Discover more from A Writer's Notebook
Charade is My Favorite Movie
Have you ever fallen in love with a mysterious stranger in Paris in 1963?
I have watched this movie so many times. I am obsessed with this movie. Or I was. For a while, years ago, I watched this movie every night to fall asleep. I don’t want to be a person who watches a movie to fall asleep at night, not at all, let alone the same movie over and over again, but this is just how it is, or rather how it was, for a while. I don’t watch Charade every night to fall asleep anymore, but it is still my ultimate comfort film. Is it strange to have this as a comfort film? Probably. In the opening minutes, a man is murdered and thrown from a moving train. In his pajamas. To be murdered in your pajamas will become a running gag.
This movie is silly. Cary Grant is too old for Audrey Hepburn but I don’t care. I have decided to believe that her character is, like, 36, and that his character is 50, and that yes, it’s a big age gap, but so what. It happens, especially in Paris. You really want to tell me that if 50-year-old Cary Grant fell in love with you, in Paris, when you were 36, that you wouldn’t be even a little bit curious? Other people are other people, and then there is Cary Grant. Cary Grant was a beautiful bisexual1 man who seemed like a lot of fun. I mean, I don’t know what he was like in real life, but in the movies he is always beautiful and charming. Audrey Hepburn is funny and gorgeous and you can’t help but love her. That is pretty much the entire point of Audrey Hepburn as she appears onscreen, her thundering loveability. I realize this is sounding like that one review that one woman wrote that one time about the Olive Garden, but I don’t care. Cary Grant was 58 when he filmed Charade but I’ve decided the character is younger. If Angelina Jolie can play the mother of Colin Farrell in Alexander the Great, when Colin Farrell is just one year younger than she is, then we can all believe that a well-preserved Cary Grant in Charade is 50 or 48, or maybe even a very distinguished 45. He’s 45 and she’s 36. Let’s go with that. This isn’t real life, people. Just allow it and move on, I beg of you.
There’s a story going around out there about Charade and this age difference between its co-stars. It claims that Cary Grant was “uncomfortable” with Audrey Hepburn’s extreme youth in relation to him, and that he allegedly asked to have the script changed to make her character more of the romantic aggressor. But I call bullshit on this story. Fake stories are always trying to make actors responsible for scripts instead of the screenwriters. Wikipedia lists the source of this tale as a book published in the 1980s, called Retakes: Behind the Scenes of 500 Classic Movies. I have no idea how reliable that book is, but when Grant was in his 70s he got married for the fifth time to a woman who was forty-seven years younger than he was. Forty-seven years! Audrey Hepburn was 33 when they filmed Charade, and I’m pretty sure he was fine with it.
In Charade, Cary Grant takes a shower with all of his clothes on. He is wearing a drip-dry suit, whatever that is, and he takes a shower in it just to make Audrey Hepburn laugh. Is there a better reason to do anything in the world? No, I didn’t think so. I love him in this scene. It is my favorite scene in the movie and my favorite scene with Cary Grant in it of all time.
There are a lot of good things in this movie, including but not limited to Cary Grant taking a shower with all of his clothes on. It is set in Paris and was actually filmed in Paris, but all the main characters are Americans, except one or two, three if you count the weird child (this movie has a weird child in it—another selling point). Walter Matthau is in this movie and he’s a fucking delight. He does squats while on the phone with someone, and eats chicken sandwiches, and acts very chill even though (spoiler alert) his character is not really all that chill after all. Hear me out on this, but Walter Matthau is kind of handsome and appealing in Charade. His character doesn’t give a shit how charming Cary Grant’s character may or may not be. I don’t want to spoil the movie for you, but when I first saw this movie as a kid, or maybe I was a preteen, I thought it was pretty twisty and brilliant. There’s a big reveal towards the end, and I was surprised by it. It is a comedy-thriller. How many of those can you find? A comedy-thriller-romance, to be exact, that is set in Paris.
Charade might be my favorite movie that is set in Paris, and that is really saying something. There is a chase scene on the Métro, and a Punch and Judy show in the Jardin du Champs-Elysée, and a pivotal scene set at the Thursday stamp market, the Marché aux timbres. This is a real market that is still there, in the same place, and it still happens every Thursday. People go there to buy and sell stamps, like it’s still 1963 and normal to wear a hat all the time. This is something that I truly love about Paris, how these echoes of other times keep reverberating here, like the flea markets, and the little toy sailboats that children can rent in the Jardin du Luxembourg to sail in the large central fountain, and the sticks they use to push them out from the sides while the pigeons look on quizzically, and the scalloped edges of the dark green wooden kiosks selling sugared crepes nearby.
We’re not really supposed to like anything from the past nowadays, it sometimes seems, but I do like these old things. I like Paris and one of the things I like most about it is that it is very old. I like the old stones and the old shops, the old fountains in old squares. I like the old chestnut trees and mourn when they are cut down. A chestnut tree can live for 300 years or more, sometimes up to 1,000, so the trees you see in Manet’s Music in the Tuileries are the same trees you see in the Tuileries today—maybe. Some of them are. The original grand allée of chestnut trees there was planted in 1668, but the central row was cut down during the French Revolution, and now they’ve planted a new row of elms. They are replacing a lot of Paris chestnuts with other kinds of trees, “disease-resistant trees,” in the name of biodiversity. I get why they’re doing it. Climate change knows it’s not 1668 or even 1963 anymore. The trees can’t ignore it, even if the buildings can. Last fall, one of the chestnut trees in the Tuileries got confused by the drought and started flowering in October. It was half covered in flowers, half covered in autumn leaves.
Throughout the film Charade, Audrey Hepburn wants to kiss Cary Grant and he is like, no, please, you’re far too young. Of course Audrey Hepburn loves this. He is there to help her, and he wants to help her, and she really needs his help. Her husband has been murdered but she’s not that sad about it because she wasn’t in love with him, but now her apartment and all of her things are gone—her husband sold them—and she’s willing to let Cary Grant help her figure out what to do. She immediately gets her old job back as a translator at UNESCO, even though they call it “E.U.R.E.S.C.O.” in the film, and she and Cary Grant get ice cream and go to a nightclub and take a romantic dinner cruise on the Seine. She really seems like she’s having a pretty great time for someone whose husband was recently murdered in his pajamas and then tossed off a train.
Is this why I needed to watch this movie so much? Why I used to watch it to fall asleep during a time of sadness and uncertainty? It is about a woman who goes on vacation and then comes back to find out that she has lost everything. Well, everything except a few designer suitcases filled with this season’s complete wardrobe from Givenchy. Lots of perfect hats and perfect coats and perfect dresses, and they all match, impeccably. Of course they do. She’s Audrey Hepburn. She is composed. She knows that she’ll land on her feet, even though her whole damn life has been torn apart. She’s composed but she’s also a little crazy, and who wouldn’t be? Who wouldn’t want to kiss Cary Grant, even a 58-year-old Cary Grant, after your husband—whom you didn’t love but so what—sells everything you own including your apartment and then is murdered in his pajamas and thrown off a moving train?
Audrey Hepburn smokes and eats all the time in Charade. She is being chased by a man with a hook for a hand, and a Texan called “Tex,” and another guy whose main characteristic is that he’s sort of short and bald and squirrely. All three of them are basically cartoons, by which I mean that they are so camp they might as well be cartoon characters. She goes to a nightclub with Cary Grant and they play a racy game where you’re supposed to pass an orange from one person to the next without using your hands. You have the orange clenched between your chin and your chest, just sort of tucked there, and you must pass the orange to the other person, during which you sort of end up writhing against them. You writhe against each other in order to pass an orange from chin to chin. Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant play this game in the nightclub and the music slows down and they discover that they have chemistry, and chemistry will make you go crazy, it will make you do crazy things. It feels like love and it might even be love, who knows, like it will make you [REDACTED] or [REDACTED] or it will make you marry someone who lives in a city you can’t really live in for various reasons, and all kinds of crazy things like that. Chemistry feels like fate and maybe it is, what do I know? If you find you have chemistry with someone like Cary Grant, and then they end up confusing the hell out of you and then saving your life, in Paris of all places, in 1963, then yeah, I think you might just want to marry that person after knowing them for just a few days. Don’t you? Crazier things have happened.
Everything about Charade is good, and if you don’t think so, I’m sorry to say that you are mistaken. Everything about Charade is good. The sets are good and the music is good and the story is good and the acting is good. Audrey Hepburn doesn’t know who to trust. I mean fine, the whole thing is camp, like, I guess it’s pretty camp, but so what? It’s a movie from 1963 starring Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn. What did you expect, Mare of Easttown? I like the scene when Audrey Hepburn meets Walther Matthieu in Les Halles late at night, and all the glass-covered market stalls are still there. Les Halles means “the halls” and this referred to those glassed-in market stalls that were once the culinary epicenter of Paris. In this scene in Charade there are butchers carrying sides of beef and farmers hauling crates of cauliflower. It was always an all-night affair. There were lots of all-night restaurants, and an interesting gay subculture, there among the butchers and the farmers, the men coming there to eat in the all-night restaurants after a night out in various bars or clubs. Balzac hung out in Les Halles, and so did James Baldwin. This is my neighborhood now, and so I pass by the place where the stalls used to be, almost every day. There are no more glass stalls, but there is a grassy park where the stalls once were. I’ve always wanted to find the restaurant where Audrey Hepburn and Walter Matthau meet in the middle of the night, and where Audrey Hepburn orders an onion soup and tears the filters off her cigarettes before smoking them, because she says that otherwise it’s like “drinking coffee through a veil.” I’m pretty sure it’s a real restaurant that was really in Les Halles, because there are distinctive tiles on the wall showing scenes from the market. But I don’t think the restaurant is there anymore. A blogger intent on finding all the Paris shooting locations for Charade said it was filmed at Le Cochon à L'Oreille, a small restaurant on the rue Montmartre, but I don’t think it was. I’ve been in there and the tiles are similar, but not the same. In all likelihood the restaurant from the movie is gone.
Places change. I like that in Charade, there is still a roundabout near the Comédie-Francaise, which is a pedestrian square now, with street performers and café tables, and that there was a parking lot where now there is an art installation, those black and white pillars between the Conseil d'État and the Jardin du Palais-Royal. I like seeing the main characters run at night through this parking lot that isn’t there anymore.
I have seen the beginning of this movie more than a hundred times, but I would usually fall asleep by the time they got to the nightclub. Sometimes I was out before the end of the first scene after the opening credits, when they’re still at the ski resort, and Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant’s characters are meeting for the first time. It’s easy to feel safe and like maybe everything is right with the world if Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant are meeting at a ski resort. It’s still the 1960s and my parents are children, and the grandfather I never met is still alive, and everything I’ve ever experienced is still a hypothetical, a blank slate. I am still a wild thing, the way Louise Erdrich described her unborn children in the poem Birth, unreal, not-yet-human, all potential, not yet lured to this earthly plane by the nets of love and the promise of milk. If I didn’t fall asleep at the ski resort, I might fall asleep in Walter Mathieu’s office, or in the office of the French police detective, or in the garden where a group of children are watching the Punch and Judy show—French children who are now French adults in their 60s and 70s. Sometimes I would forget to turn the sound down, and then I’d always get woken up at the same place, which is at the stamp market, where they all realize a big piece of the mystery at more or less the same moment—Audrey Hepburn and Carey Grant and James Coburn, who plays Tex—and the music does this dun-dun-DUN type of thing, quite loudly, not once but twice. Then I would reach over, and shut my laptop, and go back to sleep.
Enjoy my writing and want to support it? Become a paid subscriber today. You’ll get full access to craft talks, essays, notebook entries, sketchbook pages, and the popular semiannual write-along workshop Essay Camp. You can also buy my books The Oyster War and High Heel, “like” my posts by tapping the heart icon, share them on Substack Notes or other social media, and/or send them to a friend.
This is a matter of some debate, but there were men who claimed to have slept with Grant, notably the photographer Jerome Zerbe, who photographed Grant and his friend (or “friend”) Randolph Scott in all those juicy pool pictures. American fashion critic Richard Blackwell also claimed to have slept with Grant, and said in his memoirs that Grant and Scott “were deeply, madly in love, their devotion was complete."