Charade (Criterion Collection) Review
It's commonly accepted that directors are copied, plagiarised and imitated endlessly, with some directors forging entire careers out of imitating others (virtually every action film director and Spielberg or Cameron, for a start). However, most of these plagiarists are minor, insignificant figures, soon forgotten by history, posterity and film critics. Therefore, it comes as something of a surprise while watching Charade to realise that this is not, in fact, the work of Alfred Hitchcock, so closely does it follow the templates laid down by the master, instead being the work of Stanley Donen, who was responsible for many bona fide classics, not least the wonderful Singing in the Rain. A director of Donen's stature, one would hope, would not feel the need to descend to plagiarising Hitchcock; however, there is much pleasure to be gained from the exercise, despite its second-hand feeling.
The plot is essentially a mix of the similar films listed above, especially The Lady Vanishes, albeit with the plot machinations in a different context. Regina Lampert (Hepburn) is a young American woman in Paris, for aesthetic, rather than dramatic reasons, whose husband is murdered. While that would be bad enough in itself, it soon transpires that he was involved in all manner of skulduggery, and she is soon pursued by three villains, led by Coburn. The only man who she can trust is the suave Peter Joshua (Grant). Or can she? Is Joshua all that he appears? Will the tension mount? Will there be many twists, turns and witty lines? It doesn't take a genius to tell that the answer to these questions is 'No, no, yes and yes'. (Or does it...)
As mentioned above, this is not a very original film. Despite Donen's virtuoso direction and Stone's fine script, neither is capable-or willing- of exploring the darker dimensions of Hitchcock's studies of vulnerable, flawed women and predatory, twisted men. Instead, an altogether lighter tone prevails, at least until the final 20 minutes or so, when the film suddenly shifts tone completely to become an exciting action film, rather than the slightly self-congratulatory and arch 'romantic thriller' it has been up until then. Yet it's never less than highly entertaining, due to the sheer professionalism with which it is made, and also because it is close enough to the Hitchcock style to be at least worthy of comparison to the Master. (For an example of how not to do this kind of film, see, or rather don't, any of the following: The Net, Fair Game, Lassiter, etc, etc).
The performances are terrific, as you would expect from two of the most iconic actors of the 20th century. Hepburn, who never appeared in a 'proper' Hitchcock film, is superb, combining her Holly Golightly-esque charm and appeal with a sense of vulnerability, even as she is compelled to enter into a hilariously unlikely romance with Grant (a mere 25 years her senior). He is, of course, superb, coping with what are effectively multiple roles, ranging from dashing stranger to potential murderer, with many shadings in between, all of which combine to make this one of his best performances, if not quite as good as his Roger Thornhill in North by Northwest. The supporting cast is appropriately cultish, with James Coburn and George Kennedy as villainous crooks and Walter Matthau as a fatherly CIA operative; all are as good as the film deserves.
While it's ultimately a shame that the film never really rises above being very entertaining, given the potential of the pairing of Grant and Hepburn, its success on that level is at least a good enough reason to recommend the film. Certainly, the upcoming Jonathan Demme remake with Thandie Newton (!!) in the Hepburn role and, er, Mark Wahlberg in the Grant role is seemingly doomed to failure from conception, given that the original is hardly high art in the first place, especially with Gus Van Sant's pointless remake of Psycho still fresh in people's minds. Still, Charade isn't going to change anyone's life, but it is a Parisian whore of a film; high-class, glossily attractive and without anything dangerous or disturbing to really trouble the mind.
Although it's sacrilegious to say such a thing, it is Criterion's non-anamorphic titles where the sheer quality of the print restoration really shows. Here, the transfer is easily up there with any of their other DVDs, and is in fact superior to many weak anamorphic transfers. Colours are strong and vibrant throughout, there is no visible print damage or grain, and the overall impression is a very favourable one. Yes, it's not as good as it would have been were it anamorphic, but it's still one to show to anyone who believes that a non-anamorphic transfer must automatically be bad.
Note: On April 6th 2004 Criterion reissued Charade with a new high-definition digital transfer, with restored image and sound and enhanced for widescreen telelvisions. The AV scores on this review are for the original letterbox transfer release (now out of print), but the affiliate links take you to the new anamorphic widescreen transfer release.
What the packaging bizarrely calls a 'sweetened soundtrack' is provided, which is essentially a nice but unexceptional mono track, which does a fair job of showcasing Henry Manicini's (not bad) score and the dialogue. Not a demo disc, but then it would be absurd to expect one.
A comparatively early DVD-only release for Criterion, the disc has a slightly disappointing selection of extras, although they perhaps reflect the absence of genuinely scintillating critical material that could be written or produced about such a lightweight film. The commentary is slightly odd; Donen and Stone -recorded together, unusually for Criterion- do not appear to like each other very much, and spend the entire track arguing over the other's influence and eventual career success, or lack of it. It's not as hideously, squirm-inducingly candid as Peter Mullan on Orphans, say, but it's still entertaining enough, even if they spend comparatively little time actually talking about the film. The best anecdote is already legendary; apparently, Universal, the distributor when the film was first released, were uneasy about the number of violent deaths in the film. Donen and Stone responded by rigging one of the film's preview screenings, and writing countless test cards praising the film's violence! Ah, those wags...
The other extras are of less interest, although perfectly entertaining; there are a couple of brief overviews of Donen and Stone's careers, and the original trailer, which is one of the very few areas in which modern cinema has improved immeasurably; it manages to go on for ages, give away large parts of the plot, and doesn't compel the viewer to actually go and see the film at all. There's also a brief but interesting essay by Bruce Eder, in which he manfully tries to compare the film to a 'distaff version' of North by Northwest. Hmm...
A fun, entertaining and enjoyable film is released on a middling-to-weak Criterion disc. The reason why it may well be of interest to film buffs is that it has just gone out of print, making it a collector's item of sorts; however, it's perfectly possible at the time of writing (January 2002) to pick up a copy from any number of outlets, albeit at rather an expensive price for a relatively undistinguished disc. Still, Hepburn and Grant fans will be very keen on this indeed.