Thursday, September 16, 2010

CHARADE: Blu-Ray (Universal 1963) Criterion Home Entertainment

The film's of Stanley Donen represent an unique and stylish cache of memorable classics that are as progressive in their narrative structure as they remain compellingly fresh upon renewed viewing. Of Donen's many stellar accomplishments, Charade (1963) remains the epitome of the elegant romantic thriller and it's certainly no wonder; co-starring two of the twentieth century’s most radiant stars – Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn.

Working from a screenplay by Peter Stone and Marc Behm, Donen originally approached Grant with the project two years earlier but was promptly turned down.

It seems that Grant, who had quietly observed the erosion of his own film career with nonchalance, had finally decided to retire from acting - citing that at his age - then 59 - he was a little long in the tooth to continue playing romantic leads; especially when the average age of his leading ladies hovered in the late 20s to early 30s. Thankfully, Donen persisted in acquiring Grant for this deal - especially after Audrey Hepburn signed with the understanding that she would do 'the chasing' as it were, after Grant rather than the other way around.

In essence, Charade is a Hitchcock film; its 'wrong man' (or in this case, 'wrong woman) scenario, wildly careening plot twists and spurious roster of rogues pretending to be good guys perfectly pitched to the climate of Hitchcock's greatest movies from the 1950s. But Charade is not merely a Hitchcock knock off. Under Donen's direction, it crackles with an air of romantic folly that is more aligned with the cynicism of Dick Avery (a character played by Fred Astaire in Donen's Funny Face 1957). Charade's other big plus is that it has Donen's supremely effective use of real locations; gradually transforming the elegant, swinging backdrop of Paris into an eerily unsettling city of danger, suspense and mystery.

Charade opens with one of the most gripping pre-title sequences in movie history; a bloodied body being thrown from a moving train in the middle of the night. From this shocking opener, we dissolve to the relative safety of a fashionable chalet where Regina Lampert (Audrey Hepburn) is having lunch. She is interrupted by the deviously playful, Jean-Louis (Thomas Chelimsky) who squirts her with his toy gun. Summing Jean-Louis's mother, Sylvie Gaudel (Dominique Minot) to look after the boy, Regina announces to Sylvie that her brief marriage to Charles Lampert is at an end.

Sylvie and Regina's platonic vacation takes an interesting turn when Regina meets Peter Joshua (Cary Grant). The two spar with glib barbs that tingle with romantic chemistry before Regina sends Peter on his way. It seems that until one of her current acquaintances either dies or leaves her side, Regina cannot bring herself to take another person to her bosom.

Returning to the fashionable Paris apartment she shared with Charles, Regina is shocked to discover that the home has been completely liquidated of its assets. Upon identifying her husband's body at the morgue, Regina is even more surprised to learn from Insp. Edouard Grandpierre (Jacques Martin) that Charles was not a wealthy businessman but Carson Dyle; an international spy whose consortium of crooked friends are now after her to gain access to the $250,000.00 fortune Charles supposedly stole from them.

This motley crew includes embittered, one armed, Herman Scobie (George Kennedy), slightly psychotic Tex Panthollow (James Coburn) and schemer, Leopold Gideon (Ned Glass). In due time all three will meet with untimely ends. However, as the narrative slowly unravels, we learn that Peter Joshua is also involved with these men...or is he?...while courting Regina to pump her for information. Could Peter be the one killing off the competition?

Approached by CIA's Hamilton Bartholomew (Walter Matthau), Regina is forced into playing a dangerous game of cat and mouse to learn the truth? Is Bartholomew on her side or is Peter more than he pretends to be?

Charade is a film teeming with what Hitchcock once coined the MacGuffin - plot points that seem of paramount interest at the start, yet amount to nothing by the end. The biggest MacGuffin in Charade is, of course, the $250,000.00 that Charles has cleverly concealed by using a rare stamp worth that amount affixed to a letter addressed to Regina but discovered amongst his personal effects on the train he was thrown from.

But who threw Charles from that train?

As the body count begins to mount the choice suspects narrow to either Peter or Bartholomew; the latter actually being Carson Dyle's brother, Alexander. Terrorized and not knowing who to trust, Regina inadvertently reveals to Alexander that she has the stamp and Dyle, as Bartholomew, agrees to meet Regina to secure the exchange - all the while planning to murder her.

In the climactic finale - appropriately played out on the stage of an abandoned theatre, Peter kills Dyle by dropping him through a trap door. But the biggest surprise is yet to come. Peter reveals to Regina that he is Brian Cruikshank - a federal agent who has been trying to retrieve the stamp as part of a government investigation.

Charade is superb entertainment - as fresh and contemporary today as it was the year it debuted. Owing to a rights issue, there are no less than 7 different public domain incarnations of Charade on DVD and two legitimately sanctioned; one from Criterion Home Video, the other as part of a flipper disc from Universal (the company that originally made the movie), as an ‘extra feature’ on the film's remake ‘The Truth About Charlie’ 2002 - a wholly forgettable excursion co-starring Thandi Newton and Mark Walberg.

Of the two legitimate versions, neither represented Charade satisfactorily. The Criterion edition suffered from severe edge enhancement and shimmering of fine details while the Universal edition exhibited a faded color scheme with less than adequate image sharpness.

But now, Criterion gives us Charade as we should have had it all along - breathtakingly realized on a flawless Blu-Ray. The remastered 1080p transfer is stunning. Colors are deep, rich and solid. Fine details are razor sharp throughout. Contrast levels have been ideally realized. The most impressive aspect of the new transfer is its retention of film grain (something that was scrubbed away by excessive DNR on previous versions). As such, Charade looks remarkably film like for the first time - and most welcomingly so.

Sticklers for remaining true to the original film's fidelity, the audio is represented in uninspiring mono but has been nicely repurposed and cleaned up for this edition. If this disc has a shortcoming, it's that Criterion has not deemed this title worthy of including any new extra features. We get the original essay on Donen's movies as well as his audio commentary and that's about it.

Nevertheless, for the video/audio presentation alone, Charade on Blu-Ray comes highly recommended! A must have!

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)






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