Possibly the slickest and most commercial romantic thriller of the 1960s, Charade looks a bit mechanical and perhaps artificial today, but only because we're a generation that has spent considerable time studying the intricacies of Alfred Hitchcock movies. Before the Truffaut/Hitchcock interview book, Stanley Donen and ace scribe Peter Stone understood Hitchcock's well enough so as to effectively outdo him at his own light-suspense game, at least superficially. The movie is a perfect entertainment machine for its time, balancing Audrey Hepburn charm against a witty script and sumptous production values.
Criterion's DVD is a reprise of an OOP disc from several years back, with an improved 16:9 transfer.
The only drawback to Charade is what my friend Steve Nielson calls a serious case of "the cutes," a maladay that seems to affect many 60s films that want to capture a tongue-in-cheek cleverness. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is so relentlessly cute and harmless that it makes for odd viewing today, when it seemed completely satisfactory in 1969.
Every word out of the mouths of Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn is a guaranteed clever comeback, smart remark or flip observation, each delivered with more drollery than the last. That many of the lines play flat or forced now doesn't dent the fact that they seemed sophisticated in 1963. This isn't Billy Wilder but it's certainly better than, say, Blake Edwards, whose work around this time more often than not doesn't even seem funny anymore.
Peter Stone and Stanley Donen keep a constant stream of intrigue and reversals going without ever having to get serious, something that probably made Hitchcock jealous (although this picture was made in Europe, Hitch was across the lot at Universal working on the more serious The Birds). Besides revisiting and sometimes bettering bits from North by Northwest - Grant's scary climb on the outside of a building, a rooftop fight - Stone concocts a maze of shifting names and identities that far outdistances Hitchcock's ruse with the non-existent George Kaplan. Audrey Hepburn repeatedly has the rug pulled out from under her assumptions about Cary Grant, until confusion reigns. It's like a big party game - akin to the silly pass-the-grapefruit business in the nightclub scene. Donen and writer Stone even appear in a Hitchcock-like cameo in an elevator.
As if to appeal to the Doris Day crowd, Charade makes sure that its menace is muted and that most of the story points are soft and fuzzy. Hepburn's Reggie Lampert has lost everything but the contents of her suitcase, yet manages to always be chic in the wardrobe by Givenchy that probably gave female viewers more pleasure than the plot. By having to bunk in an old hotel, Reggie references the cute, gamin-like Hepburn instead of a moneyed rich widow. The villains are colorful but rather ineffectual, basically guilty of little more than bad manners. Even the kidnapping and threatening of Reggie's bratty nephew (the one given the task of telegraphing the MacGuffin) doesn't raise a sweat. When people are horribly murdered, it's always off-camera.
When menaced Hepburn is thoroughly convincing, doing as nicely as she did in the later Wait Until Dark. She does a fine job of panicking when James Coburn threatens her with lit matches, even though she could have made him look silly by simply blowing them out! Cary Grant is his late-career coy comic, doing little Charlie Chaplin double-takes (perhaps I've seen too many Chaplin films of late) and, just to entertain Audrey, good-naturedly enacting too-cute-for-words scenes like taking a shower with his clothes on - another North by Northwest alignment. It's a jarring tone change when things finally get serious, but the ending is helped along by the always dependable Walter Matthau.
Donen gets to do what MGM had denied his old partner Gene Kelly: shoot in France. He's far better with the continental gloss than Blake Edwards in his Pink Panther pictures. One of the few French characters in the cast is the suspicious inspector is played by Jacques Marin but voiced by Gregoire Aslan. Of the three villains, James Coburn marked another big notch toward his star breakout, George Kennedy is an agreeable hulk playing out his Universal contract, and Ned Glass (West Side Story) is a delight as a diminuitive smart alec who is neither clever nor cute.
Criterion's DVD of Charade is a solid improvement on the earlier transfer, with the muted colors of Maurice Binder's animated opening titles looking exactly like a rip-off of Vertigo. The 16:9 enhancement makes busy scenes like the lighted Seine dinner boat look much better. Henry Mancini's pop hit title tune gets a few too many "flavored" orchestrations but comes off fine - it's probably better remembered than the movie.
The extras are restrained but essential, especially the commentary shared by Peter Stone and Stanley Donen. The rest are text & photo essays and filmographies in the style begun by Criterion on laserdisc.
Charade is or was Public Domain and there is at least one inferior DVD out of the title. It's surely a special case, being so high-profile a film, but with so many other PD films allowed to languish or rot, this effort by Universal and Criterion has to be seen as a good thing. As for the welcome 16:9 update, Universal could do worse than revisit its Psycho and Vertigo discs and re-fit them with new anamorphic transfers too.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,