Having grown increasingly tired of her busy, no-show businessman husband Charles, Regina Lampert (Audrey Hepburn) returns to Paris from a solo vacation ready to file for divorce, only to discover someone has turned her into a widow instead. The French police inspector in charge of her case (Jacques Marin) suspects she knows something about Charles' four passports and the $250,000 Charles gained from selling all of he and Regina's worldly possessions, but she doesn't, and things only get worse when three of Charles' slimy war buddies (James Coburn, George Kennedy, Ned Glass) and a CIA agent (Walter Matthau) all show up looking for the money too. Only the developing relationship between Regina and new acquaintance Peter Joshua (Cary Grant) helps to relieve some of the tension...until it looks like he may not be who he says he is either.
With equal measure of wit and thrills, Charade is a wonderful burst of twisty fun that's perfectly summed up by those spinning arrows in the opening credits. Not only does Cary Grant's man of mystery go through several identities and loyalties throughout the film, all while repeatedly (but not too insistently) brushing off Regina's advances, but the film deftly segues between light, frothy romance and dark tension, without either mood stumbling over the other one, thanks to the powerhouse cast and excellent direction by Stanley Donen.
The film is built around the chemistry between Hepburn and Grant, and they certainly have plenty of it. Fans of rapid-fire dialogue will be over the moon during the pair's constant playful banter, which starts the moment they meet (while Regina is still on vacation), and doesn't stop until the last line of the film. Grant was reportedly concerned that he'd look creepy courting someone so much younger than him, so Donen and screenwriter Peter Stone gave all the courting to Hepburn, whose starry-eyed infatuation is just the right match for Grant's laid-back, slightly weary amusement. What's particularly clever of Donen -- and what keeps the movie consistent -- is his knowledge that the audience will like Grant and Hepburn together regardless of whatever lie Grant's been caught telling next: "the man's the same, even if the name isn't."
The three villains make for a nice tonal blend as well. Kennedy is Herman Scobie, a brutish man complete with a hook hand and a scowl that never goes away. Coburn is Tex Panthollow, a charismatic but intensely creepy man who corners Regina in a phone booth and drops lit matches into her lap. Glass, last but not least, is Leopold Gideon, whose Woody Allen glasses and small stature hide his wicked sense of humor. It's an unusual but extremely memorable rogues gallery that has the unique position of simply occupying the hotel rooms next to Regina: they need the money, and she needs to know they're watching, and they all end up doing more talking than running from one another (although Grant and Kennedy have a nice rooftop fight that is simultaneously more and less violent than one might expect). They're also not left out of the film's witty dialogue (I particularly like Tex's bitter comment, "...and you fell for it, like an egg from a tall chicken!")
In 2002, Universal tried to remake Charade as The Truth About Charlie. Although I know at least a couple of people who will defend the stylistic merit of Demme's version, the original Charade isn't so much about the story or the characters, but about the tone, the mood, and the two stars and director who set it, and what the film captures isn't something that can be replicated all that easily. It's a romantic comedy with some stakes, a thriller with charm, and it's still as wonderfully entertaining now as it was when it was made.
The Video and Audio
Compared to the picture, the film's English Dolby Digital 2.0 audio track is not nearly as impressive, but it gets the job done just fine. Dialogue is bright and vivid, and Henry Mancini's wonderful score is given fair treatment, but I can't say there's much depth to the mix, which occasionally exhibits a bit of haziness that shows its age. Still, I'm sure audiences would prefer a faithful 2.0 track over an unconvincing 5.1 remix. A French 2.0 audio track, French and Spanish subtitles, and English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing are also included.
An original theatrical trailer for Charade is also included.