Stanley Donen’s Charade (1963) is often thought of in terms of ersatz Hitchcock, and that’s understandable, but it really does Donen and the film a disservice, because there are many things about it that are purely Donen. I remember seeing it at the Ritz Theatre in Winter Haven, Fla., when it first came out. I was 9 years old and all I knew then was that it was pretty darn cool—and that Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn were even cooler. The thing is, those things hold true today and they stand out in even greater relief when compared to such flat wannabe cool attempts as the recent Knight and Day. Charade is the real deal, not some cheap, exploding cheeseburger of a movie pretender.
This supremely stylish thriller starts off with a bang: a murder on a train, followed by the then obligatory Maurice Binder-designed animated titles (which interestingly seem to have inspired the titles on New Wave director Philippe de Broca’s That Man from Rio the next year), leading into a faux suspense bit and a terrific “meet cute” between Grant and Hepburn. Only then does the plot take hold. And it’s a good plot. The murder victim turns out to have been Hepburn’s not-much-missed husband, a disreputable fellow who, it transpires, had a large sum of stolen money (or something worth a lot of money) that a great many people are anxious to obtain by any means necessary. The money/item in question is essentially a MacGuffin, but even it turns out to be cleverer than the usual MacGuffin. That’s really the secret to the film—everything about it is a little bit cleverer and a little bit better than it has to be. Thanks must be paid to both Donen and screenwriter Peter Stone.
Of all the 1950s Hollywood directors who carried over into the 1960s, Stanley Donen was probably the most successful. He was certainly the only one who fully embraced the 1960s style—informed as it was by the French New Wave. In many ways, Donen even prefigured the New Wave, as any examination of his 1957 musical Funny Face (which teamed Audrey Hepburn with Fred Astaire) reveals. Of all 1950s musicals, this is far and away the most experimental in terms of color and composition, in drive and in its use of location shooting. Vincente Minnelli’s Gigi (1958) may have had Parisian locations, but Donen’s Funny Face truly inhabits them, feels like a location work and doesn’t heavily rely on process work. It seems to be in Paris. And Donen brings that to bear on the Paris of Charade. This—and the film’s sense of freedom—is all the more remarkable when you consider it was made in 1963.
In the end, though, Charade succeeds because of its perfect blend of location, script, direction and stars. Jonathan Demme understood this—and captured it better than was generally conceded—when he reworked Charade in modern terms with the unfairly reviled The Truth About Charlie (2002). Where Demme erred was in thinking that Charade was old, because it wasn’t, and it isn’t. It’s as modern today as it ever was.
The Hendersonville Film Society will show Charade at 2 p.m. Sunday, July 18, in the Smoky Mountain Theater at Lake Pointe Landing Retirement Community (behind Epic Cinemas), 333 Thompson St., Hendersonville.