Color, 1963, 113m.
Directed by Stanley Donen
Starring Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn, Walter Matthau, James Coburn, George Kennedy
Criterion (Blu-Ray & DVD) (US RA/R1 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
By 1963, spy thrillers had become a hot commodity thanks to the sudden appearance of James Bond on the screen and the recent success of Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest (also with Grant) representing the ultimate example of big studio espionage gloss. However, in just a shoritht period of time, Hitchcock had suddenly swerved into wildly experimental territory with Psycho and The Birds, leaving the field wide open for another director to play the spy game at Universal. A witty, elegant thriller bent on beating Hitch at his own game, Charade is something of a departure for director Stanley Donen, best known for his splashy musicals like Singin' in the Rain and Funny Face. Grant essentially steps aside here for the real main character (a radiant Audrey Hepburn), the innocent plunged into a world of espionage and murder, and makes room for colorful supporting turns. Matthau, George Kennedy (sporting a pre-Live and Let Die metal hook hand), and James Coburn do especially good work, while the often undervalued Jacques Marin (The Train) has some wonderfully understated comedy as an inspector who keeps finding dead bodies in their PJs. For such a "frothy" title, the violence is surprisingly strong and graphic at times (including a dark bit involving Hepburn and some matches that foreshadows her bravura turn in Wait Until Dark), though it's never offensive or overwhelming. While Charade could have easily become a bland spy knockoff, every element works perfectly: Grant and Hepburn's chemistry, the witty and startling screenplay, the gorgeous Parisian locales, and of course, Henry Mancini's catchy, infectious score.
Though successful during its theatrical release, Charade became devalued for a few decades when Universal botched the copyright notices on their prints and inadvertently allowed it to lapse into the public domain. Nevertheless, its influence was felt as Universal churned out more spy films (including a Donen/Mancini reunion with Arabesque and Hitchcock's middling return to the field with Torn Curtain and Topaz). A complete video history of this film would be impossible (lots of versions from shady labels, all of them pretty terrible), but eventually Criterion came to the rescue in 1999 by officially licensing it from Universal with a fresh transfer from original studio elements. (A legit VHS version from the studio was also briefly released at a ridiculous price point, but all the budget editions quickly crowded it out.) Criterion's first DVD was non-anamorphic but looked fine, and extras included a lively commentary with Donen and screenwriter Peter Stone (who also penned The Taking of Pelham One Two Three), both now deceased. They do a solid job of covering the necessities of the story's Parisian setting, finding the right balance between the macabre and the frivolous, and the pleasures of working with Hepburn. The original trailer also appeared, looking a bit haggard. In 2003, a better anamorphic transfer later appeared discreetly appended to Universal's DVD of Jonathan Demme's well-intentioned but utterly lifeless remake, The Truth about Charlie, prompting Criterion to pull their DVD off the market and reissue it as a 16x9 upgrade.
Flash forward a few years, and Criteron eventually revisited Charade with an even more satisfying HD presentation on Blu-Ray that marks the most satisfying version yet. Colors look accurate and often pop off the screen, with Hepburn's outfits making for perfect eye candy by themselves. Only one shot of Matthau during his initial briefing in his office looks dupey, like it was slugged in from an inferior print; otherwise this is a top caliber job all round. The sound gets just as substantial an overhaul, with a surprisingly punchy mono track that makes Mancini's music sound far crisper than before and dialogue sounding sharp as a tack. The same extras are carried over along with Bruce Eder's enjoyable liner notes; inexplicably, despite a prominent credit to Photofest for photos and stills, there are no images from the film anywhere on the packaging or extras apart from the main poster art! One of the most purely pleasurable thrillers ever made, Charade simply looks and sounds better than ever and should earn over plenty of new converts with this excellent Blu-Ray that blows its competitors far out of the water.