in Criterion Month

Charade (1963)

Happy 7/11 everyone! I hope you enjoyed your free frozen treat. Personally, I didn’t even try, around these parts the consensus is Slurpees were ruined by the switch to paper straws. If you haven’t guessed, I’m having trouble coming up with an angle to attack Charade from. It’s the most Hollywood movie I’ve ever watched for Criterion Month, and that means my experience watching it was a lot less emotional and I was left with much less to chew on when it ended. Which betrays how much fun Charade was to watch. It feels like having to write about It Happened One Night or North by Northwest, except for some reason this movie isn’t as talked about as those classics. Why would that be? Let’s see if we can figure it out.

Reggie (Audrey Hepburn) is on a skiing holiday bemoaning her decision to divorce her husband when she hits it off with Peter (Cary Grant), a fellow American who immediately charms her. When Reggie returns to her home in Paris, she finds the place has been stripped bare. The police explain that Charles, Reggie’s husband, had sold all their belongings, hopped a train, and ended up murdered. All the money is gone, all Reggie gets is Charles’ travel bag full of knickknacks, a letter to her, and multiple passports with different identities. Reggie can provide the police with little information about her husband’s life – she doesn’t know if he has any family, where his money came from, or why he’d be trying to skip town. Few people attend the funeral, but three strange men barge in one after another to inspect the body.

A CIA administrator (Walter Matthau) summons Reggie to his office and finally clues her in to what’s been going on. Back during WWII, Charles and the three men who appeared at his funeral were tasked with delivering $250,000 in gold to the French Resistance. Instead, they stole it for themselves, only to be ambushed by the Germans. Charles escaped and took all the money for himself. So the three men want their share of the missing money, while the CIA wants it returned to the American government. All of this is a surprise to Reggie, who never heard of the money and has no idea where it could possibly be.

Peter reappears after reading about Charle’s funeral in the paper. He offers to help Reggie out and moves her into a hotel. As the two grow closer, the criminals each individually corner Reggie and threaten her to reveal where the money is. First there’s the bespectacled Gideon (Ned Glass) whose meek appearance apparently belies his ruthless nature. Then there’s Tex (James Coburn), a southern man who appears to be the brains of the operation. Finally, there’s Herman (George Kennedy), a gruff one-armed man who is the first to directly attack Reggie. Peter manages to fight Herman off, but Herman calls Reggie later that night. He tells her not to trust Peter because Peter wants the money too… And his name isn’t Peter at all!

So begins the actual “charade” part of the movie, with these five characters all lying to each other while trying to solve the mystery of Charles’ stolen money. Despite how suspense thriller the movie might sound up to this point, it’s just as much a screwball comedy. Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant are well within their comfort zones in this movie, but that doesn’t stop it from featuring plenty of witty repartee between the two as the simultaneously seduce each other and deduce the truth.

The light tone does detract a bit from the tension of the more serious scenes, but that could also just as easily be attributed to it being a crowd-pleasing Hollywood film made during the Hays Code era. Nonetheless, Charade has gotten a reputation as “the best Hitchcock movie that Hitchcock never made” and I definitely see where that came from. I should say, this is a Stanley Donen film. But what makes this seem more like the Master of Suspense and less like the Singin’ in the Rain guy? How much of that is just that golden age of Hollywood feel? Honestly, I’m not qualified to answer these questions, ask Colin. I will say the movie has a great Maurice Binder title sequence that is paired with a delightful theme by Henry Mancini, which does feel like something a Hitchcock film would have, but also, obviously, reminded me of James Bond.

To get back to my original prompt, the most interesting thing about Charade is that its legacy was tarnished by a typo. The notice that typically indicates copyright accidentally omitted the word “copyright” or the “©” symbol or anything else that could be construed as that word. As a result, like Night of the Living Dead five years later, the film entered public domain immediately upon release. You can watch it on Wikipedia. The downside of this is that Universal lost any incentive to invest any further money in the movie, leading to the proliferation of sub-par copies of Charade becoming widely available. Thank goodness we have something like the Criterion Collection to take the time to bring this forgotten classic back on Blu Ray!