Despite all the murdering going on, not a single thing is taken seriously in Charade—and that includes the performances. Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant give definitive star turns, playing off their screen personas to the point that their characters hardly matter. And it works.
Indeed, Parisian translator Regina “Reggie” Lampert (Hepburn) and traveling American Peter Joshua (Grant) act as if they know they’re in a movie and that everything happening is just a big game of pretend. When Hepburn touches the dimple in Grant’s chin and coos, “How do you shave in there?”, or Grant follows up a groaner of a one-liner with a meta “ha ha ha ha ha,” it’s as if we’re witnessing moments that took place after the cameras stopped rolling. This could easily be Hepburn and Grant at the craft services table.
Instead, nominally, it’s Reggie and Peter. Flirty upon their first meeting at a ski resort, where Reggie casually mentions that she’s soon to be divorced, their romantic prospects get a convenient bump when she returns home to Paris to find that her husband has been killed. When the killer(s) threaten her too, Peter offers to stick around for protection. But can he be trusted?
This sounds a bit like Hitchcock, but Charade—written by Peter Stone and directed by Stanley Donen—isn’t nearly interested enough in humanity’s dark side to qualify. The movie just wants to have fun. This is clear from the kaleidoscopic, colorful opening credit sequence and from the bouncing drums and bright horns of the Henry Mancini score. Unlike Donen’s most well-known films (Singin’ in the Rain, Funny Face), there is no dancing. But there is a wonderful moment when Reggie comes home to her ransacked apartment and the camera follows her in a single take as she dramatically opens each of the wall cupboards to find them empty, bringing bursts of green into the taupe room.
Charade is often funny in its own right—the funeral for Reggie’s husband is a silly, slow-burn set piece, as one mysterious figure after another approaches the casket to confirm that the man is dead—but it’s the comic/romantic dynamic between Hepburn and Grant that makes the film special. Their chemistry distracts from the fact that Hepburn is once again paired with an older man (as she was with Fred Astaire in Funny Face). Grant also looks far younger than his 59 years and Hepburn’s Givenchy-designed costumes give her a mature sophistication. Sure, their age difference is still pronounced, but Charade doesn’t take that seriously either.