In this deliciously dark comedic thriller, a trio of crooks relentlessly pursue a young American, played by Audrey Hepburn, outfitted in gorgeous Givenchy, through Paris in an attempt to recover the fortune her dead husband stole from them. The only person she can trust is a suave, mysterious stranger, played by Cary Grant. Director Stanley Donen goes splendidly Hitchcockian for Charade, a glittering emblem of sixties style and macabre wit.
Foreign locales. Mysterious, threatening men pursuing a sum of money. Murder. All of the cliche elements are in place for a run-of-the-mill suspense film, throwing random secret agents and wrong men at the screen right and left until some hokey finale. Stanley Donen's 'Charade,' however, takes what we now know as genre conventions and gives us a film that we may never again see in our era of sexed-up, stripped down, big muscled and firm bodied spy films. Instead, we get a chaste, classy, intriguing and still somewhat sexy sleek little number that just runs through its runtime like a warm knife through butter, drawing audiences back for even more enjoyable repeat viewings due to the film's very well made "twist."
If only 'The Truth About Charlie' were even half the film 'Charade' is...then that damned remake would have still been one hell of a ride, rather than a painful experience that I only remember fondly due to the inclusion of a 'Charade' bonus DVD.
Regina Lampert (Audrey Hepburn) has returned from holiday to her Parisian home, only to find it ransacked, completely empty, devoid of power, or any clue as to what has happened. Her soon-to-be-divorced husband, she will soon discover, is dead, thrown from a train just days before. There is no shortage of men in her life, though, as a trio of intimidating goons (James Coburn, George Kennedy, Ned Glass) begin threatening Reggie, demanding the cool quarter of a million dollars her husband reportedly possessed. Even the US government is involved, as it's their money being sought. Only the help of a man (Cary Grant) whose name is ever evolving, due to his constant lying, can help Lampert survive her ordeal, and possibly find out the truth of the strange going-ons in her life. That is, if he's not out to get the money as well.
Released right around the time of the first Bond film, 'Dr. No,' 'Charade' seems to be the polar opposite of the more famous film. In fact, the only thing they really have in common is how truly enjoyable they are, even to this day.
No, there's no sexy, scantily clad women here. There's no making whoopie, either. Grant and Hepburn instead create sexual tension with no release, as the not-mourning widow and the smooth, calculating man courting her don't seek to solve the mystery of the disappearing undergarments. Rather, we get true chemistry, with leads that rival each other, cast for their abilities, rather than their levels of eye-candy, and from that, we get a much more immersive ride through the underbelly of tourist Paris.
The two leads have plenty of time to play off each other, and we, the audience, get to see the fun they have on screen, bantering like a comic book duo, as the lines come rapid fire, never feeling rehearsed, even if they can be a bit too smarmy to be spontaneous. But Grant and Hepburn aren't alone, as the great Walter Matthau gets some screen time opposite Hepburn as Hamilton Bartholemew, a US official who may be Reggie's most trustworthy confidant in her ordeal. His hair may be distracting to those of us used to seeing him in his more advanced, aged state later in his career, but his performance is never one to pull you out of the film.
'Charade' isn't about fast chases and extreme action sequences. We instead get urgent foot chases, and a few minor shootouts, culminating in a confrontation that is on a scale of its own compared to the rest of the film before it. It's about mystery, as those who haven't seen the film don't know who to trust, and who to suspect, as the constant turns in the story can throw anyone for a loop. The neat part of the film, though, is the way it is made, in that even knowing the twist, having seen the film, it can be even more enjoyable, and far more tense, as you see the truth staring you right in the eye, yet can't yell to the characters what to do (despite wanting to).
'Charade' is intelligent in this manner, and in its timelessness, even if the vehicles and architecture gives it away. Perhaps it is too smart for its own good, as the few things working against the film, in my eyes, seem to be somewhat deliberate. I understand the cool demeanor on display by all characters, but emotions seem to constantly be held in check, regardless of the (often) extremely stressing conditions encountered. An angry wife may not mourn her jerk of a husband, and may welcome the advances of male suitors to help move forward, but the lack of emotion shown by Hepburn can be a bit daunting and unrealistic. This is a woman who doesn't know what to do when she encounters her empty home, yet the danger she finds herself in doesn't rattle her too much, as she instead leans on different men she feels she can trust, until she can't trust them anymore.
Marky Mark and Thandie Newton have nothing on screen legends Grant and Hepburn. Not even Sean Connery and any of his film specific hotties can compare to what we get on screen here, even if some of the adventures he participated in are grander in scope. 'Charade' feels like the changing of the old guard in spy cinema; a sexy, yet patient thriller, reliant more on its twists and unpredictability than its star power, of which it has plenty, making it a worthy addition to the Criterion Collection, and any self-respecting home video collection.
The Disc: Vital Stats
'Charade' comes to Blu-ray on a Region A locked BD50 disc, housed in Criterion's proprietory fatter clear keepcase, adorned with spine number 57. It just so happens to be one of the first public domain titles to hit Blu-ray, albeit from one of the more expensive, arthouse distributors. There is a 16-page color booklet included, featuring credits, film and disc information, and an article by Bruce Eder.
The Criterion Collection presents 'Charade' with an AVC MPEG-4 encode (1.85:1, 1080p) that, at times, beguiles the age of the film. Other times, the age stands out like a sore thumb. A bit two-toned, really.
Detail levels can be quite extraordinary in some shots, with great textures and even some solid facial details. That said, there are even more moments in the film where an aggressive grain level can obscure fine detail to the point where it almost seems moot. This isn't a night-and-day issue, as the clean moments are interspersed with those that aren't. Speaking of cleanliness, the source material (as is routine for Criterion) has had plenty of work removing dirt and debris, even though there is still quite a bit of it that found its way through.
The picture has some great depth at times...then supremely flat and dull moments right after. Edges didn't once distract me, while busy white levels and some noise splotches did. The lack of detail in faces in some scenes, as well as some bizarre skin tones, can be attributed to makeup used in the film, as Hepburn occasionally looks very chalky, ghostly pale. Black levels are appropriate, while shadow details go from superb to crushed from scene to scene. Reds are also a bit here and there, as they can be more than fuzzy one moment, and perfect another. There seems to be some damage to the material used, as right around the 34:23 mark, the picture can temporarily darken and move slightly on screen, almost like it were being compressed briefly, for a few frames. This error only appears in this one scene, one shot that was used interspersed with a few cut-aways, but it is distracting nonetheless. Looped backgrounds look absolutely terrible, but that is a problem inherent with the film. All in all, I'm very pleased with the appearance of 'Charade,' and I know that the incoming flood of public domain releases of the film won't come close to this quality.
'Charade' is given an authentic, though imperfect Linear PCM (uncompressed) 1.0 track that doesn't impress too much. While dialogue is clear and understandable, to every last mutterance, without any muffling or prioritization issues, the soft highs, scratchiness found beneath random lines, and occasional unnaturally hollow line reading (not matching room dynamics) keep this track grounded in reality. Gunfire is weak, without any pop (fitting of the time, honestly), while the great, moody Henry Mancini score is its own worst enemy at some points, with instruments blending and blaring rather than complimenting each other. There's no volume spikes, either. This one is just cut and dry. It's very much clean from hissing and crackling, and sounds quite clean for a 47-year-old film. Fans won't be disappointed.
You know a release has very few extas when they're all listed on the main tab for the entire disc.
Grant and Hepburn are both amazing leads by their lonesome; combined, they're quite a force. Throw in a fun, sometimes funny, mysterious script, and you get the enticing 'Charade,' a spy thriller that may seem like an artifact in today's spy genre. This Criterion release marks the first time this public domain title has hit Blu-ray, but, certainly, this won't be the last. With a good presentation, but a severely lacking pile of extras, this is one Criterion release that may be priced outside its value, no matter how good the film itself may be.