What CHARADE Can Teach Us About Plot Twists

Fair warning: I’m about to spoil each and every plot twist of a 56 year old film. The thing is, though, Stanley Donen’s 1963 screwball spy caper, Charade, has about six of them. They almost all hinge on the preposterous premise of questioning Hollywood’s Golden Age poster boy Cary Grant’s undeniable trustworthiness. Although the significant age gap between Grant and his romantic co-lead, Audrey Hepburn, was an ever-present unpleasantness throughout the majority of these classic adventures, his typecasting demands he never exhibits anything less than roguish, yet assuredly benign, charm.

Spoilers, plot twists, and unexpected reveals have all been on our minds in the last month, as Avengers: Endgame, the culmination of 11 years of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, latched on to one of the most fervently debated aspects of media culture and firmly took a side as part of their gargantuan marketing campaign. Unless you’ve taken against the biggest crossover franchise ever conceived (who can really blame you?), it’s more than likely you’ve experienced the most important blockbuster event of the year already. But “Don’t Spoil the Endgame” has been retweeted, hashtagged, and warned by the very stars of the film itself so feverishly for the past month, we’re still in a very tentative position in regards to spoilers.

Avengers Endgame
The cast of Avengers: Endgame (2019) – source: Walt Disney Studios

What was once a pleasant unspoken rule among film fans has now been weaponized, both as a marketing technique and an excuse to cause harm to other cinema patrons. Upon the release of Endgame, a man in China was attacked by multiple assailants for revealing spoilers outside the cinema. The resounding response in many online circles? He deserved it. Whilst revealing previously secretive plot machinations to fans eager to enjoy their viewing experience unsullied by details surely warrants at most a stern telling off, have we really become so absorbed in a multi-billion dollar franchise that anyone who comes even remotely close to damaging its near worldwide status as an infallible institution is considered a criminal worthy of violent punishment?

Considering this, let me recommend to you the 1963 film Charade, perhaps misguidedly, by ruining its central conceit, one that only becomes apparent after some thirty minutes or so. Cary Grant is credited as Paul Joshua, a man who befriends and assists Audrey Hepburn’s newly widowed Reggie Lampert as she becomes the target of a group of dangerous men who are after her late husband’s hidden fortune, stolen by them and the deceased Carson Dyle during WWII. Lampert soon finds out that Joshua has assumed a number of aliases, and may or may not be working with her pursuers. By the end of the film, however, Grant will be known as Brian Cruikshank, a government official tasked with recovering the stolen fortune.

Throughout the film, Grant is referred to as Alexander Dyle, Carson’s brother out for revenge, and Adam Canfield, a professional thief after the fortune, whilst Lampert’s initial government ally, Hamilton Bartholemew, reveals that he is actually Carson, now obsessed with exacting revenge on his fellow soldiers and reclaiming the treasure for himself after secretly surviving the German attack. Are you following?

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Audrey Hepburn and Dominique Minot in Charade (1963) – source: Universal Pictures

Charade’s complex twists and turns have earned it the moniker of “the best Hitchcock film that Hitchcock never made”, but it’s not the relentless revelations that give this caper its spark. Grant’s goofy, cross-eyed face when he uncovers his true identity really says it all; you really expected Cary Grant to be the bad guy? Leaning heavily on romantic constructions of Hollywood stardom, Charade, despite its numerous diversions and brief flirtations with a darker narrative upheaval, remains predictable until the very end. We don’t buy for a second that Cary Grant could do anything close to harm to Audrey Hepburn, nor is it at all feasible that the wily Hepburn would deign to fall in love with a genuine scoundrel.

Star studies’ symbiotic relationship with traditional narrative and film theory is illuminated brilliantly in Donen’s fable of subterfuge and acerbic passion. Much like today’s Avengers, Grant and Hepburn succeed because of their personas, and the audience demands it while morally dubious character actor Walter Matthau’s on-screen façade expects no such dependency. Now we seem to be returning to an archaic form of stardom, in which certain stars become almost synonymous with certain characters and studios and little else besides, movie news exterior to the usual casting announcements, trailers and stills have become interwoven with the fabric of film culture.

Prior to the release of Endgame, it was close to common knowledge that the contracts of certain stars, primarily Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans, would be up once the third phase of the gargantuan blockbuster experiment had run its course for the time being. We felt even more poignantly than audiences of popular films in the 50s and 60s how tied we are to these icons of super-heroic movie stardom and there was a palpable atmosphere of acceptance. Although the Avengers were never not going to come out on top, it was likely that Iron Man 4 was not emerging round the corner in the near future.

The romantic screwball capers, Hitchcock and co’s espionage thrillers, Westerns, space odysseys and the comic book confusion of today’s blockbuster scene, they’re all crafted as reassuring escapism. While the catastrophic unraveling of our favorite heroes at the end of last year’s event film, Infinity War, definitely felt like a cosmic upending of our satiated expectations for narrative satisfaction, was the snap really much more than a good old fashioned cliffhanger to get us back in the seats for more of the same thing the following year?

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Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn in Charade (1963) – source: Universal Pictures

Charade might have about as much in common with Avengers: Endgame as Loki has with Thor, but it’s an ideal exercise in testing just how much we should care about narrative details. While I don’t begrudge anyone wanting to sit down and enjoy the latest Marvel entry completely blind (I, myself, was among them), our provenly violent aversion to spoilers is perhaps an unfortunate cross-contamination with the way we watch TV. Streaming has certainly alleviated some of this, but the rare series that airs week-to-week often maintains that level of secrecy that demands your silence until everyone in the room is known to have seen the latest episode. My proposal: let’s let movies be movies.

Now you’re aware of almost the entire plot of Charade, I encourage you to give it a go anyway. While the twists are certainly surprising, they’re so incomprehensibly numerous that the narrative begins to feel parodic. Once you settle in to the truth that Grant will likely reveal yet another hidden identity every twenty minutes or so, your eyes will begin to attune to the real specifics of the feature. Grant’s combative heroics and irresistible charm, Hepburn’s stoicism and obsession with gastronomic coping mechanisms, the fluttering gestures of flirting fingers and the impossibly quick-witted dialogue of a finely-tuned script. Unlike the latest in an ongoing series of televisual, narrative dependent blockbusters, Charade is impossible to ruin, and teaches us that maybe we all need to take a breather when it comes to spoilers.

Published by Lucas Hill-Paul

A young London critic trying to make it in the big city. Follow me @lucashpaul

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