pictures of three other team members, she recognizes the strange men from the funeral.
Bartholomew tells her that the government also wants the money back, but Regina vehemently tells him that she doesn’t have it. She is warned that the three men are dangerous. Then suddenly Peter is back in Regina’s life – and agrees to help her.
Reliable in the thrills business
Charade has been called the greatest Hitchcock movie that he never made. Apparently, Donen had seen North by Northwest (1959) and enjoyed the experience so much that he wanted to make a movie like that himself. A seasoned director of musicals and comedies, Donen also turned out to be reliable in the thrills business as well. In fact, Charade not only has one very well-staged, Hitchcockian scene (the rooftop fight behind the hotel sign), but Donen makes sure that the story moves fast and maintains tension throughout. We’re meant to keep guessing as to whether or not Grant’s character (who has more aliases than James Bond) is trustworthy or not, or if in fact he’s even more sinister than a simple thief. Never really credible, the premise of the story is nevertheless acceptable enough, and certainly hugely enjoyable.
As for music and comedy, Donen delivers as well. Henry Mancini has written a charming score that goes hand in hand with the Paris environs and precedes the Pink Panther movies; the banter between the stars recognizes in amusing ways realities such as the stark age difference. Grant and Hepburn are terrific together; she as our representative, never certain of what’s true or not, and he as the charmer who may lead her astray… but at least they’re having fun in the process, and their budding romance adds another level of danger to the intrigues. Matthau is also entertaining as the spy who finds Charles Lampert’s wife somewhat annoying.
Maurice Binder, film title designer extraordinaire, gave this movie its playful, almost hypnotizing opening. Having worked with Donen on a few previous films, the sequence will remind more viewers of North by Northwest. Binder followed in the footprints of the masterful Saul Bass who designed the titles of that classic adventure. For Donen, it was perhaps the final tool in his quest to make the ultimate Hitchcock picture.
Charade 1963-U.S. 114 min. Color. Produced and directed by Stanley Donen. Screenplay: Peter Stone. Story: Peter Stone, Marc Behm (“The Unsuspecting Wife”). Music: Henry Mancini. Song: “Charade” (Henry Mancini, Johnny Mercer). Cast: Cary Grant (Peter Joshua), Audrey Hepburn (Regina Lampert), Walter Matthau (Hamilton Bartholomew), James Coburn, George Kennedy, Ned Glass.
Trivia: Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood were allegedly considered for the leads. Remade as The Truth About Charlie (2002).
Last word: “One, was [Donen] was the only person who hadn’t seen it before and I felt silly selling it to the people who rejected it. Two, it got me out of New York, which at that point I wanted to, I’d been there a long time with [the musical] ‘Kean’. And three, Stanley got stars, and I had written with Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn in mind”. (Stone on why he sold his script to Donen, New York Public Library)