Why you should care

Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, clever plotting, a beautiful score… what more could you ask for?

The incomparable Audrey Hepburn-Cary Grant picture Charade inhabits three different kinds of limbo. It’s a quotably witty love story, an ingenious thriller, and an endlessly rewatchable screwball comedy. Let’s just say that somebody murders Audrey Hepburn’s husband, that Cary Grant and an uproarious Walter Matthau try to save her from a terrific cast of suspects, and that nobody, but nobody, is who they seem.

A true aficionado of the suspense film wants to see his arch villain outwitted, not outgunned.

Written by the great Peter Stone – author of that other classic, 1974’s deathlessly sparkling Taking of Pelham 1-2-3Charade illustrates a lesson that movies have been forgetting ever since. As with Pelham, suspense works even better when a hero thinks his way out of danger, instead of shooting his way out.

Anybody can shoot somebody. Without people shooting each other, the movies wouldn’t have lasted two weeks. But a true aficionado of the suspense film wants to see his arch villain outwitted, not outgunned. On that score, Charade delivers in spades.

Henry Mancini’s indelibly romantic title song, plus his insinuating underscore for almost every scene, doesn’t hurt either. Mancini uses the lower end of the keyboard for suspense and action, the upper end for mystery, and the rest to create an uncommonly wide spectrum of moods in between.

Landing it in a different kind of limbo, Charade’s reputation suffers because it’s a work of genius directed by someone not considered a genius. For a generation of film critics suckled at the droopy dug of director-centric auteurism, that just doesn’t compute.

Charade’s reputation suffers because it’s a work of genius directed by someone not considered a genius.

Stanley Donen created at least two masterpieces in addition to Charade: the immortal, pitch-perfect Singin’ in the Rain, in which everybody understandably over-identifies with his principal collaborator, Gene Kelly; and Two for the Road, in which two inhumanly beautiful actors, Hepburn (again) and Albert Finney, inexplicably create one of the most human marriages ever put on film.

In other words, unlike Alfred Hitchcock, Donen refused to make the same movie over and over – and what kind of auteur is that? Back here in reality, though, Charade isn’t just “the best Hitchcock movie that Hitchcock never made,” as too many critics have insisted. It’s the Hitchcock movie Hitchcock never matched.

Finally, comically, Charade lives in a third kind of limbo because nobody owns it. You can watch it free tonight, this week, next weekend or even right now. Some unwitting Marxist in Universal’s legal department forgot to attach the usual copyright notice to the credits, so it entered public domain the week it came out.

Just to get you started, this funeral scene is a masterclass in performance, music, direction and screenwriting. It’s exposition at its most visual.

Video:

Just a taste: One perfect scene

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