Criterion // 1963 // 113 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // September 21st, 2010
It's a guessing game of mirth and mystery!
"Of course, you won't be able to lie on your back for a while but then you can lie from any position, can't you?"
The lovely Regina Lambert (Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany's) has just returned to Paris after a pleasant ski vacation in Switzerland. She needed the relaxation, as she's about to divorce her husband. Alas, she soon makes a series of startling discoveries. First, her apartment has been ransacked. Second, her husband has been murdered. Third, her husband recently participated in the theft of $250,000. Fourth, he was in possession of the money until recently, but now it's gone missing. Worst of all, Mr. Lambert's sinister partners in crime Tex Panthollow (James Coburn, The Great Escape), Leopold W. Gideon (Ned Glass, Save the Tiger and Herman Scobie (George Kennedy, Cool Hand Luke) are now in pursuit of the missing cash and will stop at nothing to get it.
Though flustered and frustrated, Regina still finds time for romance (it is Paris, after all), striking up a relationship with the charming Peter Joshua (Cary Grant, North by Northwest), who quickly volunteers to help Regina locate the missing cash and fend off the bad guys. Alas, he hasn't told her what he's planning to do with the money once he's helped her locate it. So begins a tale of mystery, romance, adventure and betrayal -- Charade!
It's a reliable formula that's been popular for decades: two movie stars are unexpectedly thrust into the midst of an action-packed adventure, trading quips and falling in love with each other along the way. Hitchcock did this in films like The 39 Steps and To Catch a Thief, while more recently we've seen it in such films as the Tom Cruise/Cameron Diaz vehicle Knight & Day and the forthcoming Johnny Depp/Angelina Jolie lark The Tourist. However, it has been persuasively argued that the king of all such films is Charade, which offers the impossibly delightful pairing of Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn. Yes, the film is lightweight, silly, playful fluff -- but it's about as good as lightweight, silly, playful fluff gets.
The film was directed by Stanley Donen, whose pleasant, easygoing personality is reflected in the films he made. His achievements include such charmers as Singin' in the Rain, Funny Face, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and Bedazzled. Delightful as these films are (and it's hard to dispute the idea that Singin' in the Rain is his masterpiece), Charade will always hold a special place in my heart as my favorite Donen flick. No, it isn't a perfect film or even a terribly ambitious one, but it does what it does so well and with such smile-inducing wit that I've found myself returning to it again and again.
The film is a blatantly commercial affair, but this is a prime example of Old Hollywood crowd-pleasing at its finest. Made in 1963, the film feels like one of the last great hits of the old establishment; part of the last batch of innocent, carefree treats that dominated the movies before the walls were torn down and a new generation of ambitious, edgy filmmakers conducted their revolution. Donen's direction is crisp and breezy, Peter Stone's screenplay is loaded with delightful exchanges ("How about making me vice president in charge of cheering you up?"), Henry Mancini's frothy score energetically invites the viewer to revel in the proceedings and Charles Lang's cinematography captures Paris at its loveliest.
However, the whole thing would be disposable were it not for the skills of the two stars at its core. Has there ever been an actress as naturally appealing as Audrey Hepburn, or an actor as effortlessly charming as Cary Grant? Critics tend to pay high compliments to movie stars on occasion by likening them to Hepburn or Grant, but no one could ever replace the unique presence of either star. Of course, great movie stars sometimes simply fail to generate great chemistry, but thankfully that wasn't a problem for the stars of Charade. Hepburn and Grant seem delighted at the opportunity to play off each other; each actor enhances the other tremendously. They were the quintessential movie stars of their generation, and though both have greater films on their resume than Charade, there is perhaps no better film to demonstrate why they were so beloved.
Grant and Hepburn are backed up by a terrific supporting cast, with James Coburn and George Kennedy seeming to have a particularly good time chewing on the scenery. It's worth noting that while violence and death play a significant role in the proceedings, such scenes are generally handled in such a playful manner that they do nothing to dampen the mood. It's as if the film is saying, "Hey, it's only a movie." Walter Matthau is effective as the no-nonsense CIA man, whose presence brings the level of required gravitas to a handful of scenes that aren't quite so cheerful.
Charade was released and then re-released by Criterion on DVD in the past, and it's nice to see them add the title to their library of hi-def titles. As you might expect, Charade lands on Blu-ray with a sparkling 1080p/1.85:1 transfer (its original aspect ratio, despite the fact that a Universal DVD release presented it in 2.35:1). The Blu-ray release is a pretty significant improvement from the DVD, which is particularly noteworthy given that Criterion's DVD releases sometimes look nearly as good as their HD counterparts. The image is cleaner, brighter and benefits from considerable depth. Detail is excellent, with a faint layer of natural grain present throughout. Flesh tones are warm and accurate. The mono audio is also clean and clear, with a vibrant soundtrack and blemish-free dialogue. Sound design is surprisingly nuanced at times for a film of this age.
I only have one small complaint with this release, which is that Criterion still hasn't afforded Charade the lavish attention in the supplemental department that most of its other releases receive. All you get is the same old recycled commentary with Donen and Stone (a charming listen, to be sure), a trailer and the usual Criterion booklet. This flick is ripe for a meaty retrospective documentary. Ah, well.
If you haven't seen Charade, you're in for a treat. If you're a longtime fan of the film such as myself, you'll be delighted to discover that it looks better than ever. It's worth an upgrade, to be sure.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* PCM 1.0 Mono (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 113 Minutes
Release Year: 1963
MPAA Rating: Not Rated