Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: With Ben Wheatley’s take on Rebecca in theaters and en route to Netflix, we’re singling out other Hitchcockian thrillers—ones that explicitly recall the master of suspense.
Charade is so Hitchcockian that it’s often been confused for the genuine article. Some have called it the best Hitchcock movie that Hitchcock never made. In fact, it was directed by Stanley Donen, famous for movie musicals like Singin’ In The Rain and On The Town. He drafted two tremendous stars from Hollywood’s golden age—Audrey Hepburn and Hitchcock favorite Cary Grant—for his own sleek thriller of the kind the master specialized in.
Fun and charming, Charade does have a lot in common with a lighter Hitchcock entertainment like To Catch A Thief: impossibly good-looking leads, glamorous setting, runway-worthy wardrobe (designed by Givenchy), jazzy score (by Henry Mancini). It also uses the Hitchcock trope of the innocent person who finds themselves caught in a weblike conspiracy (which Grant had recently run through in 1959’s North By Northwest). Hepburn is the impossibly chic Regina Lampert, who meets and flirts with Alexander Dyle (Grant) at a ski resort while she ponders divorcing her husband, Charles. When Regina returns to Paris, though, she finds that Charles has been murdered, and everything in their apartment is gone. Her own life is in danger, too, as a cast of thugs, each more unsavory than the next, demands the 250,000 francs that Charles apparently squirreled away. But she has no idea where the money could be.
Fortunately, Regina has help in Alex, who shows up in Paris to help her navigate this turbulent chain of events. But soon, we see him meet with a series of heavies (James Coburn, George Kennedy, and Ned Glass). Whose side is he really on? Because he’s played by Cary Grant, we all know the answer, even as the character continues to shed identities and offer new fake names. (By the end of the film, he’s adopted four different personas.)
By 1963, Hitchcock’s interest had shifted to plumbing the deepest depths of the human psyche, and his films (like North By Northwest and Vertigo) often offered a pessimistic view. Charade, for all of its malice and murder, approaches the question of who we should trust and why rather hopefully. Regina’s connection to Grant’s Alex/Peter/Adam/Brian is so strong that she refuses to believe the worst about him, even when a government agent (Walter Matthau, in a striking early performance) tells her not to trust him. At a pivotal moment, Regina must make a decision about whether to believe the man who’s lied to her repeatedly. He begs her to trust him just once more, and when she asks why she should, he replies, “I can’t think of a single reason.” 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.
Hitchcock explored the darkness of humanity, as in Shadow Of A Doubt, which found sinister desires lurking under idyllic domestic life. Donen’s colorful musicals depicted a much sunnier side. It’s appropriate, then, that his Hitchcock movie found romance improbably blooming in the midst of a sinister murder plot. That genre intrusion is aided immeasurably by the charisma of the film’s stars. Grant was 25 years older than the 34-year-old Hepburn, and insisted that her character chase him, not the other way around. The result is a delightful new opportunity for Hepburn, whose characters were too often placidly led along by paternal costars like Fred Astaire or Rex Harrison. Here, she lures Grant into her hotel room, sits on his lap, and exudes so much appeal that no mere mortal could resist—and Grant follows suit, taking a shower fully clothed and playing a risqué nightclub game with an orange. The actor only made two more movies after this one, and sadly never reunited with Hepburn. Which should make us even more grateful for Charade, where the romance enthralls even more than the serpentine plot.