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Charade (Blu-ray Review)

4 Oct, 2010 By: Mike Clark

$39.95 Blu-ray
Not rated
Stars Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn.

You know, it’s really not a frivolous question that Audrey Hepburn tosses off to Cary Grant in one of the most durable star-power mystery/romances in existence. In terms of technique, how, indeed, did he shave that famous indentation in his chin.

Of course, this crevice was more noticeable in the early days of Grant’s career — whereas at the time Charade was released (about a week-and-a-half after JFK’s assassination), the actor had only two more movies to go, neither one providing him with much of a romantic dimension unless you count his love for booze in the following year’s Father Goose. At this point, Grant was about a quarter-century older than his Charade co-star, but no one thought that much about it. Hepburn spent a lot of her career, or at least early career, opposite older males: Humphrey Bogart, Fred Astaire, Gary Cooper. And now she was 34 — still a visual smash but no longer the young princess of Roman Holiday.

Criterion’s release basically transplants its standard same-price DVD to Blu-ray, complete with a typically fine Bruce Eder essay plus the mutually cantankerous commentary by director Stanley Donen and late screenwriter Peter Stone, which is widely regarded as one of the most entertaining voiceovers ever due to the “old-marrieds-at-home” tone it employs. This is welcome on multiple levels, though a couple considerations stand out. One is the fact that there may be as many foreign-language as Hollywood movies on Blu-ray from the early 1960s, so this release helps fill a gap. Another is that for a long time, Charade was in the public domain, resulting in as many cheap and grainy circulating copies of it as you’d expect. The obvious result is limited financial incentive for anyone to bring out a pristine but more expensive version (as is this one) because so many doofus consumers either wouldn’t know the difference or care about it. So bravo.

As for public domain in general, it’s a situation we don’t see nearly as much in home entertainment anymore — though certainly we did in the early days when entire department store bins were devoted to titles no longer protected by copyright (think the MGM musical Till the Clouds Roll By or Frank Sinatra’s Suddenly for two of many examples). Once, I tried to explain the p.d. concept to a clueless editor while pitching an article, and she said she thought it would be a better piece if I could include some titles likely to go p.d. in the near future. I had to explain that the situation only arises when some lawyer destined to be working the 2 a.m. shift at the nearest ball-bearing plant (within 24 hours) has messed up royally and neglected to renew the copyright. In Charade’s case, the oversight apparently stemmed from an improper “rights” designation in the opening credits. Though as in the case of It’s a Wonderful Life, which was also in p.d. hell for a long time, someone subsequently managed to copyright another aspect of the movie (in many cases it’s the musical score), which went a long way toward getting the crummy copies of the market.

But enough. Here we are in Criterion-ville with Grant, Hepburn, Parisian locales and a Henry Mancini-Johnny Mercer theme song that’s effective both in its upbeat version (during the opening credits) and later on a cruise boat in one of the film’s loveliest passages. And all this says nothing about some amazing wardrobe switches that manage to deck out its lead actress in one snazzy Givenchy outfit after another — even though Hepburn’s character is the wife of a murder victim who apparently left her without anything (including furniture) in their old apartment.

So who killed a husband whose widow doesn’t seem to be too broken up about it? Well, it could be any combination of his disgruntled wartime-caper cronies, who include James Coburn, a hook-handed George Kennedy and Ned Glass (he the actor who formerly played the aged storeowner in West Side Story and seen here in one scene wearing pajamas for what I’d speculate was the only time on screen). Or it could be Grant, who has been offering Hepburn a helping hand while remaining mysterious. Warning Hepburn to be mighty cautious is a fidgety CIA operative played for semi-comedy relief by Walter Matthau, who was then sporting that early-career mustache that tended to make him look a little wormy.

Charade is sometimes called the best Hitchcock movie not directed by Hitchcock, but despite some remarkably grisly moments, it is more of an “entertainment” without the twisted dark core you find even in the lightest Hitchcocks (I’d venture that Grace Kelly’s character in To Catch a Thief has grown up with demons that have never even occurred to Hepburn’s woman-in-peril here). Of course, there’s nothing wrong with being a hugely successful Hollywood entertainment (especially after this past summer), and I am flabbergasted to read comments on IMDb.com from chat contributors (who are these people?) who maintain that Charade is a relatively unknown movie. In fact, it was a big hit at the time (getting people out of the JFK funk), has been a constant TV staple for four decades and, due to the p.d. headache, has been ubiquitous as a purchase item.
All of this copyright talk dovetails nicely with the new History Channel documentary about the Library of Congress, for which copyright is a basic “what-did-you-do-today, honey?” concept of many employees. And while we’re still talking about definitive home versions of visual treats that circulate in lousy public domain copies not distributed by their producing company, how about somebody finally doing right by Marlon Brando’s One-Eyed Jacks? The only way you can get a VistaVision copy in the correct aspect ratio for one of the most beautiful Westerns ever is to own the old laser disc or a bootleg copy that some minor distributor dubbed off of it. Like Charade, it’s a movie where you want to own not just the jacks but the entire deck. 

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