The differences between Charade and, say, Knight and Day are like night and day. The increased importance put on stunt-fueled sensation in the nearly fifty years since Charade has all but destroyed the light touch that could compliment the suavity of Cary Grant and the adorability of Audrey Hepburn (with apologies to Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz). As scripted by Peter Stone and directed by Stanley Donen, Charade is a delightfully old-school comic thriller and an unlikely romance that proved Grant—then in his late fifties—still had it.
Donen's smartest play with the material is to plant tongue firmly in cheek and keep it there. The director announces his playful tone from the film's opening shot of a threatening gun poking into frame that turns out to be a water pistol in the hand of a bratty child. Despite this feint, real danger is in the cards for high-class Regina Lampert (Hepburn), who—in short order—bemoans her dull marriage to a often-absent diplomat, meets a tantalizing alternative in the flirtatious Peter Joshua (Grant), then discovers her husband has died under mysterious circumstances. As CIA company man Hamilton Bartholomew (Walter Matthau, always a pleasure) explains to Reggie, her husband Charles auctioned off all of their assets, and the missing money has three of Charles' former associates (Charles Coburn, George Kennedy, and Ned Glass) falling over each other to find what they believe they're owed. And what to make of Joshua, who keeps popping up at every turn? Dashing though he may be, can he be taken at his word that he wants to help Lampert?
Screenwriter Peter Stone (1776) pieces together a diabolical mystery that gets mileage from both snappy dialogue and genuine suspense. The plot functions as a rather wild allegory for any romance, working over themes of trust and suspicion and the necessity of taking a leap of faith. In the experienced hands of Donen (Singin' in the Rain, fer gosh sakes), Charade is a catalog of cool, from Maurice Binder's hypnotic titles to Hepburn's Givenchy wardrobe to Johnny Mercer's indelible score (and title song with lyrics by Johnny Mercer). The stars, of course, are essential: Hepburn delicately balances Reggie's frayed emotional state to evoke genuine sympathy and laughter nearly simultaneously, while Grant easily conjures up that mythical, mystical Grant persona, a character anyone would want to have around, for love or war or sheer entertainment.
Charade inspired a misguided remake from director Jonathan Demme, starring Mark Wahlberg and Thandie Newton. Capable though they may be, their task of supplanting Grant and Hepburn shouldn't have been wished on anyone, and Demme missed by a mile the light touch of the original, bizarrely shooting for "grotty" instead of colorful. With its blend of genre elements, clever script, sure direction, dazzling stars, and wonderful supporting cast, Charade could almost be mistaken for a Hitchcock picture, though Donen shares in his stars' seemingly effortless manner. His picture is a swingin' '60s party, and everyone's invited.
Criterion does a bang-up job of upgrading Charade to hi-def Blu-ray. Aside from the odd color fluctuation endemic to the source material, this is a very attractive transfer. The black level is surprisingly strong, which makes for a substantial improvement in contrast and detail over previous SD-DVD editions (particularly noticeable in the nighttime climax). At last, the film grain once more works in favor of the image, instead of against it: the picture appears very natural, and the color (despite the occasional split-second lapse) is vibrant as can be. The source print is in good shape, and, at any rate, most flaws have been digitally scrubbed away as per Criterion's high standard. The audio gets an authentic recreation in clean and clear LPCM 1.0, since the original soundtrack element is mono.
Though Charade doesn't get a large quantity of bonus features—in fact, only two, one being the "Theatrical Trailer" (3:16, HD)—the audio commentary featuring director Stanley Donen and screenwriter Peter Stone has to qualify as one of the most charming ever laid down. Recorded in 1999 and previously issued on Criterion's DVD edition, the track is all funny patter between the two, including a ridiculous disagreement over whether or not spoilers are appropriate on the commentary. The duo share plenty of behind-the-scenes details about the project's inception and production, as well as the stars and the film's reception.
Completing the package is a twelve-page booklet reprinting film historian Bruce Eder's essay on the film, as well as credits, specs, and photos. This is a Blu-ray that will beckon even to those who already own the film on DVD; the improvement in image quality is that dramatic.
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