Film Discussion

Charade (1963) – Rom-Com Rewind

The romantic comedy has proved an enduring genre for the silver screen, from the screwball comedy of the 30s to its peak in the 90s, and resurgent popularity in the 2010s. Set The Tape presents Rom-Com Rewind, a series looking at the history of the genre and how it has developed over the course of nearly a hundred years of movie history.

‘The best Hitchcock movie that Hitchcock never made’ is how Charade is frequently described, and it’s a more than apt description. For one thing, its leading man is Cary Grant, only this time instead of being mistaken for a spy, as he was in North by Northwest, Charade presents him as a character closer to the real thing.

There’s much running around Paris, which becomes a playground for the film’s espionage dealings; buckets of suspense, humour, and class; and a lot of gloss. The thing that gives Charade away as not being Hitchcock is the casting of Audrey Hepburn. Her hair was too dark for her to be a Hitchcock leading lady, so it’s perhaps a good reason we should be thankful that the director’s chair was instead occupied by Stanley Donen, meaning that the stars finally aligned for both Hepburn and Grant to share the screen.

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Very much the epitome of Mid-Atlantic Hollywood class, their personas were tailor-made to share the screen. Grant had been offered both Roman Holiday and Sabrina, roles that he would have been tailor-made for but turned down, the former particularly because he felt he was too old to be a romantic lead opposite a twenty-something Hepburn. The age difference ended up being something he was still mindful of here, prompting a rewriting of some dialogue to actually reference the twenty-five year age difference between the leads.

After years of nearly being co-stars, the wait would end up being worthwhile because Grant and Hepburn share wonderful chemistry throughout Charade‘s running time. For a film with a palpable sense of suspense that’s uncannily Hitchcockian, there is also a genuinely romantic feel to the film’s central relationship and Parisian setting. Their conversations and chemistry have a lovely sparkle that is irresistible for the majority of the film, and it’s helped more than anything by Donen’s light directorial touch.

The 60s was an era awash with movies and television shows wearing an espionage theme, something largely brought about by the success of the James Bond series. While Charade was released in 1963, just as Bond was starting out – this being the year of 007’s second film, From Russia with Love – it was part and parcel of an influx of films that were in no way indicative of actual spying work, instead opting to throw themselves into a more heightened glossy fantasy where spies looked like Cary Grant and the set-pieces were filled by a combination of imagination, comedy and fantasy. That said, Charade, like early Bond, had more of a footing in plausibility before the increased popularity of Ian Fleming’s creation would see the genre become more laden with fantasy and spectacle.

In a neat and subtle cross-over with 007, the credit sequence for Charade was created by Maurice Binder, the man responsible for designing opening titles for all but two of the first 18 Bond movies; the exceptions being From Russia with Love and Goldfinger.

Donen brings a touch of Hitchcockian thrills to proceedings, but there is also an air of screwball comedy to the plot. Taken out of context, random scenes involving Grant and Hepburn wandering through Paris wooing each other could look like any rom-com you could think of.  Whilst on the other end of the spectrum, this is also a film where Hepburn’s character spends her time away from Grant’s many monikered character being threatened by the other male characters, particularly famous tough guys such as James Coburn and George Kennedy as well as the wonderful curmudgeon that was Walter Matthau.

In some respects, it might seem like a strange film to include here, but the fact that it was the film that finally brought Grant and Hepburn together makes it feel like an important part of the genre. Sure, the age difference is there, as it was with so many of Hepburn’s leading men – it always feels like George Peppard in Breakfast at Tiffany’s was the only actor she was paired with who wasn’t considerably older than her – but the chemistry and sense of wit and romance between the pair is fun to watch.

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It also marks the semi-end of an era for this type of romantic comedy and for both its stars. Grant would retire three years later and despite overtures from other studios and directors, most famously Warren Beatty who approached him for Heaven Can Wait, he never appeared on screen again after 1966.  Hepburn would appear a year later in My Fair Lady, and there was the wonderfully suspenseful Wait Until Dark in 1967. Occasional roles would still follow, not least a genuinely moving performance as Maid Marion opposite Sean Connery’s Robin Hood in the elegiac Robin and Marion, but the scaling back of her workload to spend time with her family and charity work for UNICEF, plus Grant’s retirement not long after, gives Charade the air of a full stop for a certain kind of rom-com and light-hearted thriller.

In the end, it remains a great piece of entertainment, combining humour and suspense in a way that might look easy and effortless while watching but which takes a lot of work and engaging. It might sound like a cliche to say it, but you can’t help but feel as if they don’t make them like this anymore.

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