US (1963) Dir. Stanley Donen
In what is surely a greater tribute to the man himself than the films in question, many cinematic offerings have had the lofty label of “The Best Film Hitchcock Never Directed” foisted upon them. Two of the more well known ones to actually deserve this epithet are Henri-Georges Clouzot’s chilling Les Diaboliques and Stanley Donen’s comedic Charade.
The dead body Charles Lampert is thrown from of a moving train leaving Paris, while his unsuspecting wife Regina (Audrey Hepburn) is on a skiing holiday in Switzerland. Upon her return home to Paris, Regina learns of her husband’s fate after finding her home completely stripped bare. The police also explain that Charles was fleeing Paris with $250,000 stolen from the US government.
CIA administrator Hamilton Bartholomew (Walter Matthau) summons Regina to the US Embassy to explain the whole story, warning her that the others involved in the heist are the likely murderers and would after her for the money. Having made the acquaintance of Peter Joshua (Cary Grant) in Switzerland who is now in Paris, Regina is caught up in a tangled web of deception where nobody seems capable of telling the truth.
Based on the 1961 short story The Unsuspecting Wife by Peter Stone, who also co-wrote the screenplay, one can immediately see where the Hitchcock would have fun with such a convoluted and sinuous plot, while the comparisons to his directing style surface mostly during the suspenseful final act but are dotted around the rest of the film.
Not that Stanley Donen, noted more for musicals like the evergreen Singin’ In The Rain and Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, doesn’t make this his own film nor does he set out to deliberately ape Hitch. The influence is more incidental and only really in the eye of the beholder, that being film fans and critics from whom Hitchcock is the measuring stick for suspenseful thrillers.
Yet Charade is much breezier affair, indulging in the Technicolor presentation it was afforded through the retina burning wardrobe of Audrey Hepburn and the vibrancy of the Paris night life. The snappy dialogue between the typically glamorous leads provides a levity you won’t find in Hitchcock films while building a chemistry that, while riddled with doubt, has palpable warmth to it.
Why the doubt? Well, for all his suave, debonair charm Peter Joshua is less upfront with Regina about his identity, which for the audience is evident from the convenience of his first meeting with Regina in Switzerland and his timely reappearance in Paris. Naturally, we are to ignore that clear age difference because Hollywood, but Grant himself at 59 was conscience about this, so the script was adapted to make Hepburn, then 33, the chaser rather than the chased.
Once the story is in full swing, much more is revealed about Peter, rather crucially that he is known to others as Alexander Dyle, brother of the late member of the original heist team, which in turn is exposed as another sobriquet which… well, you get the picture. Regina clearly finds it hard to trust him yet he constantly finds a way to win her back on side, only for the next development to cast further doubt on his sincerity.
At Charles’ funeral, the only attendees are Regina, close friend Sylvie (Dominique Minot) and Inspector Grandpierre (Jacques Marin) while three strange men briefly show up but only to see if Charles is really dead – burly cowboy Tex Panthollow (James Coburn), meek looking Leopold Gideon (Ned Glass) and hook-handed Herman Scobie (George Kennedy).
In a small hotel in Paris, Regina finds herself in torment at the hands of these three men all demanding the money from her they all claim is theirs, with Peter/Alex/insert name here flitting between ally and enemy. It is within this stationary setting that Donen first parallels Hitchcock in generating maximum suspense and terror from such intimate confines, similar to Rear Window and Psycho.
Where the Hitchcock influence shines the most is in a pivotal scene in the third act set at night time in the public space of the Colonnade at the Palais-Royal. The deft use of shadows to obfuscate the two men Regina is caught between is noir staging at its best, that may have worked better in black and white on an aesthetic front but is no less a stunning foundation for the gorgeously shot tableaux.
Similarly the climax set inside the Palais-Royal theatre defies the silliness of its construct by turning into a nail-biting blind gamble with everything on the line, and a perfect example of how tight editing to make all the difference in creating tension and dread. As a director, Donen proves to be chameleon like in adapting the thriller genre without falling back on his experience in musicals, whilst also being able to draw comparisons to Hitchcock without being a shameless clone.
Cary Grant was at this point a legend two years from retirement while Audrey Hepburn was in her prime and if it was a pity that their paths didn’t cross prior to this, it is a similar shame this was their only collaboration. Grant had lost none of his natural charisma while Hepburn was her usual fragrant self with a bit of a spark to her, which Donen was able to capture visually as well as through her performance.
These two working together interestingly represents something a watershed moment in US cinema, in that this meeting of two eras marked the last real hurrah for “classic Hollywood”. In a country that was undergoing significant social turmoil, specifically the assassination of JFK a month before this film’s release, the change Sam Cooke sung about a few months late was reflected on the big screen.
Putting aside this cultural significance and Hitchcock comparisons, Charade still boasts a tightly constructed mystery thriller plot that continues to enrapture new audiences, and does so in a slick and appropriately chic manner, or my name isn’t Peter, I mean, Alex, I mean…