Charade (1963) feels like an Alfred Hitchcock thriller, but was actually directed by Stanley Donen giving it the distinction of being the 'best Hitchcock movie Hitchcock didn't make.' But the Hitchcockian flair is no accident; Donen made Charade as an homage and near-spoof of Hitchcock's work. Donen recalled later, 'I always wanted to make a movie like one of my favorites, North by Northwest (1959). What I admired most was the wonderful story of the mistaken identity of the leading man. They mistook him for somebody who didn't exist; he could never prove he wasn't somebody who wasn't alive. I searched [for something with] the same idiom of adventure, suspense and humor.'
Donen found just the story he'd been looking for in a script by Peter Stone. Stone had unsuccessfully shopped his screenplay, then titled 'The Unsuspecting Wife,' before turning it into a novel and publishing it as a serialized feature in Redbook where the story, now called 'Charade,' finally caught Hollywood's attention.
Donen bought the rights and envisioned the film as the perfect vehicle for Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, whom he had directed a few years earlier in Funny Face (1957). But it seemed doubtful Grant would agree to make the movie if he was starring opposite Hepburn. After all, Grant had been offered the leading role in no fewer than three of Hepburn's films: Roman Holiday (1953), Sabrina (1954) and Love in the Afternoon (1957), turning them down due to the twenty-five year age difference between him and Hepburn.
Donen offered Grant the part anyway, but the actor had already committed to a Howard Hawks film. Plan B was Paul Newman, who accepted the role, but Columbia Studios wouldn't pay his rate. Then Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood were cast but that deal fell through when Columbia decided not to make the movie at all. So, Donen took the project to Universal.
Meanwhile, Grant decided he didn't like the script for the Howard Hawks film, and told Donen he could make Charade after all. Hepburn was on board, too, so Donen finally had the actors he'd hoped for from the beginning. Like all great casting, it's hard imagining anyone else in the roles, though, as in most movies, it was hardly a foregone conclusion.
Hepburn and Grant have great chemistry and even improvised some of their lines, but they had never met before making this movie. When Donen introduced the two for the first time, a very nervous Hepburn accidentally spilled an entire bottle of red wine on Grant's cream-colored suit. Naturally, Grant was smooth and debonair about it. The incident inspired a scene in the movie, though Hepburn spills ice cream, not wine, on her handsome costar.
Grant was very aware of the age gap (he turned fifty-nine during filming, and Hepburn was just thirty-three), and he didn't want to come across as a dirty old man chasing a much younger woman so he worked with Stone to adjust the romantic dynamic. In the revised script, Grant attempts to maintain a platonic relationship, and constantly reminds Hepburn of the age difference even as she pursues him. As Stone recalled, 'This way Cary couldn't get in any trouble. What could he do! She was chasing him.'
Stone also added funny lines calling attention to the age gap, as when Hepburn asks Grant to walk her to her hotel room. Grant refuses, saying 'I could already be arrested for transporting a minor above the first floor.' It's refreshing and a bit unusual having the age difference acknowledged and it's very entertaining watching Hepburn chase Grant!
Charade was shot on location in Paris, and the city is utilized beautifully, both visually and narratively. When filming commenced, Hepburn was already in the city for Paris When It Sizzles (1964); just two days after finishing that film, she began work on Charade. (Charade was shot second but released first.)
Charade reunited Hepburn with her longtime costume designer, French couturier Hubert de Givenchy. Givenchy had provided her 'Paris' wardrobe in Sabrina, and ever since then he'd designed Hepburn's costumes and much of her personal wardrobe. In Charade, Hepburn plays a wealthy, stylish woman, so Givenchy goes wild, dressing Hepburn in stunning, deceptively simple sheaths and coats.
Hepburn's wardrobe is not the movie's only stylish element to the movie. The stunning title sequence was designed by Maurice Binder, most famous for his work on sixteen James Bond films between 1963 and 1989. Henry Mancini, who composed the famous score for Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961), provided jaunty, 1960s-style music that perfectly accompanies the movie's wonderful Hitchcockian mixture of romance, wit, absurdity, style, murder, and suspense. Mancini's song 'Charade,' with lyrics by Johnny Mercer, was nominated for Best Original Song, though it didn't take home the Oscar.
The film premiered on December 5, 1963, less than two weeks after JFK was assassinated. The studio was worried that Hepburn's line, 'Any minute now we could be assassinated!' would cause an uproar in theaters so they dubbed it, replacing assassinated with eliminated; they also altered one of Grant's lines to remove the taboo word. (The dubbing has been removed on re-releases.)
Charade became the fifth most profitable movie of the year, and ironically outperformed the actual Hitchcock movie out that year, The Birds, with both critics and audiences. Grant and Hepburn were nominated for Golden Globes, and Hepburn won the BAFTA for Best Actress.
Grant was nearing his retirement from the screen and only made two more films after Charade, Father Goose (1964), and Walk, Don't Run (1966). Hepburn had many more movies ahead of her; in fact, she had recently been cast in one of her most famous roles, Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady (1964). There's even a reference to that upcoming film in Charade: when Hepburn and Grant ride the elevator to her room, Grant says, 'Here you are,' and a distracted Hepburn answers, 'Where?' Without missing a beat, Grant says, 'On the street where you live,' which is a reference to the song in My Fair Lady.
Many scholars and critics see Charade as one of the last great 'classic' Hollywood offerings. The film is glossy and somewhat 'old-fashioned' in that it stars Hepburn and Grant, was directed by Donen, and contains all the flair and style of a Hitchcock film without the sex, violence, or language of the New Cinema.
Charade was re-made as The Truth About Charlie (2002), but it's impossible to recapture the magic of Grant, Hepburn, and Donen in this undisputed classic, the best Hitchcock movie Hitchcock didn't make.
Cameron Howard has loved classic movies since she was a kid checking out VHS tapes from her local library. Today she lives in Durham, NC, and writes about classic Hollywood at The Blonde at the Film.