Thursday, May 20, 2010
Dial H for Hitchcock: Hitch and Cary
By 1941 Alfred Hitchcock had achieved startling success in the U.S. with his first two American films, Rebecca and Foreign Correspondent. Both were box office hits and both were nominated for Best Picture/1940, with Rebecca taking the award.
In 1941, Cary Grant was a relatively newly minted top star. He had broken through in 1937 with The Awful Truth, but had much more recently starred in George Cukor's sensational The Philadelphia Story as well as the George Stevens hit Penny Serenade, a film that brought him his first Best Actor nomination.
The director and actor came together for the first time that year on Suspicion. It was the first film that Hitchcock produced as well as directed and, though flawed, it has some brilliant touches. One neat trick was the casting of Cary Grant in an ambiguous role, one of the first in which he portrayed a character with shadowy, menacing facets. The plot concerns a charming rogue who marries a plain-jane heiress. Throughout the film the storyline strongly insinuates that this dapper man is much worse than unreliable and, by the end, may be plotting to kill his wife.
In a 1963 interview, Hitchcock complained to Peter Bogdanovich about Suspicion, blaming the studio for making him change the ending, "...you see, Cary Grant couldn't be a murderer." Years later New York Times critic Elvis Mitchell observed that the ending destroyed the film "...by negating what has come up until that point." Regardless, the film was a success, garnering Oscar nominations and a Best Actress award for Joan Fontaine.
Five years and World War II came and went before the two men worked together again. In the intervening years Grant had made half a dozen pictures and gotten another Best Actor nod. During that period Hitchcock had also made a half-dozen films and earned two Best Director nominations.
Their second film was Notorious (1946), one of the most acclaimed of Hitchcock's films and one of Cary Grant's most complex performances. A true masterpiece, Notorious is another perfect showcase of the director's technical genius, includes a textbook example of the "MacGuffin" plot device and contains some of the best performances in any of his films; Grant and his co-stars Ingrid Bergman, Claude Rains, Louis Calhern and Leopoldine Konstantin all stand out. Critic James Agee shrewdly perceived the "cultivated, clipped puzzled-idealist brutality" in Grant's characterization of agent Devlin. Notorious was a huge box office success, Rains earned a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination and Ben Hecht's screenplay was also nominated.
Nearly a decade would pass until Hitchcock and Grant collaborated again. The year was 1955, and Grant had been moving away from the sort of roles that were his trademark. Among the parts he'd been playing were the harried suburban husband in Mr. Blanding Builds His Dream House (1948) and the quirky middle-aged chemist in Monkey Business (1952). Hitchcock's career had suffered a decline following Notorious but he rebounded forcefully with Strangers on a Train (1951) and most recently enjoyed the enormous box-office success of Rear Window (1954).
With Hitchcock's To Catch a Thief (1955), Cary Grant returned to type as 'John Robie the Cat' and remained there for most of the rest of his career.
Alfred Hitchcock often referred to To Catch a Thief as "champagne," and it was a bubbly, stimulating confection. The Riviera and Grace Kelly were never more beautiful than in this VistaVision/Technicolor fantasy, and Hitchcock's fine, frothy tale of suspense, romance and double-entendres became a smash hit that was nominated for three Oscars, with Robert Burks taking one home for Best Cinematography.
The final pairing of Hitchcock and Grant was North by Northwest (1959), a spectacular ultimate-Hitchcock thrill-ride leavened with clever comic moments and a tricky romance. Grant stars as a very sophisticated innocent man on the run. It is the most popular of the films Hitchcock and Grant made together and was the one, Grant said, that fans mentioned to him more than any other. Besides being a blockbuster, North by Northwest was Oscar-nominated for film editing, art direction and Ernest Lehman's screenplay.
Hitchcock was approaching the twilight of his career at this point, though he still had one of his very best films, Psycho (1960), ahead of him. Grant was also winding down but his biggest box office hit, Operation Petticoat (1959), would be his next project, and the "most popular Hitchcock film Hitchcock never made," Stanley Donen's Charade (1963), was yet to come. Grant would retire in 1966 and, though Hitchcock reportedly wanted him for Torn Curtain (1965), the actor made Walk Don't Run (1966), his final film, instead.
By the time they worked on their last collaboration Cary Grant, not an especially trusting man, completely trusted Alfred Hitchcock and would follow whatever advice the director gave him because, as Grant put it, "he was always right."
For Hitchcock's part he, who was not so very fond of actors, would look back and call Cary Grant "...the only actor I ever loved..."
Though neither of these two film giants ever won a competitive Academy Award, Hitchcock was honored with the Irving Thalberg Award in 1968 and Grant received a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1970.