Judge Dan Mancini lies his way through Criterion's second release of this classic.
You can expect the unexpected when they play…Charade
The Criterion edition of Charade is back…and it's even better than before.
Facts of the Case
After her husband is murdered and thrown off a moving train, and her apartment in Paris is stripped bare by thieves, Regina Lampert (Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany's, My Fair Lady) is contacted by a CIA man (Walter Matthau, The Fortune Cookie, The Odd Couple) posing as the customs chief at the US embassy. It seems Mr. Lampert was an agent in the Office of Strategic Services (later the Central Intelligence Agency) during World War II, and he and his cohorts stole $250,000, which the CIA wants back.
Mr. Lampert was in possession of the money, and now his menacing buddies—James Coburn (The Magnificent Seven), George Kennedy (Cool Hand Luke), and Ned Glass (West Side Story)—are after his widow to get their share of the loot. The problem is that Mrs. Lampert has no idea where the money is. Meanwhile, she meets and promptly falls for a dashing stranger named Peter Joshua (Cary Grant, The Philadelphia Story, Notorious, North by Northwest), who at first seems eager to help her, but whose motives quickly turn cloudy.
It's hard to imagine how you can go wrong when a film's cast is led by Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn. Indeed, the funny and suspenseful romp that is Stanley Donen's Charade doesn't make imagining any easier. Donen began his career in musicals, directing the famous Gene Kelly/Jerry the Mouse song-and-dance number from George Sidney's Anchors Aweigh (1945) before sharing lead direction with Kelly in movies like 1949's On the Town and the big daddy of all Hollywood musicals, 1952's Singin' In the Rain. With Charade, he decided to meld screwball comedy's rapid-fire wit with a Hitchcockian tale of suspense and danger. The resulting film is a warm cinematic ride, an adventure in Paris whose favoring of posh style over lurid detail must have seemed slightly nostalgic even in 1963, considering the James Bond franchise—with its racier brand of intrigue—was hitting its stride, and Hitchcock himself had moved on to more explicit terrors in Psycho and The Birds. The movie so overflows with charm, though, it's difficult to care that it feels more like a product of the 1950s than the '60s.
With its focus on shifting identities, shadowy government agencies, and a woman in distress, Charade is often viewed as a gender-reversed version of North by Northwest. It suffers by such comparison because its breezier tone and emphasis on romance over action make it more akin to the lesser Hitchcock thriller and Cary Grant vehicle, To Catch a Thief. As scripted by Peter Stone, Charade's intrigue is merely the skeleton on which the romance—the true meat of the picture—hangs (just as in To Catch a Thief we're far more interested in a Cary Grant-Grace Kelly hookup than we are the cat burglary plot). Even so, Stone—who would go on to write Grant's penultimate picture, Father Goose, Donen films Arabesque and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, and the sterling musical 1776—crafted a series of twists and turns sufficiently coherent that the thrills don't feel throwaway, a poorly-conceived staging ground for high-style romance. Charade sports none of the gaping plot holes or gross slips in logic one finds in, say, the Bond or Pink Panther series, the sorts of gaffes that force a viewer to consciously flip the Suspend Disbelief switch in his brain. Charade's glitzy artifice is eminently and effortlessly digestible.
Donen could have found no better leading man than Cary Grant, considering Grant starred in some of the finest and funniest screwball comedies ever made, as well as topping the bill on four Hitchcock white-knucklers. The actor's looks (which basically defined the concept of movie-star handsome), along with his casual grace and impeccable timing, make it easy to underestimate his enormous talent as an actor. Grant's turn in Charade appears so effortless, without coming off as rote or phoned-in, one could almost believe assuming top bill in a romance/thriller/comedy is such a simple thing Donen could've plucked any Joe Schmo from the street to do it. All the more impressive is that Grant was on the cusp of 60 when he played Peter Joshua, yet doesn't come off the slightest bit like an old goat trying to hang onto his former glory. He's as vital and believable a romantic lead here as he was in the '40s and '50s.
For all Grant's debonair charm, though, the show really belongs to Hepburn. Her classic beauty, augmented by the luxurious costume design of Hubert de Givenchy (Bonjour Tristesse, Breakfast at Tiffany's), melds with her innate intelligence and ability to play convincing vulnerability to make Regina Lampert a feisty yet deeply sympathetic heroine. The only incongruity in the character is her increasingly aggressive romantic pursuit of Mr. Joshua despite her growing distrust of his motives, a weird flaw attributable to Grant's discomfort with the 25-year age difference between himself and Hepburn—before accepting the role, Grant, who found the notion of a man his age pursuing a woman Hepburn's age unseemly, insisted Stone alter the script to make the actress the pursuer. Rest assured, though, that Hepburn has little problem charming her way past this little inconsistency. In her hands, Lampert's fears become our own, and it's this character identification that lend the thriller portions of the film their substance.
When the Criterion Collection's license for Charade lapsed a few years back and the disc went out-of-print, fans of the film who hadn't previously snapped up a copy were left in the lurch. A number of low-quality discs by cheapie companies appeared during the picture's brief exile in the public domain, and it also found a mediocre release as a B-side supplement on the flipper disc for its inferior 2002 remake, The Truth About Charlie, but a disc that treated the film with the respect it deserves was nowhere to be found. All that has been remedied with this Criterion reissue, which retains spine number 57 while offering a minor improvement over the initial release. Still here are the commentary by Donen and Stone, the text-based filmographies, and the original theatrical trailer that appeared as extras on the original disc. What's changed is the transfer, which is now anamorphically enhanced.
For those wondering if a double-dip is in order, the answer is a resounding "depends." The original Criterion release already had a gorgeous transfer. The re-release, while its color timing is slightly different, is of equal quality overall. Fans with widescreen televisions will certainly find value in the 16:9 enhancement, but anyone with a 4:3 monitor is going to find little or no improvement for the extra financial investment. The real beneficiaries of this new and improved Charade are those who missed its release the first time around. Get your copy of this charmer now, lest the disc disappear from store shelves once again.
How can you go wrong with a flick that's set in beautiful Paris; boasts Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn anchoring a cast that includes Walter Matthau, James Coburn, and George Kennedy; offers a swingin' score by Henry Mancini (Peter Gunn, The Pink Panther), as well as a stylish animated title sequence by Maurice Binder (Dr. No); and is tightly directed by Stanley Donen, who proves his musical acumen easily translatable to the beat-driven genres of comedy and the thriller? The answer is, you can't.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Stanley Donen and Peter Stone
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