The second movie in our Cary Grant double-feature was Charade, and I realized when I saw it that it represented an entry in an entire subgenre of films that is no longer extant: The light-comedy spy caper. Now, you could bring up Spy, but it doesn’t really fit—and there hasn’t been a movie that fits the category since at least the Cold War ended, and probably since the ’70s. Let’s see if I can back this up:
In Charade, Regina (Audrey Hepburn) comes home intent on divorcing her distant, lying husband only to find that he was far more distant and lying than she ever knew: He’s turned up dead, apparently, and without a lot of cash that he is supposed to be trying to smuggle out of the country. Workaday spy Hamilton Bartholomew (Walter Matthau) fills her in on the details, and tells her her life is in jeopardy unless she finds that cash—which she sort of sloughs off until she is menaced in turn by Tex (James Coburn), Herman (George Kennedy) and Leopold (Ned Glass). Fortunately, the debonair Peter (Cary Grant, in one of his last roles) is there to save her.
Or is he?
The one constant in this movie—presumably the reason for it being called Charade—is that Peter is not who he seems to be at all. He’s constantly lying about who he is and what his motivations are, and each reasonable explanation for his behavior is soon supplanted by a revelation that said explanation was also a lie.
This movie, primarily, is a Romantic Comedy. It doesn’t work quite as well as it should because of the apparent age difference between Audrey and Cary, which I’ve heard made Grant uncomfortable and was part of the reason he retired (even though he married the 27-year-old Dyan Cannon a couple years after this). The funny thing is, we’ve seen this age difference work before with Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak (1958’s Vertigo and Bell, Book and Candle) but Audrey Hepburn’s gamin look and her young mannerisms make her seem much younger than her 33 years (where Novak’s character always came off as more womanly).
If you can get past the age issues—and the movie works hard at this, pitting the stalwart (despite his shiftiness) Peter against Regina’s waif-y wiles—it’s quite enjoyable as a RomCom. But it’s not just a RomCom, it’s a spy movie. And that means, among the flirtations and misunderstandings, there are murders. Lives are at stake, and nobody knows who to trust. It’s actually kind of bizarre but, like I said before, it was a genre from about 1960-1980.
In this part of the story, the various villains take turns menacing Regina and alternatively each other, as each suspects the other of already having found the money and pretending not to have, so they can keep it for themselves. The shocking twist at the end—well, it isn’t all that shocking, but 55 years later, the lack of shock is itself unshocking. I don’t remember when I figured it out, but it’s the sort of movie where you don’t really care much. Which really pushes it more into the RomCom territory than the Spy territory.
Or, if you prefer, the missing cash—with a solution out of Ellery Queen—gives it more of a Mystery film vube. It fits in that sense, because it’s a common trope in mysteries to just let the various corpses roll off one’s back, as it were. Nobody is too terribly bothered since the point is the mystery, not the drama. It’s all sort of preposterous and contrived; that’s what makes it fun. The whole feel of the genre doesn’t fit in the naturalist/communist ideals of the later ’60s/’70s, or the ironic enthusiasm of the ’80s, or the Cold War free ’90s. And if I keep going down this road, I would also have to point out we don’t have icons like Grant or Hepburn, clever scriptwriters like Peter Stone (Mirage, 1776), directors like Stanley Donen (Singin’ In The Rain, The Little Prince), to say nothing of studios that worry whether it will Play In Peking, and I’d just get depressed. So I won’t.
We all loved it, of course, though the age difference made The Flower especially uncomfortable (while again, she loves Novak/Stewart). For that reason, she preferred Blandings while the Boy was more on the fence. Either way, it’s worth checking out.