When you think of Alfred Hitchcock in relation to his actors, you're most likely to think of the series of actresses he worked with, women of a certain type who became collectively known as "Hitchcock Blonde." But among his many collaborations, one of the most fruitful was his work with Cary Grant, whom he once described as "the only actor I ever loved in my whole life." Although Grant was already a star by the time he began working with Hitchcock, their work together would bring darker edges to Grant's charming persona, sinister and dangerous qualities which demonstrate that Grant was one of the most versatile actors of his time, though he's rarely given credit for it. Grant and Hitchcock worked together on four occasions, all four of them bona fide classics.
Prior to working with Hitchcock, Grant was known primarily for romantic comedies like The Awful Truth, His Girl Friday and The Philadelphia Story and adventurous fare like Gunga Din and Only Angels Have Wings. With Suspicion, Grant had the opportunity not just to play against his established persona, but to turn that persona completely on its head. Here his slick charm is something menacing, rather than engaging, used to slip beneath the heroine's defenses. Although by the end of the film the character is revealed to be innocent of his wife's worst suspicions (ie, that he's going to murder her), Hitchcock makes him seem like such a plausible villain that the film could have easily gone the other way without missing a step. Despite the finale's redemption, Grant's role here is one of his darker ones and he plays it with aplomb.
Notorious finds Grant playing the hero rather than the villain, but the role is still a dark one due to the moral ambiguity of the character. As the government agent who recruits Ingrid Bergman's heroine into infiltrating a Nazi spy ring, he's a romantic figure, but one with a complicated relationship to the woman he ostensibly loves. Although it doesn't play out in as overt a way as Vertigo, the situation between Grant and Bergman's characters here is similar in that his character essentially grooms hers to play the role he desires her to play and surrender her autonomy to him. It's far from your cookie cutter romantic lead, in other words, and once again Hitchcock helped Grant bring new shadings to his persona, one which is at once seductive and dangerous and could lead as easily to a happy/romantic ending as to a deadly one.
Almost a decade after their previous collaboration, Hitchcock and Grant reunited with To Catch A Thief, with Grant playing a reformed criminal framed for a series of new crimes. The role certainly plays into Grant's persona, relying as it does so heavily on his suave, cool charm but, again, there's an element of darkness to it and that charm is shown to be a tool of his trade. He may not be bad now, but he was once, and he's still capable of it in the present. Ultimately, though, Grant plays the hero and he wears the role well, helping to elevate what might otherwise be a frothy little caper to the level of a classic. Hitchcock, of course, deserves kudos as well for the success of To Catch A Thief, making it one of his most playful and engaging films, but I can't really imagine the film working quite as well with any other actor in the lead role. It's no wonder the film lured Grant out of his premature first retirement from acting.
For their next picture, North By Northwest, Grant would play his most straight forward, least ambiguous hero under Hitchcock. As the "wrong man" at the center of a conspiracy involving spies, Grant is called upon to do some action hero work, but what's striking about this role in comparison to the other roles he played for Hitchcock is the broad comedy that's mixed into it. There's a scene in the film in which Grant's character attends an auction and then has to play the fool so that he can be safely escorted out by the police, and it is as hilarious as it is bizarre. Grant was no stranger to comedy, of course, and his ease with that sort of broad humor helps make a scene which might otherwise have been tonally awkward fit with the rest of the film.
Although Hitchcock had successfully lured Grant out of retirement the first time, he wasn't able to do so again (reportedly he had pursued Grant to star in Torn Curtain, which would go on to star Paul Newman) and North By Northwest would be their final film together. You certainly can't say that they didn't go out on a high note together, as the film is one of the best in either of their filmographies, and though both would enjoy successful collaborations with others as well, their work together is truly unique. Grant brought the debonair, Hitchcock brought the darkness, and the result was four fantastic films.
Next Time: Federico Fellini & Giulietta Masina