Written by Peter Stone / Directed by Stanley Donen / Starring Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn & Walter Matthau
Regina Lampert: Why do people have to tell lies?
Filmmaker Stanley Donen’s (SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN, FUNNY FACE) romance / comedy / thriller / mystery CHARADE is widely known as the best Hitchcock movie Hitchcock never made, and with good reason. Add a leading cast of Cary Grant (TO CATCH A THIEF) and Audrey Hepburn (MY FAIR LADY) to a story wrought with overarching elements of mystery and intrigue (including an opening scene that sees a man’s corpse being tossed from a speeding train) and you have the incredibly Hitchcock-esque vibe that accounts for much of the confusion that has existed for years surrounding the film.
Hepburn is Regina Lampert, an American living in Paris who has decided to divorce her wealthy husband. But when she returns home from a vacation (during which she briefly meets the dashing Peter Joshua, played by Grant), she discovers all their possessions sold and the police hanging around to inform her of Mr. Lampert’s death. A strange funeral leads to an even more bizarre invitation to meet with a Mr. Bartholomew (Walter Matthau, GRUMPY OLD MEN) at the American Embassy, during which time she learns her husband was not quite the man she believed him to be. A baffled Regina is informed that he stole $250,000 during the war, and both the US government and his partners in crime are looking to get their money back. At a loss for where the money could be, she finds herself on the run from three shady men who begin to follow her around Paris and trusting only in the charming Mr. Joshua who also lives in the city.
Spend a little time unpacking CHARADE and its many facets and you realize it’s not quite so Hitchcock after all. For one thing, Hepburn never starred in one of the Master of Suspense’s films, although she certainly fit the image of elegance he seemed to require for his leading ladies. But far more than for such logistical reasons, there’s a wacky comedic feel to the film that makes it quite unique. Even perhaps silly at times, but certainly not in a bad way. It takes a certain skill to combine such playfulness with some genuinely shocking (by 1963 standards, naturally) moments and Donen does it beautifully.
That’s not to say that the film is without its issues, most of which occur when you’re pretty sure Donen is going for shocking but instead achieves wacky. Fortunately there aren’t too many of these occurrences but they do occasionally pop up.
An extremely interesting element of the film is the seeming paradox that is inherent in Regina’s character. On the one hand, she is the ultimate stereotypical female victim…wide-eyed and terrified, looking for sanctuary in the arms of her mighty protector, even as he whispers in her ear such sweet nothings as “Do women think it feminine to be so illogical or can they not help it?” It’s downright maddening to watch as she’s crippled with fear when one of her pursuers corners her in a telephone booth and lights matches in her face to accompany his verbal threats. She simply stands there crying and begging him to stop while you the viewer yell at the screen “Just blow them out!” Sure, this was a different time and female characters in 1963 were certainly not what they are today. But compare her to NORTH BY NORTHWEST’s Eve Kendall (played by Eva Marie Saint in 1959) or REAR WINDOW’s Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly, 1954) and Regina Lampert can be a bit frustrating.
However, on the other side of the coin is the fact that she is the aggressive one when it comes to the romantic relationship between her and Joshua. Although he is hesitant to make any move on her, and even attempts to turn down her advances (albeit with the type of resistance you would expect from someone being pursued by Audrey Hepburn) she is clearly not about to take no for an answer. And while it turns out her character was written this way intentionally in an effort to convince the much older Cary Grant to take the part when he was uneasy about coming off as a predatory creep, it still adds an interesting dimension to Donen’s central character.
Donen’s CHARADE may be mistaken for another director’s work and it may not be perfect. But its charming quirks are what make the film both incredibly fun and entertaining.
CHARADE screens on July 2nd, as part of the new TIFF film series, Dreaming in Technicolor, at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto. The series runs through August 13 and features over 25 classics like REAR WINDOW, ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS and BONNIE & CLYDE. It launched on Friday, June 19, with the Gene Kelly masterpiece, SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN. For more information and for tickets, please visit tiff.net.