As Second Breakfast author Chris mentioned in his delightful article on Batman yesterday, we all watch a movie together most weeks. And, as he also mentioned, last week we watched Charade, which could understatedly be called delightful and more aptly one of the most delightful movies I’ve ever seen.
So, ya know, I liked it. Here’s why. And more importantly, here’s why you should check it out if you haven’t.
Plot: Reggie (Audrey Hepburn) returns to Paris from a skiing holiday to learn that her husband, Charles, has been murdered. She learns that Charles was in the OSS (the pre-cursor to the CIA) and, along with four other agents, stole $250,000 from the U.S. government. The other men have come to get the money back from Charles, who took it all for himself. Reggie must put her trust in Peter Joshua (Cary Grant), whose identity is never quite certain, in order to find the money and survive.
There is a lot more to say about this plot, but ultimately it’s non-essential. The money, the mystery, the murder: it’s all a MacGuffin, or some plot device that drives the story and interactions between the characters. The term was codified by Alfred Hitchcock, whose movies often had MacGuffins in order to achieve his real goals as a filmmaker: suspense, good dialogue, interesting character development, etc. Coincidentally, Charade—directed by Stanley Donen of Singin’ in the Rain fame—has been called the best movie that Hitchcock never made. Although the director is often associated with horror, he also made fantastic, witty, and funny spy thrillers.
Charade is definitely in that vein, but it’s not just a Hitchcock knock-off. Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn’s interactions together are laugh-out-loud funny, a series of back-and-forths that are both clever and realistic (i.e. they don’t feel overly-scripted). One of the most surprising things for modern audiences might be how well the humor in Charade holds up, and that’s largely because the jokes aren’t cheap: they’re well-constructed (cheers Peter Stone) and well-told. Even if you find most older movies a bit dull, Charade will hold your attention.
The script is definitely successful because of the humor, but that’s not to write off the plot and action. Charade is a mystery-comedy, and it’s amongst the best film has to offer in both genres. The story is largely full of MacGuffins, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not intriguing. The story-driving questions of “Who’s the murderer?” and “Where’s the money?” hold the audience’s attention just as much as the dialogue, and that’s where Charade succeeds where so many other movies—including most mystery-comedies that come out nowadays—fail. The story isn’t a poorly constructed container for the humor, but rather a well-made structure that stands on its own.
The directing captures the humor and action equally well. Stanley Donen is a fantastic filmmaker and—in much the same way William Wyler could direct epics like Ben-Hur and romantic comedies like Roman Holiday, as Chris mentioned a while back—he brings the same energy to the mystery/comedy hybrid as he does arguably the best musical of all-time: Singin’ in the Rain. The comedy scenes capture all of Grant and Hepburn’s movements and physical humor, allowing the actors space to do what they excel at.
The action and fast-paced sequences are also well-captured, telling us what’s going on and matching the energy of the action. Charade is funny and, perhaps equally important for the genre, exciting. If it weren’t for Donen’s talented directing, then one of those descriptors might be inaccurate, which would cause this movie to fall flat on its face.
Charade is a classic, but not in the same way that many movies are. While there is a lot to marvel at in terms of the storytelling and filmmaking, the movie has lasted in no small part because it’s a hell of a lot of fun in a way that will appeal to audiences today, and probably a way that will continue to for a long time. Whether you like action, comedy, mystery, or just great acting and writing, Charade will do the trick.