|Old Bull Lee
A Voice From the Reality-based Community
Notes from a Study of Things Themselves
Hollywood made movies for grown-ups in the 1950's. For their seventy five cents admission, adults expected quality entertainment produced by top-notch directors, writers and actors. A lot of film makers considered their work creative art back then. It wasn't until many years later that the corporate studios turned to flashy visual gimmicks, cartoon characters and lame vampire plots to generate their profits and executive bonuses.
Alfred Hitchcock, who'd been directing movies since the thirties, was at the top of his form in the fifties. He teamed up with Cary Grant, an actor also at the peak of his career, to make two fine films in that decade. They were To Catch a Thief (1955) and North by Northwest (1959).
Cary Grant was born Archie Leach in Bristol, England. He came from a dysfunctional, working class family in which his father was largely absent and his mother was sent off to an insane asylum. He dropped out of school very young to join an acting troupe in London and immigrated to New York at the age of 16. In America he grew up to be one of the twentieth century's most successful actors and movie stars. Often cast as a character of wealth and relaxed sophistication, he generally appeared on-screen with perfect posture, perfect grooming, and perfect teeth, all the while modeling a perfectly fitting suit. His acting was so good that viewers frequently assumed he wasn't acting at all; he was just being himself. And his perfectly modulated voice and unidentifiable accent never betrayed his humble origins. He created this remarkable on-screen persona with sheer force of will.
He once said, "I pretended to be somebody I wanted to be until finally I became that person. Or he became me."
On another occasion he said, "Everyone wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant."
Cary Grant plays John Robie, an American living on the French Riviera. He's a former cat burglar and jewel thief who's reformed and gone straight. But an imitator has been robbing rich tourist women and the cops suspect Robie. So Robie has to find and catch the real cat burglar to clear his name.
Yeah, the plot is preposterous, but Hitchcock can make a wonderful film out of a silly story.
The female lead is the lovely Grace Kelly in the last film of her career. She'd made two earlier films directed by Hitchcock: Dial M for Murder (1954) and Rear Window (1954). She'd also played opposite Gary Cooper in the classic High Noon (1952) and won an academy award for her performance in The Country Girl (1954). She ended her acting career after marrying Prince Rainier of Monaco in 1956. Tragically, she died in a car crash in 1982, driving on a winding road in France, one similar to the one she's seen driving on in To Catch a Thief.
The Cary Grant character is Roger Thornhill, a somewhat insecure advertising man and mother's boy. A victim of mistaken identity, he's kidnapped by foreign spies, who try to kill him. He barely escapes their clutches, but, in trying to sort out the strange incident, finds himself a suspect in the murder of a prominent diplomat. So he flees the police as well as the foreign spies by traveling across country, eventually ending up in South Dakota.
As with To Catch a Thief, the plot is preposterous. But the film contains the memorable scene of the Cary Grant character in a plowed cornfield menaced by the murderous pilot of a crop dusting biplane.
1. I've never paid attention to costumes, but the outfit worn by Grace Kelly for a beach date is striking.
Turns out it was designed by Edith Head, winner of eight academy awards for costume design. She was nominated, but didn't win, the award for To Catch a Thief. There's an interesting video about Edith Head here and her design of the clothing in the movie.
2. North by Northwest was much, much funnier than I remembered.
3. Leonard, the nasty henchman of the foreign spy Vandamm in North by Northwest, is played by Martin Landau, a relatively obscure actor in 1959. Landau achieved real fame in the 1970's for his role in the TV series "Mission: Impossible."
4. Towards the end of both films the Cary Grant character rescues a woman about to fall to her death.
In To Catch a Thief. The Cary Grant character has chased the cat burglar, who turns out to be a girl, to the edge of a roof, where she's just lost her grip on the gutter and dropped her bag of stolen jewels. Guests at an elegant costume party (including the female lead of the film, Grace Kelly) watch from below. A few frames ahead we see, from pavement level, the bag hit the ground and jewels bounce into the air. An iconic scene.
In the final minutes of North by Northwest Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) grabs the wrist of Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) as she nearly falls from the top of Mount Rushmore.
5. A year after North by Northwest hit the theaters, Alfred Hitchcock came out with the most famous film of his lifetime: Psycho.