Criterion Cuts: Public Domain and “Charade”

Hello and welcome to the latest installment of Criterion Cuts, the weekly article where I dig into the archives of everyone’s favorite foreign/art house home video distribution company and unearth some obscurity and tell you just why it might be worth your time. As always, most of these come from the generous offerings available to Hulu Plus subscribers unless otherwise noted.

Today’s movie is one that I actually rented on Blu-Ray over watching on streaming, for reasons that will shortly be made apparent. The set up for this one is its own discussion, so I’m going to talk about the movie first, and then some other stuff further down. To be honest, I think the second part is just as (if not more) interesting than the movie itself, so be sure to check it out!

Charade (1963)

I figure I might as well clarify something here: I probably ruined my first time watching Charade for myself. I’m in the middle of watching a bunch of early Hitchcock movies for a separate project, and Charade landed in the middle of it like a ton of bricks. Not that it’s bad, really, because it isn’t, but because it’s so clearly derivative of Hitchcock’s work to the point of madness. It’s the kind of send-up that is also absolutely of the type of movie it’s trying to send-up, and thus it becomes another one of those dialogue-heavy intrigue mysteries, just wrapped around a ridiculous romantic comedy.

But that’s getting ahead of myself. Charade is the story of Reggie Lampert (Audrey Hepburn), a young socialite on vacation at a ski resort. There, without a care in the world, she meets the charming Peter Joshua (Cary Grant), the two striking up a repartee based almost entirely in verbal jabs. She returns home to Paris only to find her husband murdered and the mystery of why left for her to deal with. When strange people start showing up at the funeral, and she continues to run into one Peter Joshua, she begins to get suspicious.

Eventually, she’s summed to the US Embassy, where she’s brought before a CIA agent (Walter Matthau) who lays out the score: her husband was part of the OSS in World War II, and he and his team parachuted into France to smuggle in funds to help aide the French Resistance. Instead they all decided to split it up and bury it, splitting up until after the war. Except one person—Reggie’s husband—turned back and grabbed the gold and sold it. That money, $250,000 in 1963 dollars, seemingly disappeared and now the other men (the three mysterious folks who showed up at her funeral) are out to find the money they’re owed… one way or another.

Our decidedly mismatched pair, out on the town.

What follows is a pretty madcap set of schemes as the group of bad guys try to toss Reggie’s room and terrorize her into revealing the location of the money, which they’re sure she has or at least knows about. And in the middle of it all is Peter Joshua, or maybe it’s Adam Canfield, or Alexander Dyle. You see, Cary Grant’s character becomes something of a wild card, a man who might be working with the bad guys under deep cover to get close to Reggie, or maybe just a good-natured guy with a mysterious past he doesn’t want to talk about. Either way, his name and his story keep shifting as he bumbled from side to side, never quite revealing himself until the (literal) last minute.

Grant and Hepburn are the entire reason this movie still exists in people’s minds, and they put on a great show. Hepburn is flighty but never helpless, a traditional in-over-their-head protagonist from these types of movies coupled with Hepburn’s traditional cosmopolitan apathetic charm. She seems to barely care that her life might be in danger until it clearly is, more concerned with her nascent relationship with Grant. Grant, already probably older than this type of role should be, has the good grace to appear out of place. He’s a goofball but with oodles of charm, playing almost an inversion of his turn in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, this time the man who knows the most playing an innocent. Their relationship is unconventional, to be sure, but the movie takes great care to not blink from the age disparity nor the rocky road it takes. When in doubt, it errs on the side of screwball comedy to get them together, and that kind of zeal paves over most (if not all) of the cracks in that core relationship.

James Coburn as one of the bad guys, interrupting a funeral to be a creep.

I wish, then, that the movie offered more for me to really sink my teeth into. While it’s a nice riff on these types of movies, it’s to it’s core a popcorn diversion of a movie. This is the kind of thing you watch and have a great time with, maybe even fondly rewatch and enjoy, but there isn’t a whole lot of meat or nuance to it. It’s cotton candy, a wisp of a film that delights and then departs just as quickly, and all the charm in the world can’t really save it from mostly being another of this type. Then again, being a smart comedy-intrigue film isn’t exactly a genre that’s packed full of entries, so maybe I’m being too hard on it.

On The Public Domain

More interesting, then, is the story of this film’s distribution after it was made. Universal Pictures, in what I can only imagine is a move that got somebody fired, put a bad copyright notice on the movie. Due to laws I’m sure were changed after the fact, that meant that Charade entered the public domain as soon as it was released, where it continues to reside today.

I don’t want to get too deep into a discussion of copyright law and public domain, but if you don’t know, copyright for film was traditionally thought to exist for 75 years, with the movie in question entering public domain on January 1st of its 76th year. Eventually, under pressure from the big media copyright holders, this 75 year limit has been pushed back (and will likely continue to be pushed back) in order to preserve famous copyrights on stuff like Mickey Mouse, but for the sake of this discussion movies from 1923 and many movies between 1923-1964 will drift into copyright as their time expires if nobody can come forth to claim and renew the copyright. Or, sometimes, in cases like Charade or the original Night of the Living Dead, the movies didn’t have proper copyright notices and thus entered public domain immediately. For those movies, it’s instantly fair game.

For someone who grew up with Matthau playing mostly (sometimes literally) grumpy old men, seeing him being kind of debonair in old movies is a bit jarring.

What public domain means for these movies is that they’re always available. You can find Charade on Netflix Instant, probably Archive.org, definitely youtube, and it’s all totally legal. Great, right? Wrong. The problem is, when these movies are available to everyone for free, nobody stands to make any money off of selling them to you. Which means that most (if not all) of the prints that people have up on their various services are terrible. Bad transfers, crops, dirty prints, bad sound: you name it. But since it basically requires zero effort to put up, nobody cares. These movies exist forever in this shitty limbo.

So what? you ask. I don’t really care how good a movie looks. Well fuck you, I say. That’s the worst possible opinion you can have about a visual medium and you should be ashamed of yourself for having it. But thankfully, there are people in positions to do something about these problems, and that’s what brings me to my point of why Charade is even in the collection in the first place. It’s not a question of whether it deserves to be or not, it’s because it needed to be saved.

Sometimes star power is as simple yet difficult as making even lounging around in pajamas feel glamorous.

Part of the plus of being chosen for a home video distribution by someone like the Criterion Collection is that often that comes with a print restoration effort (especially if the movie’s being released on Blu-Ray), word that costs thousands and thousands of dollars and that is absolutely necessary for these films that nobody stands to make a huge licensing profit off of. No studio ‘owns’ it anymore, nobody can make money selling it to netflix or cable, but that doesn’t mean a high quality version doesn’t deserve to exist. Even the worst movie deserves some care for preservation, and Charade is a cinema classic. That it takes someone like Criterion to step in is woeful.

But they did, and thank god, because the movie looks great when you’re watching a nice, clean version of it. And it’s things like that, the efforts made not only to expose people to new types of films, but to rescue and restore old movies for historical purposes, that keeps me interested in talking about Criterion or the efforts of any studio or distribution company who actively puts resources into film preservation/restoration. It’s as important a part of cinema as making movies well the first time, and often far more neglected by the average movie going person.

Today’s trailer is HILARIOUS. Just … just watch it. Pretty sure I like it more than the actual movie. In part because it contains almost the entire movie in its 3 minutes.

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About M

Artist, ne'er do well, militant queer.
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One Response to Criterion Cuts: Public Domain and “Charade”

  1. Pingback: The Jackson Press – 11 Classic Films in the Public Domain

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