Director: Stanley Donen
Screenplay: Peter Stone
Based on a Story by: Peter Stone, Marc Behm
Starring: Audrey Hepburn, Cary Grant, Walter Matthau, James Coburn, George Kennedy, Dominique Minot, Ned Glass
Country: USA
Running Time: 113 min
Year: 1963

The Criterion Collection’s ever-growing UK catalogue adds a Hollywood classic this month, with the release of Stanley Donen’s 1963 film Charade on Blu-ray. It’s a title that has been available in many forms over the years, as it entered the public domain straight after its release due to an unfortunate mistake on the credits where the copyright of the film was omitted. Due to this, many of the previous releases (particularly on DVD) have been lacklustre. So it’s good to see a respected label like Criterion give it the royal treatment, even if it’s always been easy to get hold of a copy of the film.

Charade opens in an intriguing fashion with a man being thrown off a train. We later learn this was Charles Lampert, the husband of Regina Lampert (Audrey Hepburn), who returns home from a holiday in the French Alps to a completely empty apartment and the devastating news of his death.

She discovers there was a lot she didn’t know about her husband though. A police detective (Jacques Marin) that questions her shows her Charles had several passports and recently sold all of their belongings (thus the empty apartment) on auction for $250,000 but the money was not on him when he died.

After her husband’s funeral, which attracts some curious ‘mourners’, Regina is approached by a CIA administrator, Hamilton Bartholomew (Walter Matthau). He tells her that she must find where the money is hidden as her life is in danger. He explains that Charles, alongside fellow soldiers Herman Scobie (George Kennedy), Leopold W. Gideon (Ned Glass) and Tex Panthollow (James Coburn), had stolen $250,000 worth of gold during the war. The quartet had hidden the gold, with an aim to share it out once the dust had settled on the affair. However, Charles ran off with it and the other trio of criminals were after him. Bartholomew believes that, because the money wasn’t found, her husband’s killers would be after her, assuming she’d have it.

As Scobie, Gideon and Tex indeed pressure and threaten Regina, she turns to help from a charming stranger she met in the Alps, Peter Joshua (Cary Grant). However, as the plot thickens, Regina and the audience aren’t sure who to trust in this whole affair, particularly as those involved begin to get knocked off, one by one.

Charade was produced near the end of the classic Hollywood age, just before the dawn of the ‘new Hollywood’ era. With two huge stars, one at the peak of her first decade of fame and the other approaching retirement after a 30-year career at the top, as well as bold technicolour photography, a largely light and breezy tone, and a script loaded with witty zingers, it feels like one of the last of the great old-fashioned Hollywood productions.

There are hints of that darker edge that would creep into the mainstream later in the decade though. In the vein of much of Hitchcock’s work around the time, mystery and thriller elements are infused with comedy which is often quite black or at least irreverent to the threats of murder that are ever-present. Shots of the various killed-off characters are surprisingly graphic for the time too.

However, generally this is a film driven purely to entertain. The plot is positively littered with twists and turns, forever keeping you guessing what will happen next. The dialogue is sharp and endlessly amusing too. The supporting cast delivers this with great aplomb, with several wonderfully larger-than-life characters created by legends such as Walter Matthau, James Coburn and George Kennedy. Hepburn and Grant are as charming as ever too, of course, and, despite the 25-year age difference between the pair, their on-screen romance delivers.

Saying that, I did find some elements of the film a little hard-to-swallow, including the relationship between Regina and Peter. Though the actors had the appropriate chemistry to make their hitting it off believable, the numerous reasons to mistrust Peter are too many for me to believe Regina would stick to him so closely and not head to the police and CIA more often than she does.

Some of the writing can be quite contrived too. Some of this is part of the charm, in how the complex web of lies fits together in the end, but some aspects didn’t work for me. Most notably, I wasn’t a fan of the bizarre shower scene gag, that seemed misplaced, forced and unnecessary. A number of the romantic interludes feel like padding too, stretching the otherwise quite fast-paced film out a little longer than required.

Overall, however, Charade is a wonderfully entertaining romp with wit, charm and a subtly dark edge. Some of the writing can feel a bit far-fetched and it could have been a little shorter, but when a film is such a pleasure to watch, flaws like these can be excused.

Charade is out on 15th February on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by The Criterion Collection. It looks gorgeous, with bold colours and a clean and sharp picture. I noticed literally two slightly damaged/faded shots, but these were barely noticeable. The sound is clear too.

Special features include:

– New, restored high-definition digital transfer, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition
– Audio commentary featuring Stanley Donen and screenwriter Peter Stone
– Original theatrical trailer
– English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
– PLUS: A new essay by film historian Bruce Eder

The commentary is a lot of fun, like the film. Donen and Stone bounce off each other in a banter and anecdote-filled track. So, although the extras are thin on the ground, what is here is of a high standard.

I wasn’t provided with a copy of the booklet to comment on that, unfortunately.

Charade - Criterion
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