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Charade: The Criterion Collection

Audrey Hepburn may be the eternal princess of 20th century filmdom, but Cary Grant stood her up twice — he was originally offered the lead in her major debut, William Wyler's Roman Holiday (1953), which eventually was accepted by Gregory Peck. And just a year later Grant backed out of Billy Wilder's Sabrina (1954) at the last moment, allowing Humphrey Bogart to step in at the eleventh hour (for an ungodly salary, no less). Grant and Hepburn always will rank among the most charismatic of classic-era film stars, but they only shared celluloid once, in Stanley Donen's Charade (1963), a featherweight comic thriller that remains entertaining with every passing decade. Hepburn stars as Regina Lampert, an American woman living in Europe who is considering divorcing her elusive, often-missing husband Charles. But before she can get around to it, the French authorities inform her that Charles has recently become deceased (thanks to being thrown from a swift-moving train). She also discovers he recently liquidated all of his assets, and he maintained several identities. At Charles's funeral, the chapel is nearly empty, and only three men turn up briefly, each to confirm that the erstwhile Mr. Lampert is, in fact, kaput. However, the men also appear to believe that Regina is concealing Charles's wealth, and they think they're owed something. An American diplomat (Walter Matthau) offers his assistance, but a mysterious gentleman, Peter Joshua (Grant), also appears interested in Regina's welfare, causing her to believe there's no one she can completely trust. If anything was lost by Cary Grant's stepping away from Audrey Hepburn's first two feature films, it's that they duo never steamed up the screen in a romantic comedy. By the time Charade came along, Grant — 58 and nearing retirement — thought he was far too old to play at love with the 33-year-old Hepburn. Charade, after all, is the first film Grant appeared in with his naturally graying hair. And he even got in a few jokes at Hepburn's expense, asking the flirtatious younger woman "How would you like a spanking?" and insisting "I could already be arrested for transporting a minor beyond the first floor" (and of course, Grant's "on the street where you live" line is impossible to miss). Often considered the best Hitchcock film that Hitchcock never directed, the comparison flatters director Stanley Donen's talent, even though it's largely inaccurate — beyond Grant's presence, a winsome leading lady, European settings, and some wry comedy, Charade is distinct from the Master's oeuvre. For one thing, Hitch was not a fan of mysteries or whodunits. He also preferred reversals of fortune over clever plot twists. And he wasn't fond of shadowy, somewhat cartoonish villains (a bad guy in a Hitch film is, first and foremost, a refined gentleman in his public sphere). Charade, rather, should be considered what it is: a Stanley Donen film, full of the wit and energy to be found in everything from Singin' in the Rain (1953) to Bedazzled (1967). A dabbler in film genres from musicals to comedies to dramas, Charade ranks among Donen's most memorable efforts with its amusing banter and smooth tone-shifts. Grant, who had worked with Donen several times previously, clearly is having fun with the project (just try to guess how much of his dialogue was ad-libbed). And the continentally charming Hepburn got to deliver one of the most famous ripostes in Grant's storied career: "Do you want to know what's wrong with you?" she demands, and then answers by fluttering her bedroom eyelashes, leaning in to her leading man, and whispering "Nothing." Lauren Bacall couldn't have done it better. Criterion's DVD release of Charade, by arrangement with Universal, is a 2004 re-issue of their original DVD, which was placed on moratorium for Universal's remake The Truth About Charlie. The new disc is still spine #57, but it offers an improved anamorphic transfer (1.85:1). Supplements include the 1999 commentary with director Donen and scenarist Peter Stone, the essay "The Films of Stanley Donen" by Stephen M. Silverman (with a filmography), notes on Peter Stone, the theatrical trailer, and color bars. Keep-case.

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