When Romance Met Comedy
With When Romance Met Comedy, Caroline Siede examines the history of the rom-com through the years, one happily ever after (or not) at a time.
The trailer for Charade opens on a blender. In goes one-third suspense, one-third comedy, and one-third romance. Out comes an arch rom-com thriller starring Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn in swinging 1960s Paris. “As you can see, she was in serious trouble,” Grant’s voiceover explains of his leading lady. “But she still found time to enjoy herself.”
And so does Charade, which is just as invested in a hilarious party game sequence involving an orange as it is in a life-threatening rooftop brawl. When Hepburn’s droll Regina “Reggie” Lampert first meets Grant’s dashing Peter Joshua at a swanky ski resort, she flirtatiously warns him, “I already know an awful lot of people, so until one of them dies I couldn’t possibly meet anyone else.” But little does she know her rom-com repartee doubles as ominous foreshadowing. Soon enough, Reggie and Peter find themselves caught up in a mystery involving her dead husband, a missing fortune, and some increasingly grisly killings linked to three brutal heavies.
The 1963 New York Times review of Charade couldn’t get over the “ghoulish humor and chuckle-some morbidities” of this December release, warning readers that “the people bringing their youngsters to see the annual Nativity pageant and the Christmas stage show may blanch in horror when it comes on.” But while Charade might not fit the Yuletide spirit, that’s exactly what makes this unusual romantic comedy thriller perfect for the Halloween season. In fact, it’s hard to find retrospectives of Charade that don’t compare it to the work of spooky season master Alfred Hitchcock. Charade has famously been dubbed “the best Hitchcock movie Hitchcock never made.” Yet what it brings from the romantic comedy into the thriller is even more interesting than what it brings from the thriller to the romantic comedy.
In place of the sinister psychological edge Hitchcock might have lent the material, director Stanley Donen brings a winking, kitschy sense of fun—the same light touch he’d previously brought to beloved movie musicals like Singin’ In The Rain, On The Town, and Funny Face. Charade opens with a bloodied dead body being thrown off a train, only to smash cut to a colorful animated title sequence scored by Henry Mancini and animated by famed Bond title designer Maurice Binder. The joy of Charade is how it perpetually wrong-foots you with its tone. The film leaps from genuinely gruesome moments of violence to cute rom-com scenes were Reggie and Peter wander the Seine eating ice cream or Peter hops in the shower fully clothed in a bid to make Reggie laugh.
The twisty plot kicks off when Reggie returns from vacation to learn that her husband liquidated his nefariously accumulated wealth only to turn up dead without any sign of where the money might be. Confused more than distraught, Reggie soon finds herself hounded by French authorities, three disgruntled men (Ned Glass, James Coburn, and George Kennedy) from her husband’s past, and a demanding CIA administrator (Walter Matthau). Peter, meanwhile, seems like a dream ally. “How about making me vice-president in charge of cheering you up?” he sweetly offers. But it quickly becomes clear there are ulterior motives behind his charisma, although what he’s after and whose side he’s on are the biggest mysteries of all. Charade heightens the stakes of courtship into a literal life-or-death conundrum: Can you love someone if you don’t really know who they are?
A lot of what makes Charade so special actually came at Grant’s request. He’d previously turned down the chance to be Hepburn’s leading man in Roman Holiday, Sabrina, and Love In The Afternoon because he thought the 25-year age difference between them would be too jarring. Before he finally agreed to their first big screen pairing in Charade, he had a couple of requests for screenwriter Peter Stone. Grant wanted the script to openly acknowledge the age gap, rather than ignore it. And he wanted Hepburn’s character to be the romantic pursuer, so he didn’t come off as a creepy old man chasing after a younger woman. It’s a pragmatic behind-the-scenes decision that winds up giving Reggie a refreshing amount of agency.
The most important element Charade borrows from the rom-com genre is that it roots its story first and foremost in a woman’s point of view. Reggie is neither a femme fatale nor a doe-eyed innocent but rather a frazzled everywoman committed to taking charge of her own life—a rare female archetype for the spy-thriller genre, especially in the early 1960s. (She’s essentially playing the Grant role from North By Northwest.) Unlike the sheltered women Hepburn had portrayed in Roman Holiday and Sabrina, Reggie is appealingly self-possessed. Early in the film, she turns down the suggestion that she should stay unhappily married simply because her husband can outfit her in a wealthy lifestyle. “I admit I moved to Paris because I was tired of American Provincial, but that doesn’t mean I’m ready for French Traditional,” she deadpans. Later, she doesn’t bat an eye when she has to take up her old job as a UN translator after her husband’s death leaves her penniless.
Glamorous as she may be in her Givenchy wardrobe, Hepburn makes Reggie charmingly relatable. Though she’s naturally aghast at the gruesome intrigue around her, she’s also kind of enthralled by it too. Who wouldn’t want to find themselves at the center of a stylish spy caper? Reggie’s mix of world-weary detachment and sheepish guilelessness adds a fascinating wrinkle to the thriller genre, just as Grant’s multiple identities serve as a winking commentary on the rom-com one. The early 1960s was the era of “bedroom comedies” like Pillow Talk, in which Rock Hudson adopts a fake identity in order to seduce Doris Day. Charade uses a similar plot device for a different aim. Instead of the story of a man who uses multiple identities to trick a woman into loving him, Charade focuses on a woman who loves a man despite the fact that he seems to reveal a new alias every couple of hours.
So much of Charade’s unique tone hinges on Hepburn’s ability to make us feel the high stakes of Reggie’s situation while still bringing a champagne fizz to the romantic comedy stuff. It’s hard to imagine anyone else delivering the same blend of dry humor, whimsy, and emotion—yet another reminder that though Hepburn is often first and foremost remembered as a style icon, she was a truly phenomenal dramatic and comedic actress too. Hepburn makes us feel every inch of Reggie’s infatuation with Peter, which is crucial for a climax centered on whether she should trust her heart over her head. As my A.V. Club colleague Gwen Ihnat puts it in her own retrospective on the film, “It’s the essence of a romantic leap of faith: holding your breath and diving right in, even though you’re making yourself completely vulnerable by doing so.”
Just two films away from retirement, Grant is equally fabulous in Charade, combining his Hitchcock-honed talents with the screwball comedy skills he’d been perfecting since the 1930s. Part of what Grant had learned playing against the likes of Katharine Hepburn and Rosalind Russell was how to complement a strong leading lady without overshadowing her. And while Audrey Hepburn has a feminine waifishness that’s different than those classic screwball heroines, Grant still provides an ideal counterbalance. Stone wrote with the two stars in mind, and filled his script with zippy one-liners and winking jokes, as when Reggie stops mid-sentence to ask Peter of his cleft chin, “How do you shave in there?” Though this was the one and only time Grant and Hepburn worked together, their big screen personas meld seamlessly in a film that even in 1963 felt like a little bit of an old-fashioned throwback.
Grant would play his last romantic leading man the next year as a surly naval ally in Father Goose, followed by his final film role as a matchmaker in 1966’s Walk, Don’t Run. But Charade is one last hurrah for his suave, debonair, confidently romantic big screen character. Hepburn, meanwhile, would recapture elements of Charade’s tone in two different films: the genuinely unsettling home invasion thriller Wait Until Dark (another great Halloween watch) and the wildly entertaining heist comedy How To Steal A Million opposite Peter O’Toole. Yet Charade is unique in that it fully invests in being a thriller just as much as it fully invests in being a romantic comedy.
It’s in not sacrificing one tone for the other that Charade succeeds at becoming something wholly original. Love and loss, life and death, trust and suspicion: They all live side-by-side in Charade, just as they do in real life—only here they’re packaged into something endlessly sophisticated and impossibly clever. Both nostalgic in its love for classic Hollywood and modern in its cheeky genre shifts, Charade is a film that truly has something for everyone. This blended cocktail doesn’t so much deconstruct the thriller and rom-com genres as look at them slightly askew to bring new elements to the foreground of both. And that makes Charade both a trick and a treat for the Halloween season.
Next time: What the hell happened with All About Steve?