February 21, 2003
It’s a cliché to say but they really don’t make movies like Charade (1963) anymore. Jonathan Demme’s remake, The Truth About Charlie (2002) only reinforces this notion with its miscasting of the two leads, Mark Wahlberg and Thandie Newtown. Stanley Donen’s film, on the other hand, is a breezy spy thriller romp through Europe with Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn. Criterion originally released the movie on DVD a few years ago but the transfer was not anamorphic. They’ve since rectified this by releasing the DVD with the same extras and a brand new beautifully restored widescreen anamorphic transfer.
Right from the start, Charade has a playful tone. Regina Lampert (Hepburn) is eating a meal unaware that someone is aiming a gun at her. Menacing music plays on the soundtrack. The gun fires-it’s a squirt gun filled with water, fired by a child. Things are not what they seem is a theme that is a constant throughout the movie as Regina must question what people tell her and the motivations behind their actions.
Regina returns from a skiing vacation in Switzerland to find her apartment in Paris has been emptied of all its contents. The police arrive and inform her that her husband, Charlie, was thrown from a train and killed. He sold all of their possessions and was planning a trip to South America. Charlie also had multiple passports to several countries. A friendly CIA administrator (Matthau) tells Regina that her husband was wanted by the U.S. government for stealing $250,000. Peter Joshua (Grant), a man she met briefly in Switzerland, appears and offers to help her find out what happened to her husband. He’s suave and charming but with an air of mystery. Who is Peter and what is his motivation for helping Regina? With his help, she tries to also evade three other men-a tall, menacing Texan (Colburn), a bumbling balding man (Glass) and a burly man with a metal hook for a right hand (Kennedy)-who are also interested in her late husband’s money.
Cary Grant is perfectly cast as the charming mystery man, Peter Joshua. His experience in numerous classic screwball comedies gives him the chops to handle the film’s wordy screenplay with ease. Audrey Hepburn, who plays his romantic foil, is excellent as a woman in over her head. She’s unsure who she can trust. Hepburn is the epitome of class and shows off a real flare for light comedy. She plays Regina as naïve, at first, but she’s not stupid. She is more then capable to staying one step ahead of everyone who is after her husband’s money.
The film’s screenplay, written by Peter Stone, is filled with witty banter that flows with a snappy rhythm like something out of a screwball comedy. When Peter and Regina first meet he asks, “Do we know each other?” to which she replies, “Why? Do you think we’re going to?” Later in the conversation, Regina rebuffs him by saying, “I already know an awful lot of people and until one of them dies I couldn’t possibly meet anyone else.” Peter replies dryly, “Well, if anyone goes on the critical list let me know.” The entire film is filled with this kind of smart repartee and it is so wonderful to hear to come from such a talented cast. Stone’s screenplay also contains a lot of plot twists and turns that keeps the audience guessing and never feels contrived.
Director Stanley Donen compliments Stone’s screenplay by creating an atmospheric, exotic locale as a backdrop for the action. He uses the Paris setting effectively and envelopes his characters in a world that feels real and not like it was shot on a soundstage somewhere. For example, one scene between Peter and Regina takes over dinner on a long boat lit by beautiful lights as it travels through Paris at night. This is a wonderfully atmospheric sequence that really draws the viewer into the film and this world.
There is an audio commentary with the film’s director Stanley Donen and screenwriter Peter Stone. This is a spirited, entertaining conversation between the two men. Stone mentions that he wrote the screenplay with Grant and Hepburn in mind and gave it to Donen, figuring that he could get the stars to do the movie. It is readily apparent that the two men have remained good friends over the years in the way they joke and correct each other over certain anecdotes. They talk very knowledgably about their experiences on the movie and recount all sorts of stories that makes one feel like you are really sitting with these guys over a couple of drinks, watching their movie.
“The Films of Stanley Donen” is a selected filmography with a written introduction by Donen biographer, Stephen M. Silverman. There are write-ups for each film listed with stills included.
Peter Stone’s selected filmography is also listed but with no detailed write-ups.
Finally, there is a vintage theatrical trailer for Charade that really sells the film well. It narrated by a cheeky Cary Grant who perfectly captures the film’s playful tone.
Charade is a classic in every essence of the word. The performances by the talented cast, the expert direction and the clever screenplay are all flawless. It was made at a time when Hollywood knew how to make a smart, entertaining film. Criterion has presented this movie on a DVD that is up to their usual high standards. Charade should be an essential part of any film buff’s library.