Tag: Cary Grant

His Girl Friday (1940)

His Girl Friday header
Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant bicker and spar in His Girl Friday, one of the all-time classics I’ve never quite clicked with

Director: Howard Hawks

Cast: Cary Grant (Walter Burns), Rosalind Russell (Hildy Johnson), Ralph Bellamy (Bruce Baldwin), Gene Lockhart (Sheriff Hartwell), Porter Hall (Murphy), Ernest Truex (Bensinger), Cliff Edwards (Endicott), Clarence Kolb (The Mayor), Roscoe Karns (McCue), Frank Jenks (Wilson), Regis Toomey (Sanders), Abner Biberman (Louie), Frank Orth (Duffy), John Qualen (Earl Williams), Helen Mack (Mollie Mallot)

There’s always one film classic that the world and his dog love to bits, but every time you watch it you just don’t get it. That classic for me is His Girl Friday. I’m not sure many films have appeared more than this one on film buffs’ lists of Top Ten Movies of All Time, but while I admire its many, many qualities, every time I’ve watched it – and it’s at least three now – I just don’t love it. More to the point I don’t find it funny (I know, I know I can practically hear your jaws hitting the floor), neither do I engage with or root for its lead characters (please don’t hit me).  I admire a lot of things about this film and how it is made. And I chuckle from time to time when I watch it. But for some reason even I’m not sure of, I’ve got no click with this film. Compared to The Awful Truth or The Lady Eve or The Philadelphia Story (all films this bears a lot of comparison with) I just don’t feel it.

It’s an adaptation of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s play The Front Page. In quite a modern touch, one of its lead characters is gender flipped. In the play, a newspaper editor tries to persuade his star reporter not to quit the game: in His Girl Friday the star reporter not only becomes a woman but, don’t you know it, the ex-wife of the editor, about to walk out (in more ways than one) to marry her dull fiancé. Cary Grant (who else?) is the fast-talking editor Walter Burns, Rosalind Russell the fast-talking star reporter Hildy Johnson. In fact, everyone is fast-talking, in the film that holds the world record for dialogue speed. Can Burns persuade Hildy to hold off leaving with fiancée Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy – sportingly playing up to his dull reputation) for one more day so she can cover the story of strangely naïve convict Earl Williams (John Qualen)? Let the madness ensue.

Let’s focus on all the good stuff first. Not least because my general lack of connection to a film loved by all and sundry is so personal, it almost defies analysis. Hawks was, rumour has it, won round to the idea of gender-swapping Hildy by hosting a read-through of the play at a dinner party with a shortage of people, meaning Hildy was read by a woman. That opened up a host of ideas around combining this with the classic re-marriage genre and bang away we go. It is, needless to say, a brilliant idea and adds such a spark to every single interaction between the two characters that it distinctly improves the play (later productions have often carried the idea – and the dialogue – across from this film).

On top of this, Hawks wanted to make this the fastest talking comedy film ever made. And boy does he succeed at that. The dialogue of this film is delivered with such rat-a-tat speed that clock watchers report it hits a rate of over 300 words a minute (try reading that many words out in one minute to see how fast that is). It gives the film a ferocious manic energy and thunder-cracker momentum and keeps the punchlines coming fast. It also needs gifted actors, which it sure-as-hell gets here. Grant possibly hits his comedic peak here, managing to still remain suave, cool and collected, even as he’s ripping through words and shifting verbal goalposts at dazzling speed. This is also Russell’s career highlight, embodying the image of the sort of spunky, arch and no-nonsense professional woman of screwball comedy that all others (even Hepburn) are measured against.

They race through a film that makes excellent use of long-takes, intelligent single-shot camera moves and careful, intelligent editing to highlight the electric speed of the zany dialogue. In particular, Hawks makes a brilliant motif of telephones (those old candlestick phones), which characters are forever hurling instructions down, using as escape tools from awkward moments and juggling conversations with (either from multiple phones or between the phone and people in the room). They are used for short, sharp, punchy lines – and it fits a film that is all momentum and short-hand. The ultra-smart, quotable banter, littered with one-liners, is the ultimate epitome of the popular style of dialogue at the time, which favoured this style over the speeches and deeper content that was seen as more of the preserve of theatre.

Walter and Hildy in this version also become the epitome of “the screwball couple”. The divorced partners who of course still love each other, largely because they recognise that no-one else will share their insane energy and obsession. Not to mention that fighting and feuding with their intellectual equal is a million times sexier (and better foreplay) than a thousand dinners at home with someone average will ever be. Ralph Bellamy does good work here (essentially, like Grant, repeating his role from The Awful Truth) as that dull, trusting man – the only one in the film who vaguely resembles a human being and therefore, obviously, the character the audience likes the least (who goes to the cinema to see someone like themselves on the screen, eh?)

There is so much right about His Girl Friday. The actors are sublime, the dialogue delivered perfectly, Hawks’ direction is pin-point in its mix of old-Hollywood classicism, and it’s very well shot. So why don’t I like it more? It’s that most personal feeling: I just don’t find it funny enough. Maybe that’s because I need to connect with characters more – and I don’t connect with Hildy and Walter. In some ways I don’t even like them. His Girl Friday is frequently an unapologetically cruel film: Hildy and Walter treat several people like crap, largely for their own amusement or as collateral damage in their own war of foreplay. At one point a desperate, lonely woman attempts suicide (she jumps out of a damn window falling a couple of floors) – Hildy and Walter are joking about it in seconds. They are cold, self-obsessed people and for all their superficial charm, there isn’t any touch of warmth to them at all. They are very artificial people in an artificial world. In all, I don’t really like them and I find it hard to careor want them back together (other than recognising that they deserve each other).

Believe me, I understand some comedy is cruel, I don’t have a problem with that. But I don’t think His Girl Friday realises it’s that kind of film. The Awful Truth has a very similar plot – but that had its characters recognise their own faults and also gave us reasons to care for them as human beings. His Girl Friday doesn’t do either of those things, meaning I laughed a lot in The Awful Truth and not so much in His Girl Friday.

Can you still bear to read on after such blasphemy? But there you go. Everyone has that stone-cold classic that they just can’t get on board with. This film is mine. I respect so much about it, but it neither tickles my funny bone nor makes me feel welcomed. I find it a cold and cruelly minded film, that looks down on people with scorn – from Bruce to criminal Earl Williams and most especially to his distraught girlfriend Molly – and invites us to do the same. It wants us to love the popular kids in the class and join them in spitting paper balls at the losers. This doesn’t do it for me. I know everyone loves it. Hell, I know I’m probably wrong. But I just don’t love His Girl Friday.

Blonde Venus (1932)

Marlene Dietrich can only save her husband…by cheating on him in Blonde Venus

Director: Josef von Sternberg

Cast: Marlene Dietrich (Helen Faraday/Blonde Venus), Herbert Marshall (Ned Faraday), Cary Grant (Nick Townsend), Dickie Moore (Johnny Faraday), Gene Morgan (Ben Smith), Rita La Roy (‘Taxi Belle’ Hooper), Robert Emmett O’Connor (Dan O’Connor)

For their fourth outing together, von Sternberg and Dietrich made for the first time a film set in the modern era. Not that it mattered – von Sternberg would still turn the setting into his typical fever-dream of hyper-reality. It works as always though, because von Sternberg is a master of style and Dietrich is a true superstar. There might not be much more to it than that – and there isn’t really in this melodrama – but that’s still more than enough.

Ned Faraday (Herbert Marshall) is an American chemist (although he sounds more plummy than King George) suffering from radiation poisoning. Fortunately, there’s a cure (this was a simpler time, before we knew there wasn’t any dusting yourself off from a deadly dose of radium) but it will cost. Ned’s German wife Helen (Marlene Dietrich) has to take to the stage again to earn the money to pay for it – but finally finds the real money is in essentially prostituting herself to playboy businessman Nick Townsend (Cary Grant). When Ned finds out his life has been saved due to his wife becoming a kept woman he is furious – and she heads on the run with son Johnny (Dickie Moore) as she’s terrified of losing custody of him.

The Blonde Venus of the title is Helen herself, that being her stage name. Blonde Venus is frequently punctuated by prolonged musical performances by Dietrich, filmed with a flowingly smooth camera by von Sternberg, now firmly able to marry movement and dialogue in his films (in a way Morocco fails to do). The most bizarre of these is “Hot Voodoo” which features exotic African-American dances and Dietrich emerging from a huge gorilla suit wearing a blonde afro. This sort of stuff is so strange that it still works as entertainment, and it strangely fits with von Sternberg’s dreamy approach to story-telling where everything feels a few degrees off reality.

Blonde Venus riffs on this fable like atmosphere pretty openly. It starts with Helen telling a story of how Ned and her first met. This opening shows Helen and several German women skinny-dipping in a pool in the days after the First World War (oh, those pre-Code days!) when they are approached by a group of American GIs, led by the completely un-American sounding Ned. They flirt, and the entire meeting feels very much like a fairy tale – which is exactly how Johnny takes it. The film will end with revisiting this story, this time the son wanting to use it as a comforting romantic vision to escape to. It’s all part though of how Blonde Venus is very consciously framing itself as fairy tale, a group of people living in a heightened reality that’s just outside of logic.

Pretty fitting as the plot leads into an almost bizarre sequence of Helen and Johnny on the run – Ned wants paternity (since his wife is now a floozy) so Helen and Johnny had down South into a Southern States of America which are bizarrely so unspecific in their setting they could be anywhere and later a Texas that looks like it’s come straight out of the Chinese market-place of Shanghai Express. Throughout the journey, like a Princess on the run from a wicked stepmother, Helen is pursed by policeman looking to find Johnny for a reward. Like an old morality tale, she is tipped into destitution (eventually arrested for vagrancy) but then almost as suddenly decides to turn her life around – literally the next scene she is in Paris, the belle of the French night club scene. This is the sort of rapid logic of a dream, and about as likely as a fairy tale would be in real life.

Alongside this fascinating narrative dreaminess, the film also carries a proto-feminist message. It sympathetically sides with Helen, a woman who has no choice but to prostitute herself in an attempt to save her husband’s life – only to be roundly condemned for it by the old stick-in-the-mud the moment he returns. Blonde Venus hardly warms either to Nick Townsend – played by a very raw Cary Grant, still years away from creating his persona in The Awful Truth – a selfish playboy who seems uninterested in consequences. By contrast, Helen is a martyr who consistently puts other people first and as a reward is branded a harlot and a bad mother. You can’t win.

As Helen, Marlene Dietrich gives another fine performance. By this stage, she was highly experienced before the camera and knew exactly how to achieve an impact on the audience. As Helen she is continually sympathetic but also a bright, confident and determined woman with a deep love and loyalty for her family. Dietrich works extremely well with her two male stars – although she rather overshadows both of them – and has an excellent chemistry with the kid. She nails the song and dance moments and her slight air of other-worldly mysticism lends itself very well to the fairy-tale feel of much of the film.

Blonde Venus is of course crammed with beautiful images and transitions. There is a lovely opening transition from that flashback to Ned and Helen’s first meeting to the modern day, where Helen’s body thrashing through the water slowly turns into Johnny beating water in his bath with his feet. The other worldly beauty of Helen’s run from Ned is beautifully presented, and von Sternberg draws some very good performances from his leads. It’s a very slight story – a classic melodrama – but its told with an artful skill that makes it a very rewarding watch.

The Awful Truth (1937)

Irene Dunne and Cary Grant flex their comic muscles to outstanding effect in The Awful Truth

Director: Leo McCarey

Cast: Irene Dunne (Lucy Warriner), Cary Grant (Jerry Warriner), Ralph Bellamy (Dan Leeson), Alexander D’Arcy (Armand Duvalle), Cecil Cunningham (Aunt Patsy), Molly Lamont (Babara Vance), Esther Dale (Mrs Leeson), Joyce Compton (Dixie Belle Lee), Robert Allen (Frank Randall), Robert Warwick (Mr Vance), Mary Forbes (Mrs Vance), Skippy (Mr Smith)

Lucy (Irene Dunne) and Johnny (Cary Grant) Warriner divorce because both of them are constitutionally incapable of being faithful. But yet, they also pretty much can’t stand the idea of the other being with anyone else. Can they face The Awful Truth that they are, in fact, perfect for each other? This is a feuding husband and wife who enjoy the horrified looks on the faces of other people as much as they enjoy seeing how far they can push each other.

When winning the Oscar for Best Director for this film, Leo McCarey believed he actually deserved it for his more serious melodrama about the struggles of the elderly, Make Way for Tomorrow. While Make Way for Tomorrow might well be a more serious work, and not the souffle of The Awful Truth, I’m pretty sure far fewer people over the past 80 odd years have found revisiting it such a delight as going back into The Awful Truth. Perhaps the eponymous truth for McCarey was that we are never the best judges of our own work.

The Awful Truth is possibly the best, funniest, remarriage comedy ever made. It was pulled together almost from nothing onset. Nominally an adaptation of a play by Arthur Richman, McCarey effectively dumped almost the entire plot and instead largely improvised the film and its plot on set as he went, throwing in jokes, plot developments and bits of business depending on what worked with the actors on the day. Producer Harry Cohn would arrive on set to find McCarey plinking on a piano, swopping stories and coming up with ideas for what they would shoot that day. From this the director would decide on the structure of the scene, the jokes and most of the dialogue. No wonder Cohn was pulling his hair out.

Sounds like chaos right? The stars certainly thought so. Grant was terrified. Prior to this a reliable Studio actor, used to being given the lines and standing where he was told. Finding out here that McCarey wanted something loose and improvisational, at first he was all at sea – even offering instead to buy himself out of the film. But McCarey saw something in him: in fact what he saw was “Cary Grant”. The Awful Truth is the moment the Grant we all know came to be: sophisticated, arch and a masterfully relaxed light comedian (rumour has it, at least partly based on McCarey himself). From hating the experience, Grant suddenly realised it was inspired. The same went for his co-stars: Dunne, Bellamy and the rest all excitedly contributed their own ideas and business into what became one of the greatest comedies of all time.

The Awful Truth is frequently laugh-out loud funny, a perfect combination of witty lines delivered with pin-point perfection. Many of the best lines fall to Irene Dunne’s Lucy, from denying an affair with her latest beau (“That’s right Armand. No one could ever accuse you of being a great lover. That is, I mean to say…”), to archly responding to Jerry’s “I know how I’d feel if I was sitting her with a girl and her husband walked in” with a “I’ll bet you do”. Grant though gets plenty of his own – “The car broke down? People stopped believe that one before cars started breaking down.” – and only he could make “I only just met her” a laugh-out loud moment. Nearly every scene has a perfect bon mot, brilliantly delivered.

McCarey’s direction also adds hugely to the comic effect. The Awful Truth is so smooth, polished and assured you can overlook how skilfully and brilliantly it’s been put together to accentuate the comic effect. From cuts that reinforce or set up gags, to characters entering and leaving at the edges of frames at the perfect moment for a laugh, the entire film is a masterclass in how to shoot and frame comic business. The film is a triumph of reaction shots: watch Grant, Dunne and Bellamy respond to the appalling singing of Jerry’s new girlfriend Dixie Bell (Lucy: “I guess it was easier for her to change her name than her whole family to change theirs”). Best of all a superb sequence where we hear Jerry and Armand fight off screen (with crashes aplenty) while Lucy attempts to maintain a banal ‘nothing to see here’ conversation with Daniel and his mother.

The entire film is a triumph of comic set-pieces, with Grant and Dunne sparking off each other like two whirligigs of static electricity. Both actors are absolutely sublime. Grant manages to make everything not only funny, but also effortlessly cool and his archness and confidence are hilarious. Dunne throws herself comedy with a full-blooded commitment and a total willingness to look silly. Like Grant, she also has the ability to tip the wink to the camera and flag up just how ridiculous many of these situations are. Ralph Bellamy, on paper, has the dullest role as the straight man but as well as being winningly naïve, he also has two show-stopping moments, most strikingly his hilariously enthusiastic dancing (made even funnier by Dunne’s increasingly uncomfortable efforts to keep up with him).

It’s all wrapped up in a plot light as air, perfect for the jokes to latch themselves onto. You’ll laugh almost from the first, but you’ll also care about these two dotty eccentrics who are clearly perfect for each other. With Grant creating his entire screen persona in front of your eyes and Dunne absolutely radiantly hilarious, The Awful Truth will carry on entertaining the masses for decades to come. Hopefully McCarey doesn’t regret that Oscar decision too much.

The Philadelphia Story (1940)

Three stars at the top of their game in the classic comedy The Philadelphia Story

Director: George Cukor

Cast: Katharine Hepburn (Tracy Lord), Cary Grant (C.K. Dexter Haven), James Stewart (Mike Connor), Ruth Hussey (Elizabeth Imbrie), John Howard (George Kittredge), Roland Young (Uncle Willie), John Halliday (Seth Lord), Mary Nash (Margaret Lord), Virginia Weidler (Dinah Lord), Henry Daniell (Sidney Kidd)

In 1938 Katharine Hepburn’s career was over. After the flop of some now forgotten (wait, hang on…) screwball comedy called Bringing Up Baby, she took centre place on the Independent Theatre Owners list of “Box Office Poison”. Flops after flop hit Hepburn (all of them are classics today of course), and the studios did their damnedest to drop her. So, Hepburn returned to the stage, developing The Philadelphia Story with Philip Barry – and creating a lead role for herself that would play to all her strengths and help win back public affection. And which (with a little help from Howard Hughes) she would own the rights for: so, if and when they wanted to make a film, she could insist she starred. The rest is history.

The Philadelphia Story is perhaps the best example of the Code-approved genre, the “remarriage comedy” (because the code wouldn’t countenance the idea of a couple cheating). Daughter of a rich Philadelphia family, Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn) is to marry her dull fiancée George Kittredge (John Howard). George’s main attraction is he’s the complete opposite of her charismatic ex-husband C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant). Dexter crashes the build-up to the wedding, bringing along reluctant society journalist (he’s really a renowned short-story writer) Mike Connor (James Stewart) and press photographer Elizabeth (Ruth Hussey), promising to introduce them as distant friends of the family so they can report on the wedding. But then Tracy finds herself drawn to Dexter and Mike and George as well – who will she end-up walking down the aisle with?

Perhaps the best thing about The Philadelphia Story is that you really don’t know who it will be – and the film successfully keeps the question both up-in-the-air and deeply entertaining. There even seems a chance (unlikely as it is) that Tracy really will stick with George (a tedious nouveau riche businessman with priggish middle-class morals who can’t even mount a house – imagine!). Directed with the sort of unfussy smoothness Cukor excelled in – and helped get the best out of actors – it’s a superb comic treat, with a sparkling adaptation by Donald Ogden Stewart.

At the heart of it, Hepburn is superb in a role that riffs considerably off her own public personality. Hepburn was smart enough to know most audiences saw her as far too clever by half. Her sharpness, acidity and no-nonsense unwillingness to suffer fools had made her hard to relate to. Quite correctly, she felt she needed a role where she could “fall flat on her face”. Which , by the way, is more or less the first thing she does – a hilarious prat fall while throwing Cary Grant’s Dexter out, him responding to her snapping his golf clubs by gently putting his hand on her face and pushing her off-balance (only Grant could have got away with that by the way).

Tracy Lord is a version of the Hepburn many people felt they knew. Tracy genuinely believes she’s smarter and better than anyone else, with unquestionable judgment and superior morals. The film is a gentle exercise in pricking her balloon, showing her she is as prone to mistakes, prejudice and, above all, getting giddy and silly in love, as anyone else. This is a fiercely practical woman, who sets high standards for those around her, suddenly finding herself falling in love with three men at once. It’s the exact flighty lack of commitment she spent years condemning her estranged father for.

This is all scintillatingly played by Hepburn, at her absolute best. The rat-a-tat dialogue (with its classic, Wildean comedy of errors and mis-identification) is under her complete control. She’s delightful when, under the influence, she flirts with Mike – Hepburn showing the world (clearly they missed it in Bringing Up Baby) that she could be as silly and vulnerable as the next girl. Hepburn knew people wanted to see her personae deconstructed, and for her character to learn that (in the words of another comedy) nobody’s perfect. It works a treat – and this remained one of her greatest (and funniest) performances.

It helps she had two of the greatest to riff off. Cary Grant is at his light-comedic best here, turning Dexter – a manipulative reformed alcoholic it would be easy to dislike – into the embodiment of sophistication, charm and playful wit, who we adore as much Tracy’s family does. James Stewart won an Oscar and matches Grant gag-for-gag in a comedic masterclass. He’s a master of hilarious comedic and physical reactions – and lovable enough to turn a chippy newspaperman into a sort of hilariously droll sage. His ‘drunk’ acting is also some of the funniest you’ll see on film (even Grant can be spotted cracking up just a little as Stewart hiccups his way through a scene).

Hepburn’s chemistry with both actors is sublime. Her romancing scenes – both the worst for wear for drink, but also empowered to say things they’ve clearly been burying all day – with Stewart are not hugely romantic, but also rather sexy (Cukor’s direction here is also exquisitely spot-on). It’s a masterclass in on-screen flirtation – and you can see why George gets as pissed off as he is. Hepburn and Grant meanwhile bicker and taunt each other with all the chemistry of a match and a fire.

Each scene has a bounce that teeters between heart-felt and farcical. The set-ups are frequently silly – but they work because they hinge on characters that feel immensely real. Every performer is spot on – credit also goes to a superb Ruth Hussey, one of the few grown-ups in this weekend of flirting, feuding children. Set in a sumptuously rich Philadelphian mansion, for all of Mike’s chippy criticism it’s a celebration of the smooth upper classes over hard-working, dull prigs like George. Its sole fault might be it’s too long (at just under 2 hours, a few scenes and set-ups outstay their welcome). But, as a classic Hollywood comedy, it’s pretty much the top of the class. Box-office poison no more.

To Catch a Thief (1955)

Cary Grant and Grace Kelly basically have a nice French holiday in To Catch a Thief

Director:  Alfred Hitchcock

Cast: Cary Grant (John Robie “The Cat”), Grace Kelly (Frances Stevens), Jessie Royce Landis (Jessie Stevens), John Williams (HH Hughson), Charles Vanel (Monsieur Bertani), Brigitte Auber (Danielle Foussard), Jean Martinelli (Foussard)

One of the nice things about being a powerful film director is, if you fancy a nice holiday in the sun, get a film greenlit in a nice location and settle in for a nice vacation. That’s perhaps the real story behind To Catch a Thief, a popular Hitchcock film that is, at best, a second tier entry in his CV – but has some truly lovely location shots of the French Riviera in it.

The film meanders through a plot that never really heads anywhere particularly interesting, other than crossing off some of Hitchcock’s familiar beats. Cary Grant coasts along as suave former French Resistance fighter and infamous jewel thief “The Cat”, now retired to a lovely vineyard on the French Riviera (presumably off the back of his ill-gotten gains). His French resistance past has basically made him immune from persecution, until a copy-cat thief starts to plunder the jewels of the rich. With Robie Suspect #1, who better to catch a thief than…another thief?

To Catch a Thief is so much about its style, its expensive Hollywood production standards and luxurious location shooting, that it almost forgets to have any substance at all. I suppose that doesn’t completely matter when this is very much one of Hitchcock’s entertainments – a luscious change of pace from his previous film Rear Window, which was all about confined spaces, voyeurism and seedy thrills. Here instead the focus is on beauty, charm and frothy comedy, with the plot unspooling so gently, that the final resolution is virtually thrown in as an afterthought.

Instead the focus is more on the extended game of flirting between Grant and Grace Kelly as daughter of wealthy American jewel owner Jessie Royce Landis. Grant was, of course, twice as old as Kelly (and only eight years younger of course than Landis, who played his mother four years later in North by Northwest), but the two make for a chemistry laden couple. (Hitchcock cheekily has one seductive late night conversation intercut – and end – with a fireworks explosion. No prizes for guessing what that symbolises). 

Much of this fire comes from Grace Kelly who, fresh from her Oscar win for Best Actress, is brimming with confidence. Clever, sexy and dangerous – she’s excited by Robie’s life of crime and loves the idea of joining him in a life of crime, don’t get many leading ladies of the time being as daring as that – Kelly oozes sex appeal and looks like she could eat Grant for breakfast. It takes all the experienced cool and charm of Grant – who adjusts the part so neatly into his wheelhouse, he feels like he could play the thing standing on his head – to keep up. Kelly is radiant and magnetic and walks off with the movie. So much so you wish it gave her slightly more to do. 

But then the plot of the film doesn’t give anyone much to do. Robert Burks (Oscar-winning) photography is lovely, really capturing the beauty and elegance of the French Riviera. But the events around it are nothing to write home about, an underpowered caper with little of the director’s energy and fire or his subversive creepiness. The identity of the copy-cat will be a mystery perhaps only to those who have never seen a movie, while the generally predictable beats in every scene make it feel like a hodge-podge pulled together from the offcuts of better films.

It’s got a lovely feeling of a holiday adventure for all and sundry. Plenty of French actors dutifully trudge through – although to a man their characters are either incompetent, bullies or crooks – with The Wages of Fear Charles Vanel clearly dubbed as a seedy ex-Resistance fighter turned restaurateur. It’s all very well mounted, entertaining enough and leaves almost nothing for you to digest after it’s finished.

North by Northwest (1959)

Cary Grant is on the run in the sublime North By Northwest

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Cast: Cary Grant (Roger Thornhill), Eva Marie Saint (Eve Kendall), James Mason (Phillip Vandamm), Jessie Royce Landis (Clara Thornhill), Leo G. Carroll (The Professor), Martin Landau (Leonard), Josephine Hutchinson (“Mrs Townsend”), Philip Ober (Lester Townsend)

What is it about? Ernest Lehman went in wanting to write the “ultimate Hitchcock film”. And I think you can say he pulled it off. North by Northwest is the perhaps the most electric, fun, dynamic and nonsensical of all Hitchcock’s action-adventures, a neat bookend with The 39 Steps for Hitchcock’s career. It’s such good fun you scarcely notice the plot makes very little sense and the film is barely about anything at all other than a man getting chased. It has the most Macguffiniest MacGuffin in the whole Hitchcock career, an item of such little interest to the viewer that it never appears on screen and is only cursorily discussed. 

Cary Grant is Roger Thornhill, nifty Mad Man-esque ad executive (you can imagine that Don Draper dreamed of being Roger Thornhill) who accidentally gets mistaken by shady goons for the mysterious “Mr Kaplan”, actually a non-person used as a distraction by the FBI. Cue Thornhill’s kidnapping, interrogation by the goon’s suave leader (James Mason, never more James Mason than here), escaping a murder attempt, getting embroiled in the murder of a UN official and fleeing New York in the train compartment of smart and sexy Eve Kendall (Eva Maria Saint). And that’s before we even mention killer crop dusting planes, faked shootings, auction house shenanigans and a vertigo inducing game of cat-and-mouse on Mount Rushmore. Is there a more fun film in the world?

North by Northwest gained its Hamlet inspired title (“I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a hawksaw”) and it’s pretty meaningless – Lehman basically liked it and throws in a fictional “Northwest airline” so Thornhill can fly ‘North’ at one point (geddit?!) – but it also captures a sense of manic powerlessness in the film. Thornhill spends a good slice of the film telling anyone who will listen he is notKaplan, while every action he carries out seems to serve only to convince his pursuers he definitely is. The film’s echo of madness in its title carries across to the frantic energy of the film, and Thornhill’s belief that he must surely be the only sane man in a world of lunatic chaos. 

And it’s prime Hitchcock chaos here in his most engaging, fast-paced and funny action adventure. The sort of prime piece of entertainment assembled with such skill, energy and excellence it looks really easy (but of course isn’t). Hitchcock keeps the momentum of this crazed chase perfectly pitched, and stages each of the set pieces so well that all of them have become icons of adventure cinema. Who can look at a crop dusting plane without thinking of Thornhill running in desperation, in the middle of nowhere, from a lethal plan swooping down on him from above? Who can look at Mount Rushmore without imagining Grant and Saint climbing all over it with Landau in pursuit?

It’s Grant as well that really makes the film work. He’s such an accomplished screen presence, so smooth and practised, it’s very easy to see this as a film where he is barely acting. But that would be to do him a major disservice. Not only is such a balance of light comedy and action so hard to pull off (so much so that Harrison Ford as Indy is possibly the only one who can get close – and that character is chalk and cheese with Thornhill) – but Grant builds a character who develops perceptively and clearly over the course of the film. 

Initially the typical Grantish stereotype – so suave, confident and shallow that even his middle initial “O” literally stands, Harry Truman like, for nothing – Thornhill begins as a man who blithely assumes he can drift through his life and getting anything without question. Events – and his embroilment in them – however see him develop from a deeply selfish and lazy man into one who carries moral force, loyalty, determination and dedication to duty and an increasing sense of confidence and derring-do. From the man who is the victim of circumstance at the start of the film, failing to get anyone to believe him, he becomes a man who saves himself and everyone else with his pluck, daring and resourcefulness. And he does it all while never losing his light, almost put-upon, wit and playfulness. It’s a truly great personality performance with real depth and development: a hollow man who becomes a real man of standing and purpose.

He’s backed superbly by the cast who seize their roles with gusto. James Mason drips British superiority and suaveness (has there ever been two such cool actors facing off?) as VanDamme, Eva Marie Saint is every ounce the brave, resourceful, daring and clever lady that prompts Thornhill to man-up. Jessie Royce Landis gets some lovely comic mileage from Thornhill’s pecking-hen mother (hilariously she’s only 8 years older than Cary Grant). Martin Landau simpers rather effectively as VanDamme’s fey sidekick.

The script is crammed with great lines from Lehman, all of which delivered superbly by the cast. But it’s a director’s treat, and Hitchcock delivers it brilliantly. I’ve mentioned that MacGuffin – it’s some microfilm or something in a statue that’s the root of the all the problems – but it hardly matters. The film powers forward with the dynamic energy of a comic farce crossed with action adventure. Thornhill’s initials spell out “ROT” and in an affectionate thing that’s what the film is – something that doesn’t take it self seriously but sets out to entertain at all costs. 

So we get Hitchcock splicing in rom-com flirtations between Grant and Saint (and no less than two shots of trains speeding down lines and into tunnels, just to hammer home exactly what they are doing to kill time on the ‘sleeper’ train) with edge-of-the-seat sequences (the slow tension build at an abandoned bus station while Grant waits for “Kaplan” only to fall victim to assault from crop duster) then segues back into comedy (the hilarious “pretend to be drunk” to escape assassination at an auction) it’s perfectly assembled. And that end sequence at Mount Rushmore – a near perfect mix of comedy, action, adventure, suspense, thriller and romance. It’s flawless.

William Goldman famously stated North by Northwest had the finest, most economical ending of all time – and it ties up perfectly and beautifully about six plot threads and cliffhangers in less than 70 seconds – but the entire film is a perfect package. Hitchcock’s glossiest chase adventure is wonderfully directed and in Cary Grant it perfectly married up possibly the only actor in the history of film with both the charisma and the acting chops to play the part with one of the greatest entertainments in the history of film. It’s mad, meaningless nonsesense – but who cares, it’s a great, great, great film.

Suspicion (1941)

Is Cary Grant plotting to murder Joan Fontaine? Oh the Suspicion.

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Cast: Cary Grant (Johnnie Aysgarth), Joan Fontaine (Lina Aysgarth), Nigel Bruce (Gordon Cochrane ‘Beaky’ Thwaite), Cedric Hardwicke (General McLaidlow), May Whitty (Martha McLaidlow), Isabel Jeans (Helen Newsham), Heather Angel (Ethel), Auriol Lee (Isabel Sedbusk), Leo G Carroll (Captain George Malbeck)

What do you do when you suddenly start to believe you might be living in a murder mystery? When you begin to think that the person you are married to might just be planning to dispatch you as well? That’s the big suspicion that haunts the mind of Lina Aysgarth (Joan Fontaine), a shy and meek heiress who has been charmed into marrying waster Johnnie Aysgarth (Cary Grant), a lazy spendthrift and playboy. After they elope together, she quickly finds out that Johnnie has no work ethic or talent at all other than spending money. As real estate deals fall through, and Johnnie steals money from his employer to cover his debts, Lina starts to worry that her life insurance is looking more and more tempting to Johnnie.

Suspicion is a decent, middle-of-the-road Hitchcock thriller, which deals with familiar themes of doubt, dread and (of course) suspicion, but with Hitchcock very much in second gear. He’s not helped by the neutering of the source material. The original novel is very much a story of a woman who works out that her husband is definitely trying to kill her. The producers here, however, couldn’t abide the idea that CARY GRANT could be plotting to kill his wife. So the story is rejigged at the end to turn Lina into a silly, paranoid woman and Johnnie into, well yes a playboy, but also one who has been treated badly because of the suspicion thrown at him. This may have flown in 1941, but it’s impossibly sexist today. Plus it means the whole film basically builds towards – well – nothing.

Hitchcock throws in the odd decent flourish – most famously the carefully lit glass of milk that Johnnie carries up the stairs near the film’s end, which may or may not be poisoned. But far too often the story seems to be taking place in a fairytale England, of horses riding to hounds, country villages, Agatha Christie style authors dispensing accidental poisoning advice, and careful class structures. For all the odd moments of danger, the film is safe, contained and as unthreatening as it can get. But the rest is Hitch on autopilot, which feels at time as a remix of the director’s earlier Oscar winning film Rebecca.

That mood carries across to Joan Fontaine as well in the lead role. Fresh off working with Hitchcock on Rebecca, Fontaine essentially recreates the same role again here as the timid, shy, would-be dutiful wife who wants to see the best in a husband who in fact seems dangerous and unknowable. Fontaine won the Oscar for this film – but it feels as much like a compensation award for her previous defeat for Rebecca as it does for Suspicion. Really she does very little here that lifts the film, or stretches her as a performer from her previous role. It’s a retread, and while it’s a trick she does well, it’s a trick she has done before.

A far more challenging performance comes from Cary Grant, who uses the role as a clever meta-commentary on his own persona. Johnnie has all the charm and engaging bonhomie of Grant himself, but all subtly twisted with a selfish superficiality and wastrel greed. Grant walks a very fine line of a man who could be plotting to murder his wife or could just be a greedy chancer – and walks it very well indeed. You always see that Johnnie is bad news, while also understanding why Lina finds him so engaging. It’s a terrifically skilled performance, a lovely riff on Grant’s own screen persona, that shows he’s a far better actor than people often give him credit for – and you feel he is only too willing to embrace the chance to play a weak-willed, opportunistic murderer with little conscience (except of course it turns out he isn’t a murderer). 

It’s a shame that nothing else in the film really rises to the occasion in the same way (although Nigel Bruce gives a very good performance as the gentle, ageing playboy Beaky). The film itself never really seems to be heading anywhere – it even takes a good two-thirds of its runtime before Lina begins to wake up to the fact that Johnnie is far from being the sort of husband women should dream of. It’s a bit slow, a bit too safe, and it largely lacks the element of danger. For the final few scenes, logic seems to evacuate the film as all the clues and hints we’ve had building towards us are shown to be – nothing more than red herrings and the inferences of a silly woman. Because, after all, CARY GRANT can’t be a murderer can he? No matter what he wants.