It’s the early Sixties, and the high artifice of the Hollywood studio system is suddenly being challenged by the supposedly more believable movie-making styles of a younger, hipper generation, among them the French Nouvelle Vague. Does Stanley Donen, an arch exponent of pure Hollywood artifice (he directed Singin’ in the Rain, for proof), take this sort of thing lying down? He does not. Instead he heads right into the heart of enemy territory, Paris, and makes a romantic suspense film that is stylistically and thematically all about artifice. The plot is, or appears to be, about the hunt for stolen money. Audrey Hepburn may or may not be a doe-eyed grieving widow. Cary Grant, who she turns to for help, may be precisely the wrong man to save her – what sort of guy has four-plus identities? As for the other guys (among them Walter Matthau and James Coburn, his first movie role after half a career already in TV), all of whom seem to want Hepburn dead, we’re never quite sure what their motivation is.
Never mind Jean Luc Godard’s dictum – “all you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun” – with Charade you get a masterpiece of tight control, plus girl, plus gun. Every hair on Cary Grant’s head is iconic Hollywood make-believe, Hepburn’s clothes are by Givenchy, the colour is by Technicolor and the French bit-parts are try-outs for Inspector Clouseau. And as for Peter Stone’s script, it’s an arch invitation to watch the film with one eyebrow raised. An invitation entirely worth accepting.