“I’m getting a divorce,” Regina Lampert (Audrey Hepburn) announces at the beginning of the 1963 film Charade. Although her friend Sylvie (Dominique Minot) thinks Regina would be foolish to leave her wealthy husband, Charles, and thereby give up her luxurious lifestyle, she’s too unhappy to remain married to him any longer. “I loathe the whole idea of divorce, Sylvie, but if only Charles had been honest with me. That’s all I ask of anybody: the simple truth,” she says. “But with Charles, everything is secrecy and lies. He’s hiding something from me, Sylvie, something terrible, and it frightens me.” She really knows nothing about him — including the fact that he’s just been thrown off of a moving train.
Upon returning to Paris after a ski trip with Sylvie, Regina is shocked to discover that the home she shares with Charles has been cleared out, stripped of everything from the furniture down to her clothing. Before she can even start to make sense of this, Inspector Édouard Grandpierre (Jacques Marin) arrives to deliver news of her husband’s mysterious death. Charles’s body was found along the railroad tracks, dressed in pajamas, and a ticket left behind in his train compartment revealed that he was on his way to Venezuela — which Regina can’t explain. Worse yet, she has no idea what happened to the $250,000 that Charles acquired by auctioning off all of their belongings; the authorities, unable to locate the money, suspect that Regina could be hiding it somewhere, and that she may have killed her husband to get it.
Things take an even more bizarre turn in the following days, beginning when three unfamiliar men show up at Charles’s sparsely attended funeral in order, it seems, to convince themselves that he’s well and truly dead. Then, Regina is summoned to the American Embassy by Hamilton Bartholomew (Walter Matthau), who works for the CIA. He informs her that Charles (actually Charles Voss, not Lampert) stole a quarter of a million dollars from the U.S. government, and that the strangers from the funeral — Tex Panthollow (James Coburn), Leopold W. Gideon (Ned Glass) and Herman Scobie (George Kennedy), all of whom Charles knew during World War II — are determined to get their hands on it. Regina, consequently, is not only under suspicion herself, but her life is in grave danger if she can’t locate the missing money. A new acquaintance from her ski trip, Peter Joshua (Cary Grant), offers much-appreciated help; however, she soon discovers that he may be just as duplicitous as Charles was.
Director Stanley Donen is perhaps best known for such musicals as Singin’ in the Rain (1952), Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) and Funny Face (1957), the last of which also starred Audrey Hepburn, but Charade is more in the Alfred Hitchcock vein, with its mix of suspense, thrills and humor. Regina’s situation is quintessential Hitchcock: an ordinary person caught up in extraordinary events, trying to prove her own innocence and defend herself from the real criminals at the same time. As it happens, Cary Grant played a man with the same basic dilemma in North by Northwest (1959), and Charade occasionally evokes some of his other work with Hitchcock as well; a rooftop fight scene, for example, is reminiscent of To Catch a Thief (1955), and Regina’s growing uncertainty about Peter suggests Suspicion (1941), in which Grant’s character’s wife comes to believe that he might be a murderer.
Regina, too, made an imprudent marriage to a man who wasn’t what he initially seemed, and as a result she finds herself in circumstances where it’s all but impossible to trust anybody or obtain their trust. “How can you tell if anyone’s lying or not?” she asks. She can’t — but she has to unravel all of the lies and get to the truth before it’s too late.
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