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Charade: the best Hitchcock film Hitchcock never made?

by Lesley Coffin

Is Charade “the best Hitchcock film Hitchcock never made”?

Before answering we probably have to ask the big question…what does it mean to be Hitchcockian?

Charade (1961) is far from the only film to receive this comparison over the years. The Sixth Sense led to Hitchcock comparisons of M. Night Shyamalan…because of its “tell no one the ending” twist. When Jaws was first released it was compared to Psycho and The Birds. Park Chan-Wook has received comparisons for two of his films; Stoker (with some very direct references to Shadow of a Doubt) and 2022’s Decision to Leave (Vertigo). It would be hard to find a Brian De Palma film without some Hitchcock references. And then you even have the parodies including High Anxiety and Hitchcock’s own final film send-up of his work Family Plot, a film which shares many of the same reference points as Charade. Let’s consider this subgenre: Hitchcock’s whodunit romcoms (Rear Window, North By Northwest, To Catch A Thief). These lighter Hitchcock films are clearly inspired in tone and style from screwball comedies of the golden age of studio films. And it would be hard to find an actor more closely tied to that era than Cary Grant.

In his book Another Fine Mess, Saul Austerlitz wrote of Charade “this was a comedy about the aura of Gary Grant, with copious MacGuffinary only momentarily diverting the eyes from its primary object of contemplation.” The presence of Grant in a film which takes as many cosmetic cues from Hitchcock is like a dog whistle for audiences familiar with Grant’s Hitchcock connection. As a younger man (in Notorious and Suspicion) he was the dashing anti-hero/villain putting his female leads in considerable danger. As an older man Grant was captive to younger but headstrong women (Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief and Eva Marie Saint in North By Northwest). Grant’s second wave of films with Hitchcock had been a welcome distraction from the comedies he was making in the 1950s, which lacked the wit and energy of his earlier films. Ironically one of the few films from that era that did utilize Grant’s still strong sex appeal was Indiscreet with his Notorious co-star Ingrid Bergman. It also happened to be one of his other films with Charade’s director Stanley Donen, who clearly understood what made Grant still so appealing.

Charade is far more entertaining to watch if audiences are familiar with Grant as a Hitchcock leading man. The idea that Grant had been the anti-hero in Notorious and Suspicion (he was the villain in Suspicion if not for studio interference) brings that touch of menace to Grant’s four disguised characters in Charade. It would be hard to even conceive that Audrey Hepburn would be in danger around him unless you had those black and white films in the back of your mind. Likewise when Grant is in action mode, the film benefits from the audience's recollection of Grant’s other high wire stunt sequences. Fighting George Kennedy on top of the building brings back instant memories of his Mount Rushmore scene in North By Northwest and the final chase on top of the villa in To Catch a Thief. It isn’t as impressive as either of those films but the shorthand we have thanks to Grant’s presence provides Charade a kind of cinematic nostalgia that makes the film stronger than it otherwise may have been.

Hitchcock was far better known to use his established male star personas while attempting to craft his female lead’s images. However Hitchcock wasn’t opposed to using established female personalities (Carole Lombard, Marlene Dietrich, Doris Day) in films that he more or less cast with the same master plans he had for his men.

Audrey Hepburn never worked with Hitchcock, but that what-if connection is one of the things that make Charade so delightful. If Charade seems like Grant has wondered in from a Hitchcock film, one can’t help but wonder if Hepburn’s character wouldn’t have fit into Hitchcock. Considering Hitchcock had just released The Birds you can certainly see some similarities to Hepburn and Tippi Hedren’s characters, wealthy women with free-time put in unexpected danger. Hedren in The Birds is far cooler and more detached than Hepburn, seeming to have a bit of the bad girl streak. But Hepburn’s witty pursuit of Grant and willingness to engage in the cat and mouse games has similarities to Hitchcock’s earlier leading ladies, especially Grace Kelly in Rear Window and To Catch a Thief. Hepburn wouldn’t have been out of place in a 1950s Hitchcock film…but by 1961 she would have been a woman out of time and place.

Hitchcock had never been one for embracing the damsel in distress Hollywood image. There were plenty of examples of women needing to be saved but his most iconic women were typically active, game for dangerous pursuits, and could even overpower their men. By 1963, after Grace Kelly broke into an apartment building, Eva Marie Saint rescued Cary Grant, Vera Miles told John Gavin she wouldn’t just wait at the Bates Motel, Hepburn’s cries of distress feels like something from another era of Hollywood. In Charade Hepburn is quick to scream for help and tear up when met with danger. It makes her far less the Hitchcock heroine than her peers…but it may make her a prime example of one of Stanley Donen’s leading ladies.

Hepburn made three films with Donen (Grant made a total of four), and Donen found a more mature and comic side to the actress than she had shown in her other films. Hepburn was always charming on screen, but in Funny Face, Charade, and Two For the Road you see her comedic skills shine. Especially important for Charade, she showed a maturity that was so often lacking in other performances when asked to play up her angelic qualities with older men. Donen saw a sexiness that was vital for establishing her character’s regretful would-be divorcee and discouraged audience discomfort of the age difference between Grant and Hepburn. In her pursuit of Grant, Hepburn is confident, clever, and playful. And at times when briefly fearing Grant can’t be trusted, her amateur detective moments are some of Charade’s best moments. If Hepburn rarely had an opportunity to show her range as an actress, movies like Charade let her highlight different elements of that star persona.

As for Donen as director, it seems unfair to such an accomplished director that Charade wasn’t permitted to stand on its own without the Hitchcock comparisons. It’s important to note than Donen was best known for his musicals and comedies, not romantic thrillers, and with the exception of the films he co-directed with Gene Kelly he became more of a journeyman director than auteur. Actors clearly enjoyed working with him and could be plugged into just about any type of film…but romantic comedies and musicals are where he excelled. No wonder Charade often feels more like a romantic comedy with a thriller in the background than a suspense film.

But Donen was also a student of the golden age of film and just as he had with Singin’ in the Rain, he was more than capable of recreating and adding flourishes of films from the past. From the moment Charade’s bouncy Bernstein inspired Henry Mancini score starts, with an animated opening that was clearly an homage to Saul Bass, you know to look for those Hitchcock clues. Donen is guilty of some clunky moments of filmmaking, but there are clearly moments when he thought “how would Hitchcock handle this.” For example, the running scene cutting between Hepburn and Grant is still iconic. Likewise the film’s character actors (George Kennedy, James Colburn, Walter Matthau) would have fit into any Hitchcock ensemble.

So where does Charade’s Hitchcock connection leave it in film history? Is it The Best Hitchcock movie Hitchcock Never Made? The argument can certainly be made. However, there are dozens if not hundreds of films that could present the same case. If required to choose the answer will probably come down to what you feel is Hitchcock’s most iconic film. But regardless of that status, Charade is a charming, funny, and ultimately romantic movie that brought breeziness to Hollywood films when such films were starting to go extinct. One thing is for sure…Charade is a fun watch on its own but to watch it as extra credit after experiencing some of those iconic Hitchcock films makes the experience even better.


Lesley Coffin has been writing about film for almost 15 years and authored two books on Hollywood history.

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