Director: Stanley Donen
Screenplay: Peter Stone (story by Peter Stone & Marc Behm)
Stars: Cary Grant (Peter Joshua), Audrey Hepburn (Regina Lampert), Walter Matthau (Bartholamew), James Coburn (Tex Panthollow), George Kennedy (Herman Scobie), Dominique Minot (Sylvie Gaudel), Ned Glass (Leopold W. Gideon), Jacques Marin (Insp. Edouard Grandpierre), Paul Bonifas (Mr. Felix), Thomas Chelimsky (Jean-Louis Gaude)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1963
Country: U.S.
Charade DVD
Hangin’ on the phone…Stanley Donen’s Charade may very well be the best (and funniest) Hitchcock movie Hitchcock never made. I say that with the full knowledge that Donen was never pleased that his thriller-comedy was constantly compared to Hitch, but surely he saw it coming, especially given the involvement of Cary Grant.

In fact, Grant’s performance in Charade, which was one of the last three of his career, can be seen as a fitting capstone to the creation of the peerless Cary Grant persona that was refined to perfection in three Hitchcock films: Notorious (1946), To Catch a Thief (1955), and, most importantly, North by Northwest (1959). It was in these films that Cary Grant fully became “Cary Grant,” and even though his character’s name was different in each one, he was essentially playing slightly variegated riffs on the same star persona.

Narratively, though, Charade plays like a gender-reversed North by Northwest. It takes Grant’s character in that film, a self-absorbed businessman who inadvertently gets mixed up in a game of espionage, and replaces him with Audrey Hepburn’s Regina Lampert, a disillusioned young wife whose life is put in danger when her never-there husband is murdered and a trio of goons begins stalking her because they think she has $250,000 he stole from them. Thus, Regina is torn out of her inward life (when we first meet her, she is cooling her heels in a ritzy French ski resort) put in constant danger as she is made to deal with forces far outside of her lived experiences.

Of course, there’s never so much danger in a thriller like this that there can’t also be time for romance, and that’s where Grant steps in. Grant plays Peter Joshua, a cool, slightly mysterious stranger who happens into Regina’s life just as the trouble starts. It seems like a bit of contrived serendipity, but screenwriter Peter Stone has so many twists and turns up his sleeve that, by the end of the movie, your assessment of Peter will have changed not once, not twice, not even three times, but four. He’s a mystery box full of surprises, his identity just a series of layers to be peeled away until Regina finally gets to the core. (The fact that there is a core to get to is evidence of the movie’s basic, old-fashioned romanticism.)

Because Peter is played by Cary Grant—dapper and refined as always—you don’t feel cheated or abused when you find out that his current identity is just another ruse. Even when there is significant doubt as to his motives, he remains a striking and attractive figure. If anything, the enigma of his true intentions makes him that much more compelling, even if it never truly stains him.

At one point, Regina says to Peter, “You know what’s wrong with you? … Nothing,” which is perhaps the most fitting description ever penned of Grant’s screen charm. The line is that much better because it’s Audrey Hepburn, barely masking a heated sexuality with her lithe-innocent exterior, who says it. It literally makes you glad for the days when characters didn’t just hop right into bed with each other, but rather kept the intensity of their attraction always at the near-boiling point (Grant wisely insisted that several joking lines be inserted referencing his and Hepburn’s obvious age difference). In this case, the sexual suspense mixes and mingles with the thriller suspense, keeping you constantly intrigued even while you’re laughing at the inherent silliness of it all.

Director Stanley Donen began his career as a choreographer in MGM’s famous Arthur Freed Unit and earned his reputation directing a string of hit musicals that virtually defined the Technicolor Hollywood musical of the 1950s, including On the Town (1949), Singin’ in the Rain (1952), and Funny Face (1957). The light touch and fantastic sense of humor that worked so beautifully in those films also serves him well in Charade, which was released just as the James Bond series was taking off. Donen pulls off an exquisite balancing act between the suspenseful and the funny; he keeps us smiling throughout, but he never descends to the level of spoofing his material. Rather, he plays the mystery elements of the story for all they’re worth, constantly reminding us that Regina is in danger, but never making it seem so grim that we would question why, under all this duress, she can’t seem to think of anything but getting Peter to come back to her room.

Charade Criterion Collection DVD

Aspect Ratio1.85:1
AudioEnglish Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
SupplementsAudio commentary by director Stanley Donen and screenwriter Peter Stone
Original theatrical trailer
“The Films of Stanley Donen” selected filmography
Peter Stone filmography
DistributorThe Criterion Collection / Home Vision Entertainment
Release DateApril 6, 2004

If any DVD distributor has a near perfect track record, it’s Criterion, but one of their biggest fumbles was an inexplicable refusal in the early days to make their widescreen transfer anamorphic. The long out-of-print Charade DVD was one of those releases, but now it has been re-released with a new, anamorphic widescreen transfer made from a 35mm interpositive, which was the same source material for the original transfer. Comparing the two, it is clear that the anamorphic transfer offers a sharper image and better resolution. Interestingly enough, though the two transfers have notably different color tones, with the out-of-print original looking slightly brighter and a little pinkish and the newer one slightly darker with just a touch of a green tinge to the hues. It’s hard to know which transfer more closely aligns with the intended look of the film, but I like the latter of the two better.

The same Dolby Digital monaural soundtrack is included. It sounds perfectly good for its era, particularly Henry Mancini’s appropriately bouncy score.

The supplements included on this new disc are exactly the same as the ones on the out-of-print release (although the animated menus have been redesigned). The screen-specific audio commentary by director Stanley Donen and screenwriter Peter Stone is a thoroughly enjoyable listen. They have a playful banter that makes the commentary consistently entertaining as they reminisce about the film’s production. “The Films of Stanley Donen” is a selected filmography with a good introductory biographical note penned by Donen biographer Stephen M. Silverman (the filmography casually omits such duds as 1980’s Saturn 3). There is also a complete filmography for Peter Stone and an original theatrical trailer presented in 1.33:1.

Copyright ©2004 James Kendrick

All images copyright © The Criterion Collection and Universal Pictures

Overall Rating: (4)

James Kendrick

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