Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (April 22, 2004)
1963’s Charade opens with a violent event, as we see a body thrown from a moving train. After the opening credits, we head to the European mountains where we again see the possibility of bloodshed as someone aims a gun at a lunching Regina Lampert (Audrey Hepburn). However, this turns to goofiness as we see a little boy shoot her with his water pistol.
Regina confides in her friend Sylvie Gaudet (Dominique Minot) that she wants to divorce her wealthy husband Charles because she doesn’t love him anymore and vice versa. She also feels Charles is hiding something from her.
Regina meets Peter Joshua (Cary Grant) when he returns the misbehaving boy to his mother Sylvie. Regina and Peter flirt but nothing seems to come of it as they both need to return to Paris.
When Regina gets there, she finds her home totally emptied of all its furnishings and other objects. Police Inspector Edouard Grandpierre (Jacques Marin) soon happens on the scene and reveals to her that someone killed Charles; his was the body tossed from the train. The plot thickens when Inspector Grandpierre indicates that Charles possessed a ticket to go to Venezuela, but Regina knew nothing of that. He reveals that Charles sold everything in their home just a few days earlier, but no one knows the whereabouts of the proceeds. Matters complicate more when the Inspector reveals that Charles possessed many passports issued by different countries.
After he hears of the events in the paper, Peter stops by to console Regina. Few attend Charles’ funeral, but a steady stream of suspicious characters eventually arises, most of whom come to make sure he really died. Regina also gets a note that requests she stop by the American embassy to discuss Charles’ death. She chats with Hamilton Bartholomew (Walter Matthau), who states that he works as an administrator for the CIA and reveals that the US government wanted to capture Charles, whose real name was Voss. Bartholomew shows Regina a war-time photo that depicts Charles with the three shady personalities from the funeral. He warns her that these nasties may come into contact with her, and not in a positive way, as they want Charles’ money.
Regina protests that she doesn’t know the whereabouts of the money, but Bartholomew insists she can gain access to it somehow, such as via a hidden key. Regina turns to Peter for help, and he attempts to brighten her dismal mood. However, during fun at a nightclub, she receives a threat from Leopold Gideon (Ned Glass), one of the men involved, and Tex Penthollow (James Coburn) follows up on this. Eventually Regina also encounters the third member of this vicious trio, Herman Scobie (George Kennedy). Peter pesters her to spill the beans, but Regina attempts to keep matters secret due to Bartholomew’s advice.
These elements set up the rest of the film. From there, we watch as the events unfold. We see what happens to Regina due to the various threats and plots, and we also examine romance unfold between Peter and Regina.
Probably the most unsavory aspect of Charade stems from the age difference between Hepburn and Grant. He was 25 years her senior, and the gap shows. Granted, we’ve always seen a lot of that in Hollywood, and the trend continues to this day, but it still comes across as a little creepy at times.
That slight misstep aside, Charade fully deserves its stellar reputation. The movie plays well as both mystery and dark comedy, for it never tips its hand too much in either direction. It has a lot of fun with thriller conventions, particularly in the sinister performances from the thugs out to get Regina. We often don’t know who to believe or where to turn, and Charade makes those elements work well.
In addition, the film plays out the comedic elements nicely. It definitely takes a dark turn much of the time, such as during the cruelly funny funeral sequence. The movie grows more serious as it progresses, but it never loses its inherent sense of humor.
The performances help hold it all together. Despite my misgivings about the age differential, Hepburn and Grant interact well together. They demonstrate a nice chemistry and feel believable as a couple for the most part. The supporting cast also seems excellent, as a long roster of noted character actors adds immeasurably to the quality of the film.
Really, there’s little here about which to complain. Charade seems bright and lively, as it takes us down a winding path that presents fun twists and turns at every opportunity. The film keeps us on our toes and always guessing, and it also seems brisk and amusing. It never takes itself too seriously and it manifests a nice feeling of pep and verve. A winning dark comedy and mystery, Charade fares well across the board.