Charade (1963)

Charade is widely considered “the best Hitchcock film not actually made by Hitchcock”, so widely I don’t know who to attribute the phrase to. I do, however, know quite a lot about Hitchcock, one of my favourite directors and responsible for an obscene number of wonderful and fascinating films. So I was a bit apprehensive about this movie; lofty expectations are a terrible thing when the product can’t match up.

This one doesn’t, either, but that’s okay. It’s not even close to even some of Hitchcock’s less celebrated spy films, but it’s pretty obvious it isn’t trying to be. The first scene after the opening credits makes it absolutely clear that this film is going to be more of a comedy, even a parody of Hitchcock tropes, with a bit of action and intrigue thrown in: the opposite of what Hitchcock was usually going for (as I see it). The audience sees a gun aiming for Audrey Hepburn’s head, the camera zooms in on a close-up, the music grows ominous… and the gun sprays water at our heroine. The weapon is merely a child’s toy, and this is the first in a number of send-ups of common images from espionage films. Another great one comes a bit later in the film: government man Walter Matthau is just about to give Hepburn a bit of exposition, when the film smash-cuts to a close-up of his face, looking at the camera; the film knows the impending infodump is eagerly awaited not just by the heroine, but also by the audience.

But I’m getting ahead of myself and the film’s plot. It starts with a cryptic sequence in which a body is thrown from a train before segueing into wonderfully dynamic and energetic Saul-Bass-esque opening titles (actually designed by Maurice Binder, who was also responsible for most of the pre-Brosnan Bond openings). The design is fairly simple, but effective and appropriate to the film’s theme: geometric shapes shifting both form and colour in rapid succession, just like the title suggests. The sequence is supported by sprightly theme tune composed by Henry Mancini; curiously, the music in the rest of the film is often fairly subdued.
Regina Lampert (Hepburn), the wife of an independently wealthy and often absent man, returns to Paris from a trip to the Alps to find her husband dead and their loft empty. It turns out that the only wealth he left her is a wealth of passports under different names which Regina cannot explain to the police. It doesn’t take long for numerous people to come after Regina, convinced she knows something her husband took to his grave. So of course the experienced viewer puts 2 and 2 together and comes to the conclusion that he must have been a spy (hence the absences Lampert bemoans). Expect no, he wasn’t. It’s not state secrets everybody is after, it’s money. Apparently, her husband stole what amounts to almost 2 million of today’s dollars back in World War 2, his husband’s fellow thieves want that money for themselves, the CIA wants it back, and French police is also after Regina because they believe she murdered her husband herself. A helpful stranger (Cary Grant) offers his help, but even he is not what he seems.
Charades abound: Many of the characters project illusions around themselves to conceal the truth; they wear metaphorical masks, and some of them wear another mask under the first one. There are metaphorical charades, too, twists and turns of the plot that never seem arbitrary or far-fetched. Finally, the film plays a game of Charades with the viewer, playing with us and challenging us by shifting the evidence it presents; no sooner do we think we know the killer than the narrative changes and we have to throw our theories overboard again.

There are a few thrilling scenes connected to this chain of events, mostly thanks to the thieves and their attempts to intimidate Regina; for instance, there is one memorable moment where Regina is threatened by a couple of lit matches, and another would be a battle on top of a roof. That’s a bit surprising, because the three villains (played by George Kennedy, James Coburn, and Ned Glass) are basically campy caricatures. It’s also surprising how well these moments fit into the film, despite shifting tone completely; a testament to how engaging the actors are and how clever the script is, I suppose. Plus, if this is a parody at times, it is certainly an affectionate one, similar to Hot Fuzz (2007): any tropes and clichés of the genre are incorporated so well, the film could pass for the real thing. I should also mention that, like the more recent buddy cop film, Charade isn’t thrifty with overt references. Two set pieces are direct copies of scenes in Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent (1940) (and one is arguably inspired by a similar scene in North by Northwest, 1959), there are lots of moments that “feel” Hitchcockian (like the editing of the scene where the characters realise where the money actually went), and I’m sure there were a couple of reminiscences I didn’t catch. (Early in the film, there’s a shout-out to My Fair Lady, the film version of which Hepburn starred in and which was released a year later; that one seemed a bit out of place.)

I tagged this review as a “spy parody”, even though it is highly questionable whether that is the proper category. The film isn’t about espionage, after all, not really. But it feels like a spy film, from its plot, to its set pieces, to individual themes and images. “Crime parody” or just “crime comedy” don’t do this movie justice, because these terms don’t capture its complexity, the richness of its allusions (of which I couldn’t even scratch the surface). “Spy parody” doesn’t either, I suppose, but there you go. It’s just another charade.

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