[From Luc Moullet’s Politique des acteurs (1993, Cahiers du cinéma). See Table of Contents]

Each of the four limbs follows one or two different directions (Indiscreet, 1958)

Cary Grant is in the same boat as Cooper or Wayne: his first films, made for the same company—Paramount, as it happens—during the thirties, offer us a rather aseptic, standardized actor. We have the slightly caricatured proof of that in his role in Blonde Venus (Sternberg, 1932), where he plays opposite Marlene Dietrich as her wealthy seducer and impresario. Despite his brief scenes, we get to see him in the attire of a horseman, a yachtsman, and in several other expensive costumes. The husband, Herbert Marshall, and, especially, Marlene Dietrich get numerous medium shots. Not Grant, who is more of an image, a silhouette. Sternberg’s contribution to the film somewhat surpasses Paramount’s standards. With Cary Grant, Sternberg seems to have wanted to replicate the Gary Cooper of Morocco: the same short sentences, the same emphasis on the nose. Choosing Cary as a first name in 1932 was perhaps not an innocent choice. Grant appears much older than his age of twenty-eight. It’s perhaps the only time in his career that he has a massive appearance. With his large, immobile face, he resembles Sternberg’s future actors like Mature or Mitchum rather than Cooper. He moves very little. He delivers a blow to an adversary the first time we see him. He is entirely a Sternbergian man, having little to do with Grant’s personality of the years to follow.

Sylvia Scarlett (1935), his second excursion from Paramount, gifts us a real actor. The film revolves around a young woman (Katharine Hepburn) who is obliged to dress up as a man in order to help her fugitive father. Grant plays a curious character, an Englishman like himself (while he would be an American in the great majority of his films) of an indefinite status: a conman, he begins by shamefully exploiting the father and the “daughter” before helping and protecting them. He generally plays leading men in other films, but here, he vanishes towards the end, letting Katharine Hepburn marry Brian Aherne. But this isn’t exactly a disappearance, since Hepburn wears Grant’s black jacket and closely imitates his behaviour in the train, seen in the film’s very first scene.

There is a key to better understand, to differently understand Sylvia Scarlett and Grant’s entire body of work. At the beginning of this book, I intended to abstain from talking about the private life of the artists. I hope the reader will forgive me if I contradict this principle. I promise not do so again. But this infraction of critical ethics appears indispensable to me. Grant was married five times, for quite short periods of time. This added to his legend as a handsome seducer. But the recent biography by Charles Higham and Roy Moseley [1] indicates that Grant was bisexual, and that his heterosexual relations were generally, let’s say, less happy than the others. Since the book was not mired in any controversy, we could trust its authors. This explains the brevity of his marriages, and perhaps even Grant’s delayed paternity (at sixty-two years). The many marriages served, if not as a cover, at least as tryouts with varying degrees of success. These particularities were hushed up by gossip columnists. For if it was known that the greatest seducer of women was closeted, the whole Hollywood scaffolding could likely collapse, and the squealers with it.

I probably don’t even have to apologize for this reference to private life. For it fortunately makes up for another, more or less unconscious reference to a fake private life: if we were blind to Cary Grant’s ambiguity, it was because his image as an eternal skirt-chaser distracted us from the reality on screen, and prohibited us from thinking even for a moment of this ambiguity.

Sylvia Scarlett, directed by a well-known homosexual, George Cukor, is thoroughly about Grant, but by proxy of some sort: the transvestite—who is conflated, perhaps wrongly, with the homosexual—is Katharine Hepburn and not Cary Grant. It could be said that this surrogate reveals a kind of double transvestism that must’ve amused Grant quite a bit: he was taking part in a project founded on transvestism without being implicated in it directly. Except maybe in one scene: he seems embarrassed by the idea of having to share a room with the cross-dressed Hepburn, which might support three different interpretations, the anxiety over a close feminine presence he senses, the fear of an invitation to homosexuality and a lack of intimacy.

Grant will nevertheless cross the decisive threshold, after fourteen years of prevarication, thanks to Hawks’ I Was a Male War Bride. A Frenchman marrying a female American soldier, he can accompany her on the military ship headed for the USA only if he is disguised as a woman, war brides being the only ones recognized by the American bureaucracy to the exclusion of war grooms.

One of Grant’s strengths is that he always throws himself in the line of fire. He takes the place of the bull in the arena: his double Rock Hudson always avoided ambiguous roles that his homosexuality could’ve attracted. He relentlessly played the big virile fellow devoid of any problem. Grant, on the contrary, drew from his own depths and accepted, not just transvestism, but all the double meanings in the body language of his characters and a vast panoply based on his favourite issue…

A spectacular event: Grant files divorce from his first wife in 1934 after seven months of marriage! The public now associates him with the idea of brief marriage and divorce. Certainly, Grant himself sees matrimonial union as one of his major sources of concern. Marriage will hence be the first theme of his body of work.

The chief component of this is the remarriage between separated spouses, the principal subject of some of his best comedies [2]: Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth, which inaugurates the series in 1937, His Girl Friday, The Philadelphia Story and also My Favourite Wife. The comedy of remarriage, among whose practitioners Grant is not alone, allows the reconciliation between a complex melodramatic plot, the Hays Code and religious associations. Divorce and remarriage are all fine if one remarries the same woman…

It’s not just remarriage. There is also the wedding night. I Was a Male War Bride tells the story of a couple that isn’t able to find a bed after the wedding, a situation that will persist. It’s easy to draw from this the second meaning (Grant can’t consummate his marriage) underlying the first one (he can’t find a bed). Perhaps more for personal reasons than due to shortage of beds. One particular scene invites this reading: the one where Grant is unable to open the door of his fiancée’s bedroom (obvious symbol for a psychoanalyst) while she’ll show a little while later (thanks to the contrivance of a scenario, it must be said) that it opens very easily. The primary meaning of the scene is all too clear on paper, without any originality. But the accumulation of clues producing the secondary meaning in the viewer’s mind ends up tipping the scales. One finds here the perverse practice of Hawks’ double game in its entirety, in complicity with Cary Grant and his screenwriters: no on in the audience suspected Grant of being homosexual. For the overwhelming majority, Grant’s transvestism in Hawks’ film was as good a joke as it would’ve been had it been the doing of a Warren Beatty-style Casanova. Whereas, in fact, the film is much closer to reality than a performance. This return to truth of Cary Grant constitutes, in itself, a superior performance, a third meaning, which allowed Hawks to deceive the audience in a new way by making it accept the truth as falsehood.

First-period Grant, as seen by Sternberg: bland face, brilliantined (Blonde Venus, 1932)

There are variations on this theme of the wedding night: in Arsenic and Old Lace, Grant is about to get married secretly: he has just written a highly successful book in support of bachelorhood. But a reader has recognized him… the honeymoon in Once Upon a Honeymoon isn’t Grant’s, but that of a new surrogate, Walter Slezak. Grant contracts a nettle rash just after his wedding (A Touch of Mink). He discourses on marriage while climbing rocks and absorbing enemy bullets (North by Northwest).

At times, Grant succeeds in living the normal life of a married man. But his problems with women now manifest through the figure of the mother-in-law, whom he calls all names, who turns out intolerable or spiteful, and whom he would even subject to violence at times. This is the case in Monkey Business and sporadically in comedies of remarriage like The Awful Truth and His Girl Friday. In these two films, it’s not Grant’s mother-in-law but the future mother-in-law of his ex-wife. The effect, however, remains the same. We find an echo of this in Notorious, To Catch a Thief and North by Northwest—British convergence between Grant and Hitchcock—and also in Arsenic and Old Lace: always pitted against old ladies who are dangerous or opposed to him. Grant goes to the extent of kidnapping an old lady after gagging her (His Girl Friday). We can link this hate, this misogyny to the fact that he believes that his mother abandoned him as a child. Of course, Grant did not write the script for his films, but the writers had moulded their writing according to the actor’s personality.

The marriage in Suspicion, made by Hitchcock in 1941, takes place against the wishes of the parents-in-law as well, but that is not the main issue here. The film is dedicated entirely to narrating episodes of discord between the newlyweds: Joan Fontaine learns that Cary Grant is a thief, a gambler, a liar, and it seems as if he wants to kill her to inherit her money.

More predicable productions like Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House or Room for One More are based on hardships of family life as well, though ones not as serious, such as problems of lodging or adoption. The audience is clearly in on the joke here, laughing with the full knowledge that it’s directed towards Grant’s biography.

The majority of these films belong to the productive period between 1937 and 1942 that marks Grant’s shift to pure, even madcap comedy—which allows slipping in misogynist gestures—while Paramount had oriented him mistakenly towards melodramas or suave comedies during the first years of his contract. This period also reveals a great surety of taste in the choice of directors. While all other actors are more or less obliged from time to time to play in flops, Grant, in five years, made three Hawks, two Cukors, three McCareys (one of which was completed by someone else, following an accident), three Stevens, one Hitchcock, and one Capra. The only debatable choices: one Frank Lloyd and one John Cromwell. I don’t think it’s possible to find an actor in the entire history of cinema who has done better for himself. Depardieu has perhaps featured in more good films, but he also made a lot of bad ones.

During the fifties, we at the Cahiers du cinéma were called “Hitchcocko-Hawksians”. I must clarify: the first Hitchcocko-Hawksian, fifteen years before us, was Cary Grant, who had already worked with each of the two masters of American cinema by 1941. Nine films in all with them, which made Cary Grant, without question, the best actor in Hollywood…

Hawks’ Grant works most of all on the double game I mentioned in relation to I Was a Male War Bride and the transvestite.

Since Grant is a certified seducer, the audience doesn’t believe for a moment that his gibes against women are anything more than a reflection of the usual little game between the sexes: men and women pull each other’s legs because they love each other. It would be tiresome if they were to cuddle each other all the time. Grant’s real biography invites us to a total counter-reading today.

Take the case of Only Angels Have Wings (1939). Our man manages a remote little trading airport in the foothills of the Andes in 1930. The work is hard, with many accidents involving small flights that have trouble attaining the necessary altitude in the mountains. Grant’s work requires permanent presence, day and night. Women can only hinder the work with their emotionalism and their problems. Grant tells us that he was in a relationship once. He had come home late one day from an aerial mission. On his return, his distressed girlfriend had told him she’d rather see him dead than wilt in anguish.

Even though it’s still justified by the script, we notice that it’s with a fierce violence, common in certain misogynists or certain homosexuals, that he throws water on his ex-girlfriend Rita Hayworth’s face, purportedly to help her sober up. He is cross with her for not trusting her current husband, Richard Barthelmess. But it’s possible to imagine that he is furious to see his protégé getting involved with a woman. Grant behaves with his pilots a little like a rooster would with its hens. He pats Dutchy the bartender’ shoulders. He starts towards the bedroom of Jean Arthur, who is in love with him. But he changes his mind immediately to go fly a plane. Many times, Jean Arthur tells him “you’re queer” or “you’re a queer duck”. Now, queer means strange, but it also has a homosexual connotation. When Jean Arthur comes to his room, he looks very awkward: he burns himself on the coffee. He mixes up all Hispanic women: we get the impression that, for him, women are cattle.

He kisses Jean Arthur, who claims to be like one of his pilots, the Kid. Grant retorts that the Kid doesn’t drive him crazy. Fearing that Grant will be killed in air, but also jealous of seeing him get on the flight with the Kid, she lightly wounds Grant with a gunshot to prevent him from, as it were, eloping with the Kid. Nothing beats flying with the co-pilot of one’s choice. The primary discourse is men’s interest in their profession, in aviation. The secondary discourse is men’s interest in men, since there are no women pilots. In English slang—and Grant was born in Bristol, England—“bird” means a “girl”, which particularly refers to Jean Arthur, who plays a singer-dancer—and it’s birds that shatter the window of the Kid’s aircraft, causing his death. There is also that line of dialogue—fear and contempt at once—“because of those birds”. Birds, whatever be their meaning, are a pain in the neck, and bring about your ruin. One wouldn’t be surprised by these subtleties if we realize that the film was written by Jules Furthman, the champion of the double game and the private joke: he went to the extent of giving the heroine of Rio Bravo the same name as the one in Underworld, written by him thirty-one years ago [3].

This homosexual texture, which brings a rough edge to Only Angels Have Wings, was somewhat obscured by the critical polarization over the positive and heroic aspects of Hawks’ drama. It’s richer than in I Was a Male War Bride, where it was a little too evident and which demanded lesser participation from viewer.

A ridiculous hat, the face of an undertaker (Sylvia Scarlett, 1935)

Homosexuality doesn’t reappear in Grant’s other Hawks films, if we discount the “I went gay” as he leaps in the air, dressed in a peignoir (Bringing Up Baby) or Barnaby-Grant’s brief glance towards the idiotic young athletes at the pool in Monkey Business.

The link between Only Angels and His Girl Friday, made the same year, is found in the prioritization of work over love. That’s the reason the journalist Rosalind Russell divorces Walter (Cary Grant), the overloaded editor-in-chief for whom the scoop is paramount. The conflict ends there, for it turns out that she is infected with the same virus. Walter’s entire skill consists of creating situations where the professional instinct of his ex-wife will prevail over her love life. Their professional cooperation will determine a new sexual cooperation. One may wonder why Walter deploys so many tricks to win the same woman over again, for it’s clear that he values the newspaper over everything else. Perhaps he is frustrated to discover that she has already found another man, a nonentity to boot? Perhaps it’s his taste for manipulation, a desire to control everything that we already saw in Only Angels? Perhaps because the search for effects matters more than a concern for psychological verisimilitude?

The two other films of the Cary-Howard tandem present not a manipulative Grant, but a manipulated Grant, negatively revelatory of his immense range of his gifts. Bringing Up Baby (1938) shares with Only Angels Have Wings a fear of women, in addition to the eternal, alienating priority of work over love. David Huxley is a passionate zoologist who has his head in the clouds and who is about to get into a very reasonable marriage with his secretary, an ideal person for him, rather bland, who thinks that a honeymoon is a waste of time bound to hamper their work. It seems that it’s this absent-minded, dazed side of Huxley that attracts the eccentric Katharine Hepburn, of a charm spicy and matriarchal at once, whose devouring, unusual passion frightens him. He tries to flee in vain… We find here a variant of the Capraesque naïf, even though the model is borrowed from Elliot Dexter’s character in Adam’s Rib (DeMille, 1923), in which Hawks probably collaborated in an obscure way. It’s perhaps not the fear of women in general, since he is going to get married, but the fear of a woman who is by herself, as Katharine Hepburn is. We can also link it to the fact that Huxley has lost a bone from his brontosaurus, a very suggestive collarbone that Hepburn will bring him at the end, only after which can he make love to her…There is a certain ambiguity in the film: we don’t know which of the three options is the correct one. As always, Hawks seems to have wanted to go all out, privileging comedy at the expense of psychology and accepting all resultant meanings despite their contradictions. That is not very important. What matters is the creation of a rhythm, of a contraption founded on the absurd, which spirals increasingly out of control, having little to do with any known form of expression.

Monkey Business is a sequel to Bringing Up Baby, even though made fourteen years later. In both films, Grant plays a man of science immersed in his work, at the brink of his first scientific breakthrough. These are the only two films where he wears spectacles all through. Huxley in the first film (reference to Aldous Huxley, the famous doomsayer) is followed by Mister Oxley (Hawks lay) of the second, played by Charles Coburn, not to mention professor Oddy of Ball of Fire. There is a brief reminder in Monkey Business of the famous scene in Bringing Up Baby where Grant performs a choreography to cover the naked bottom of his co-star. I’ll come back to it later. But, like I suggested earlier, the theme is perhaps less Grantian than Waynian. A little Grantian nonetheless: in thirty years, Grant’s physical appearance practically remains the same. It’s perhaps because of this that he seems to have been afraid of colour, more realistic, which runs the risk of making him look older: he gets to colour only in 1954, while Cooper had already done so eleven times since 1939. It’s the same with James Stewart as well. They stay eternally young, as against Cooper and Wayne who, to different degrees, sought continuously to get older. Moreover, we can see here the opposition between the two cowboys of the West, actors without any dramatic background who need well-defined roles and makeup to get into character and avoid the blandness associated with pin-up boys of the thirties, and the two actors of the theatre from the East (New York and England), who are professional enough to avoid monotony without really abandoning the traditional bland face and without recourse to artifice. One would be right to say that Monkey Business somewhat mocks Grant’s wish for perpetual youth (like the “have I become fat” at the beginning of North by Northwest later): Grant believes that he has discovered an elixir of youth, which he tries on himself and which makes him undertake the craziest, most idiotic acts, before he realizes that the only youth is that of the heart; he’ll thus abandon his research.

Monkey Business is related not only to Bringing Up Baby, but also the previous Hawks-Grant, I Was a Male War Bride, which ends with the key of their cabin thrown out a very suggestive porthole by the two newlyweds, finally reunited for their honeymoon. Monkey Business begins with Cary Grant who notes, as he leaves his house, that “there’s no key”. He doesn’t bother looking for it when his wife asks him. He finds it after a while. At first glance, it points to an absent-minded professor. But the symbolism, once more, is evident, all the more so because this old couple is childless (save for the one Ginger Rogers mistakes for a baby Grant) and because Cary loses his key once more in the middle of the film. And this has a long history: there was already a lock in The Awful Truth, back in 1937, that Grant couldn’t operate.

One can add to this quintet Man’s Favorite Sport? that Hawks made in 1963 and which Grant turned down. He was replaced by the other great homosexual of Hollywood, Rock Hudson, who would also substitute for Grant in other comedies like Pillow Talk, Come September, Send Me No Flowers or A Very Special Favor. In the script, man’s favourite sport in not chasing women (even if, in reality, it’s just that), but fishing, which Hudson has never practiced but can pontificate brilliantly on… Grant’s shadow is implicit in Hudson’s every gesture. But the doubling doesn’t work as well here as with Wayne-Hawkins: Wayne’s is an art of the what, relatively easy to reproduce. Grant’s is especially an art of the how. And, in this domain, Cary overshadows Rock.

After this refusal by his favourite actor, Hawks will give up making comedies for good: his previous two attempts without Grant (A Song is Born, The Ransom of the Red Chief) leave something to be desired.

New variations on the slant: even accessories are brought into play (Bringing Up Baby, 1938)

Grant as seen by Cukor is slightly different: he is never manipulated and remains constantly troubling, sinister. Throughout Sylvia Scarlett, his role is ambiguous, like the film itself (a comedy with suicide, going down the drain, admirably opposed to Hollywood’s narrative conventions, totally unbelievable since Hepburn’s all-too-obvious transvestite can’t fool anyone, and a huge commercial failure), and is underlined by his black suits—out of place in a comedy—which intensify the power of his dark eyes. He stays in a weird, fixed position for a long time, which is in contrast with his dexterity and the speed of his performance in other scenes. He is unsettling. There is a scene in which he is an angel, as in The Bishop’s Wife (1947), which clearly bestows on him a particular sexual status echoing his own in real life. The misogyny shows: he finds that the cross-dressed Hepburn has “stupid ideas, like a girl”.

Misogyny is even more aggressive at the beginning of The Philadelphia Story (1940), where he threatens Katharine Hepburn with his fist, hurling her suitcases in air when they break up. We find comparable violence only much later, when he slaps Brigitte Auber in To Catch a Thief (1954). The divorce sentence will hold him culpable for “cruelty and drunkenness”. Almost throughout the film, Cukor plays on the dark gaze of Grant’s, who at times looks like an undertaker. His face is harder, blank, without expression, swollen, almost fat. He blows the smoke from his pipe right into Hepburn’s face. His crooked grin, that of a great manipulator, reappears at the end. When he triumphs over his rival at the last minute—thanks to the barely credible contrivance (doesn’t matter… we’re dealing with an art of conventions) of an uncommon passion for boating—he appears much leaner thanks to the costume designer. He won’t be filmed head-on anymore. He’ll only be seen in right profile, which gives him a kinder look.

In the middle of Sylvia Scarlett, Cary Grant wanders over the Albion sea cliffs, which, predating the ones at the beginning of North by Northwest, constitute the crucial setting of Suspicion, the first of four Hitchcock collaborations. Hitchcock’s Grant is infinitely more poised, more civilized, more British than Hawks’ or Cukor’s Grant. He underplays by a pitch. No allusions to homosexuality, which Hitchcock reserves for more marked physiques, misogyny vanishes, or at least remains very discreet, expect perhaps for a piece of dialogue in Suspicion (“women say no when they mean yes”) and for certain moments in To Catch a Thief, where the theme of mother-in-law shows up: when, in the end, the two lovers visit the house they will live in, Grace Kelly tells Cary Grant that “mother will be happy here”, and the film ends on Cary’s terrified look when he hears this.

One word sums up Grant’s stint with Hitchcock: duality. But it’s not the sexual duality between a public Grant and a private Grant. But it’s a related duality, which he expresses marvellously, perhaps because he seems to transpose the entire experience of his profound duality onto another one which is more exterior to him and thus remains less risky. Doctor Cary and Mister Grant. The rapport was perfect between Grant and Hitchcock, who had built the core of his career around the theme of the double and couldn’t have found a better actor than Grant. The progress was evident: in place of a double embodied by two characters, Rebecca and the new Mrs. De Winter, the falsely-accused and the real murderer, Hitchcock could now contain the double inside the same actor, and even the same character.

This duality doesn’t stem from Grant’s bisexuality alone. It’s inherent in his physique: he is a very handsome man, full of charm, who makes us laugh, and at the same time, he has dark hair and hazel eyes which appear almost black when Grant moves his iris in a conspicuous way. Of the four greats in this book, Grant is the only one without blue eyes. That’s very important.

Does the protagonist of Suspicion want to kill his wife? Or is he just a man too besotted with his wife and somewhat insignificant? This enigma develops through a succession of small touches. Grant’s gentle performance is aggressively taken over by the Hitchcock’s technique: the filmmaker who began his career in Germany at the time of Metropolis now makes a quasi-expressionist film. The most symptomatic shot of Suspicion is probably the turning movement, prefiguring those famous ones in Notorious and North by Northwest, where the camera starts from the Grant’s illuminated left cheek, passes behind Joan Fontaine and reframes the actor’s right cheek in the dark. Well, it’s a bit facile, but it’s just one element—and not a greatly emphasized one—of Hitchcock’s lighting and aesthetic framework. The threat appears in the form of Grant’s black mass in deep space approaching Joan Fontaine in the foreground. Often, it’s Grant’s apparently large back in a dark suit that occupies a major part of the frame, provoking distress. This intrusion of black (all the more interesting since the character turns out to be white as snow) also occurs at times due to careless image and lighting fluctuations. The dialectic between the minimalism of actions (the drama develops around a sold-out chair and a glass of milk) and the sumptuous expressivity of lighting nevertheless gives the film an original dynamism.

In the big scene at the end, during the argument between husband and wife, Grant remains impassive or with his back to the camera for a good while, which might seem frustrating for the actor and questionable on principle, but it doesn’t harm the film. A closeup of Grant could’ve made the happy ending, let’s say, more unexpected. Clearly, one may wonder if another actor or a robot couldn’t have done just as well (some shots of the back were perhaps directed with a double), and if these lines wouldn’t be more at home in a book on Hitchcock than in a study of Grant. But the fact remains that we’re dealing with not just a good film, but an excellent performance. Once again, an actor gains more gravity by doing as little as possible: the viewer is led to reflect on Grant’s mysterious impassivity.

Grant’s unflappability must be distinguished from that of Cooper’s. Cooper’s imperturbability opens up in all directions, according to the director’s choice, without necessarily offering a solution (Sergeant York). Grant’s, on the other hand, hides strictly two possibilities, a thing and its opposite, good or evil, between which a choice must always be made.

Grant’s slant, the tree’s slant… (Arsenic and Old Lace, 1941)

Notorious is an extension of Suspicion. At the very beginning, Grant is either seen from behind, a simple mass of black, or away from the light. This is so perhaps because Hitchcock was more enamoured with Ingrid Bergman (or with Joan Fontaine) than her co-star Cary Grant. But it’s also and especially because Devlin, played by Grant, is a shifty character, full of mystery and duplicity, hard to understand: he seems to be smitten by the beautiful Alicia, but if he contacts her, it’s because he is an agent of the American secret service, and because he has to convince her to become a spy and sneak into the Nazi Sebastian’s inner circle, hoping deep down she’ll refuse. He lets her marry Sebastian, at the risk of her life: the new groom tries to kill her when he learns that he married a spy. Save for the end, when he saves Alicia, we constantly doubt Devlin’s intentions: is he acting out of love? Or as a professional spy? Grant is especially suited for this role given he had worked for the British secret services during the war. This duplicity is made even more evident when Ingrid Bergman sees him vaguely, and upside-down. Of course, she is just drunk, face up on her bed and unable to sit up straight. But Devlin is seen upside-down specifically to give us the impression that he is a two-faced character. “What is dark in your brain?” [4], Bergman asks him at one point. The truth is that love prevails, unlike in Hawks where work gains the upper hand. But it’s not without hesitation for Devlin, who comes across as a very tormented being, more lost than Bergman, who is presented as such at the beginning: orphan, unemployed, daughter of a criminal, a hostess, alcoholic, a new Mata Hari, she has everything going against her, but she is finally stronger and more innocent than Devlin. The ambiguity attains a peak when the two lovers are about to be discovered by Sebastian during their investigation. To distract him, Devlin kisses Alicia: better that Sebastian takes his wife for an adulteress than a spy. But one may wonder, given that Devlin claims to love Alicia, if it’s a real kiss. Does he kiss her, did he use to kiss her only as a professional ruse? Just before the end, he keeps from her that he is leaving for Spain for good. The ambiguity is always underlined by the Grant’s subdued performance [5] during crucial scenes. He seems impassive. He murmurs short, romantic sentences without losing his calm, thus contradicting Hollywood’s dramatic canon in an original way.

To Catch a Thief (1954) goes even further in this direction. Certainly, we’re almost sure it isn’t Grant, a rich cat-burglar in retirement, who is currently committing multiple burglaries with his signature, but an imitator, a double. A more ontological mystery hovers over Grant and the film in general, which moulds itself on the personality of Grant, the film’s sole protagonist. If one excepts the well-forgotten Night and Day (1945), it’s his first film in colour, which makes the dark of his hair stand out, especially when he confronts the redheaded server. When we see him hidden behind the window pane, in an oblique position within the frame, he remains quite troubling. His black eye pops out strangely when he notices the helicopter about to hunt him down on the open seas. His famous striped suits make way for a striped tee shirt that gives him the look of a convict he could well have become. We can guess the identity of the evil double based on the costumes alone: it’s the only character besides Grant to wear striped clothes. His multiple black attires stand out violently amidst the luxuriance and abundance of lively tones of festival-time French Riviera. Grant’s mystery is amplified by the sombre, unsettling sonority of Bernard Herrmann’s music, which seems out of place in this ambiance and in an amusing detective-comedy. It’s also amplified by the high notes he introduces, not over the main action, but over secondary characters popping without reason onto the foreground from beneath, like Roland Lesaffre and his dumbbells, and by the proliferation of slow fades-to-black. Of course, it’s Hitchcock and not Grant who orchestrated all that, but we can invoke the contagion effect once more, and say that the visual composition is derived from Grant’s personality, from the new myth he is creating, and that if it were another actor, the formal scheme—including composition, lighting and editing—would’ve been altogether something else.

This is probably Hitchcock’s most mysterious film—and consequently his least critically-acclaimed—precisely because he creates the mystery relying only on the resources of the art, even though it stands on a plot rather impoverished in terms of tension. It’s the mystery of nothing. We wonder where the film is heading, and we’ll never know.

The character’s ambiguity is underlined, and at times inverted: his co-star doesn’t believe he is the American he claims to be (she is not wrong for Grant is a Briton from Bristol) and asks him to confess his real identity. The thief who copies him is, in fact, a woman (the only, very discreet allusion to bisexuality in Hitchcock’s Grant). He seems calm when the car speeds up, but inserts of his hands, and of his hands on his knees, reveal his fear. Very curious, this certified cat-burglar who is afraid of speeding cars all of a sudden…

North by Northwest (1958) inverts the premise of Notorious. It’s Eve Kendall who replaces Devlin-Grant of Notorious. Thornhill-Grant takes the place of Alicia-Ingrid Bergman and, if you please, of Sebastian-Claude Rains: sincere love is the victim of a treacherous love (or supposedly treacherous, in Notorious) orchestrated by the spy. And the betrayed lover revolts violently against this emotional fraud. North by Northwest is the only Hitchcock where Grant is neither a manipulator nor a torturer, but the manipulated, an object, a victim, joining the class of some rarities like Bringing Up Baby, I Was a Male War Bride, Monkey Business (the manipulator of test tubes manipulated by a monkey: a full circle), Arsenic and Old Lace, and The Talk of the Town. He gains as much in comedy as he loses in ambiguity in this register. He plays Thornhill, an adman totally at ease with his all-consuming work, who is mistaken for a spy and who is completely overwhelmed by all the disasters he is subject to. The comedy arises from the fact that all through his ordeals, including the famous crop-duster scene, he maintains a calm, reserved attitude full of urbanity, wearing the same, almost-always-perfect suit. He runs into the treacherous woman, trapped as he is by her beauty (even if Eve redeems herself at the last minute), and, once again, into two old women, the spiteful maid who shoots him and his overbearing mother who marked him deeply (“I used to ask my mother to undress me”, confesses this fifty-something to his housekeeper) and who still considers him a kid. In fact, she mumbles disapprovingly when his son’s lawyer maintains that his client is a totally reasonable man…

This overview of the principal characters played by Grant and their recurring features shows that he is well and truly an auteur, more than a Feyder or a Coppola. I realize with some guilt that, in the filmography that follows, I mention—for the sake of completeness—Michael Curtiz’s Night and Day. But it’s clear that this old journeyman (who was judged incompetent as much by Wayne as by Grant) left a mark on this film that’s clearly less perceptible than Grant’s. It’s also for this reason that I abandoned a chronological study, which was called for with Gary Cooper, who considerably changed his character and acting style from one film to another, from one director to another. With Grant, the chief variation stems from the option chosen, object-character or subject-character. Otherwise, from Sylvia Scarlett (1935) to North by Northwest (1958), he evolves very little. And when he changed physically, he preferred to retire.

More than the choice, development and detailing of the character, Grant’s authorial quality is conveyed through his body language.

It’s what separates a Grant from a Wayne. To be sure, both are auteurs in the original sense of the term: each of them determines a particular type of character, and a particular theme (and even an aesthetic) related to himself. It could be said that, in this aspect, Grant and Wayne contrast Stewart and, especially, Cooper, who are pure actors and not auteurs. But the similarity between Grant and Wayne stops there: Wayne didn’t invent, nor did he harness particular forms of his performance, while it’s Grant’s strength.

Contagion: Grant is upright, but slants everywhere else. Grant must never be in line with the sets (Once Upon a Honeymoon, 1942)

Arsenic and Old Lace, made in 1941 by Capra, is in this regard the most revealing film, precisely because it’s a perfect theatrical contraption going around in loops. The are no characters here, only puppets defined by a single characteristic at the start. The immense superiority of Bringing Up Baby over Arsenic is that the first deals with people like you and me while the second deals with loons, which doesn’t take you very far.

We notice all the strings the actor employs laid bare, oh not in the first viewing—we’re carried away by the movement—but definitely in the second, more so because Grant’s tricks are repeated throughout the film. Arsenic and Old Lace, from which I’ll borrow all my references below, with some noted exceptions, demonstrates at once the vanity and the splendour of an actor’s performance. Perhaps I’m too critical: the fact that it works marvellously at first viewing should be sufficient to justify my admiration. As for the repetition of effects, it shouldn’t be too criticized: Grant’s gimmicks are compressed into very short durations—less than three seconds in general—and we really desire this repetition in order to savour Cary’s genius over and over and to dissect his style. It’s like a compensation for this brevity at once admirable and frustrating.

There are at least nine figures of style or essential orientations in Grant.

  1. The Kangaroo

Consider the first scene where Cary discovers the corpse placed in the chest by his two old aunts. He speaks a lot, moves a lot, opens the chest suddenly—where the viewer knows the dead man is—closes it right away, and continues—without changing an iota of his behaviour—to speak and move very fast for three seconds. At the end of these three seconds, he shows his surprise at the discovery of the corpse very violently. It’s surely not the first time that we find such a delayed reaction—there are quite a few in Feydeau in the 1890s. It perhaps existed in the play the film is based on, and there was already one at the beginning of Bringing Up Baby, when he realizes that the animal is behind him, just like Katharine Hepburn suggested a few moments earlier. It’s nevertheless an effect rare in cinema in 1941, and hence very productive.

But that’s not what’s most important. See the way the surprise materializes: Grant stops walking, looking aghast, and turns his head thrice in succession, first to the right, then towards us and again to the right. Each of these movements is rapid and followed by a small pause, which corresponds to a marked stupefaction. The sprint and the pose. We find a hint of this contradiction with Cooper in Design for Living. But it’s exaggerated, stylized, magnified, staked out here: we find it again a few seconds later, preceded by a return to normal movement, in an almost identical shot (we might think for a moment that Capra used the same shot twice) with, as added bonus, a fourth rapid movement followed by a fixed position. This contradiction that suggests the behaviour of a kangaroo [6] corresponds to a psychological reality: the character is sometimes in the previous situation (he doesn’t know the existence of the corpse or he refuses to know it, believing it a dream) and sometimes in the following situation, frightened by this inexplicable, morbid reality.

The delayed reaction evokes the laughter of the viewer, flattered for having understood everything before the prestigious Cary Grant. But the comic power is amplified by the original visualization of the hero’s dilemma: did I really see it, or did I dream it? It could be argued that this contradiction between sprint and pose, between the sensation of a dream and that of reality, constitutes a reflection of Grant’s fundamental duality.

It’s not the only scene where Cary plays a kangaroo: a little while earlier, he starts running and stops in front of a door, still in a running position. Later, after the episode with the poisoned glass, he turns around five times consecutively within the span of a few seconds. What is at work here is an effect of repetition of the pose-movement contradiction rather than the contradiction itself. Some minutes later, we have a purer example of a figure of style, also related to the chest: Grant stoops down, looks at the chest’s contents and stands up again in four movements interrupted by three short poses. This time around, there are two corpses. When there was only one, he stood up in one movement. It’s normal that, faced with increasing number of corpses, the number of his movements increase too, and that he react faster…

This figure of style is more brilliant in Capra, but Cary had already worked earlier on this motif, at least as far back as 1937: while he moves very fast at the beginning of a scene in The Awful Truth, he stops suddenly, with a look full of surprise, when he notices Armand Duvalle, the supposed lover of his wife. Much later, he’ll break down his gestures in order to try to place his hand on the armchair or to wrest a place in the occupied bed (I Was a Male War Bride). There are comparably pretty effects in Monkey Business, made fifteen years after The Awful Truth, when he realizes that his co-star has forgotten to wear her skirt, or, in a much more realistic manner, when he has gulped down the elixir of youth: he scratches his forehead as though he had an itch. Stop. He blinks his eye: we see his dark, fixed stare (that Chabrol the actor will copy). He looks up, then obliquely, then jumps like his lab monkey. The comedy certainly derives from the bizarreness of his postures, but more so from the fact that Grant’s performance is as little seamless as possible: he introduces abrupt pauses between each of his widely-varied postures. It feels like a sped-up silent film. This succession is underlined by a music that is no less jerky. The effect works all the more because, till then, the character acted with a smoothness typical of Grant in his dramas, smoothness which tended towards lethargy. The contrast is stupefying.

  1. The Gymnastic

This is an extension or a corollary of sorts to the preceding figure. It isn’t the contradiction between sprint and pose anymore. It’s the quality of the sprint and of movement in general.

We have a very simple glimpse of it in the scene where Grant starts running, pursued by the plane of North by Northwest. We’re stunned to see this man of fifty-four running so fast. We find him doing this type of exercise again at sixty-two years, for his last film, Walk, Don’t Run, where he boasts a little too much about his good health. But, even if we didn’t know his age, we would admire his stylization and his focus on gymnastic art: he does only what he does, that’s to say, running. We understand easily that, in growing old, Grant could not undertake too many varied exercises in the same shot. So Hitchcock often made him accomplish one athletic feat in a shot, very short in general.

One of the chief interests of North by Northwest (or of Once Upon a Honeymoon, when the Nazis appear or when the bombs start dropping) resides in the speed with which Grant leaves the frame. It’s surprising when he leaves it from the bottom, taking a punch or a bullet or when he falls down to avoid the plane. No actor leaves the frame as quickly. We boast often about an actor’s presence. Here, one must admire his disappearance. It’s a monist art related to old age, as opposed to the versatile art of the Bristol kangaroo, related to youth. We find the proof of this double opposition in Monkey Business where Cary does the kangaroo only when he swallows the youth potion. This monist art—one trick per shot—coincides well with one of Hitchcock’s favourite techniques: extreme shot-sequencing.

But monism is only one of the possible characteristics of Grant’s gymnastics. We find many more, especially during his youth, starting with judo (or maybe it’s karate) in a digression in The Awful Truth, when he forces his way to his rival’s house. Grant lets himself come off worse in the confrontation with the servant of the house. There are also mature-period variations with the awkward diving and skating of Monkey Business.

Rapidity of movement within a shot—therefore without monism—is equally present in The Awful Truth when he gets down quickly to dodge the falling piano lid or (Bringing Up Baby) when he tries to enter the bedroom while trying to get rid of the dog: he changes his mind five or six times, and accumulates various gags in a few seconds: a pure marvel of dramatic decomposition…

In the same film, he experiments with different, delightful styles of walking: he advances in small strides when he is dressed in someone else’s hunting attire, which doesn’t suit him at all. Some moments later, he walks with arched legs. He even crawls on all four when he gets in line with the dog.

He goes through windows (To Catch a Thief, Monkey Business, North by Northwest). In these last two films, there is the same athletic, cursive entry through the window, in underwear, into a stranger’s bedroom—crosstalk between Hawks and Hitchcock, and not the only one (cf. the glass of water on the forehead in Monkey Business and, three months later, in I Confess).

In a late-career film like Charade, we notice a neat idea of balance: how to not let an apple tucked under the chin fall. But it doesn’t work as well, for Stanley Donen doesn’t seek to give even a semblance of the scene’s relation to the script, and it remains completely gratuitous.

Losing balance, going awry, tearing apart… a prelude to Hulot (I Was A Male War Bride, 1949)

  1. The Slant

It’s one of Grant’s major figures of style. We can distinguish two essential forms of it, the slant in movement—that of the body—and the fixed slant—that of the face. I’m simplifying a little, for if the fixed slant is chiefly related to the face, it’s not exclusive. There may be a fixed slanted pose between two body movements—we have seen this earlier. A good example of the fixed slant is when Grant learns of the existence of the poisoned wine prepared by his aunts. He is surprised, frightened, incredulous, stunned, which he expresses thus: he tilts his head sideways, as if what he has just learnt has thrown him off balance. Towards the end of the film, gagged, he tries to tilt his face to the side to inform the police that this is not a game, that he is tied and gagged without wanting it. The odd position of his face must attract the attention of the cop, and worry him.

This figure seems to have germinated in Sylvia Scarlett, where, towards the beginning, the conman played by Grant declares: “I’ve not always been what I should be” while moving his head diagonally. This coincidence between the position and the dialogue clearly show that it’s not a gratuitous visual effect. The first time we see it at the beginning of Bringing Up Baby, he has his hand under the chin, like Rodin’s Thinker, with palm facing downwards rather than the all-too-conventional palm upwards, and his head starkly inclined. If the hand didn’t support the head, it would perhaps fall. He has his head slanted when Ginger Rogers tells him he is a zombie and when his pseudo-rival Hank arrives (Monkey Business).

But it’s with Hitchcock that the fixed slant becomes most striking. It must be noted that Hitchcock, at one time or another, doesn’t shy away from oblique framing. A few breaks from the horizontal, to which the camera has gotten us used to too much, creates a lot of impact. In the first minutes of To Catch a Thief, Grant has a slanted position in his Riviera house when the police arrive. We find him again in the same situation, in the last reel, on the roof, when he traps Brigitte Auber. Sometimes it’s Grant who is leaning and sometimes it’s the camera, and sometimes it’s both—leaning in the same direction of course, if not the effect would be cancelled. It’s not important whether it’s Grant or the camera that does the work. One could argue that, if it’s the camera that “goes Dutch”, like it’s said in the profession, it only takes over from Grant’s performance that inspired the framing—contagion, always contagion—and offers a variation to avoid repetition. Note that Grant, when he is leaning in Hitchcock, is rarely at the centre of the frame, as is apt. He is generally on top. The impression of rupture is then not product of obliqueness alone, but also the result of decentring.

The slant in movement is even more impressive. Let’s start from the most banal example: at the beginning of North by Northwest, when they get him drunk, Grant walks diagonally, a little like Buñuel’s hero in El, from which Hitchcock seems to have borrowed (cf. the bell tower of Vertigo). But it gets better: Cary [in Arsenic] arrives leaping toward his Frankenstein brother, and proceeds to sit on the chest to prevent his brother from discovering the two corpses inside. He is now folded in three. The ideal position for Grant, in movement or otherwise, is with his shin inclined towards the left, the femur towards the right, the torso towards the left and the head towards us, an arm raised behind, an arm lowered in front towards us. A kind of super Z. He has similar postures in other scenes, notably after the discovery of the first corpse or towards the end. This Z is then quite in line with the scenario, since Cary must at once deal with his fiancée calling out to him from outside the house, Frankenstein whom he wants to get rid of, his cousin who thinks he’s Roosevelt, the director of the asylum, the police officers who might discover the truth, the little cop who wants him to read his play, the taxi driver in waiting, the ringing telephone, and so on. Each of these plot elements and each of these characters demands a different orientation from the central character, which happens to be Cary Grant, who must have regretted not being an octopus in his film: the number of contradictory postures that the human body can take simultaneously is clearly fewer—alas—than the number of plot elements, directions and minor characters imagined by the writers. If, at times, there is not enough motivation to justify the Z, Cary will assume folded positions—at knee-level—or ones that are simply bent. Cary Grant is the folded man.

The folding is justified essentially in relation to the object—the chest below, the telephone placed much lower than himself—and the bent posture is justified in relation to humans: the two murderous aunts are very short, and the doctor Peter Lorre is just as tall as them. Contrary to his three colleagues, who prefer co-stars of their height, or have them stand on cubes, and at times stand straight (especially Cooper), the tall Cary is keen on having very short co-stars in comedies. The ideal co-star is an animal (the dog of The Awful Truth). And he is entirely at home in Hawks, the greatest animal filmmaker of all time (and who will, die due to a mistake of his pet dog): monkeys in Monkey Business, a leopard and a mutt in Bringing Up Baby [7].

Note that, at times, there is neither an object nor a co-star to motivate the folding. The Roosevelt cousin is very tall, but Grant bends forward to speak to him nonetheless. This goes well with the heady progression of the film even if it’s completely implausible. As almost everything is justified in the film, we think we missed a motivation. Grant is perhaps so used to speaking to short people that he bends automatically every time he speaks to someone. Similarly, he bends, without any immediate reason, when he sees his horrible brother after twenty years of separation: “What’s that?”, he asks, staring at him. The actor is tall, but carry leans in front: one can find this gratuitous, or find in it a kind of recoil or disparagement: morally or aesthetically, if not physically, Frankenstein brother is in the depths.

In this regard, I should say that Cary Grant must be nevertheless wary of gestures too devoid of motivation (when he arrives with gifts in Once Upon a Honeymoon) or of unclear justification (the silent performance, behind the window, with the captain in the same film by McCarey, whose work remains decidedly sketchy): the appearance of gratuitousness ends up spoiling everything.

We also see Grant bend over to run behind a taxi, like certain sprinters do. At times, he walks with his head lowered to show that he is thinking. He has his face smashed once while walking bent. He leans over to sign his admission certificate. He’ll again be bent, with legs in front, when, under the influence of his mad cousin, he comes down the staircase playing the clarion. The cousin, on the contrary, raises the clarion up: another very amusing contrast that gives a lot of variety to the film.

The slant in movement appears even before Arsenic. Not in The Awful Truth, but in Bringing Up Baby (crucial film for Grant), when he leans forward to telephone (and falls) or to scare the ladies: this unusual and incongruous position amidst the bourgeoisie, in a gathering of friends and family, has the unexpected consequence of instilling fear, as much or even more than a traditional act intended to create terror such as brandishing a gun.

There are uncommon motivations for the slant that are particularly interesting: Grant remains folded in two under the effect of curvature after spending the night in a bathtub (I Was a Male War Bride). In Once Upon a Honeymoon, he adopts an S pose because he has just stolen a big photo in a glass frame that he hides in his back pocket, and it breaks when he wants to sit. In the same film, his twisted position is confronted with the close presence of the most twisted of musical instruments: the saxophone. The return of contagion. Even Charade, twenty-five years later, contains two new, lovely figures of style: in addition to the folding occasioned by the apple under the chin, which I mentioned, there is the posture produced by the alcohol that burns his back, and the one which helps him spy from behind a door.

To be sure, it’s not enough for an actor to bend over or curl up to become brilliant, but it must be acknowledged that, among comedic actors, he is the only to have really worked on this principle. Neither Bob Hope, nor Danny Kaye, nor Alberto Sordi, nor James Stewart tackled it. And, in each film, in each scene, Grant tries to renew the motivations for his favourite figure. Oh sure, we find repetitions. There is the same sprint towards the taxi in Arsenic (1941) and Charade (1963). But that doesn’t matter. I’m perhaps the first to have noticed it. We could question the recurrence of effects within the same film (the Capra in particular), but there is a certain variety in the expression of the figure, and a great sense of combination: Grant’s practice is close to commedia dell’arte, which ensures that everything is permissible when accompanied by a rapidity of execution.

This book has the great drawback of being a little funny, while, thanks to Cary, Arsenic, followed at some distance by Bringing Up Baby and Monkey Business, remains one of the films which made me laugh the most in the entire history of cinema. But it seems necessary to me to dissect Grant’s work even if it appears somewhat arbitrary and misleading: in ten seconds, you can have a folding effect plus a kangaroo and another one, which I inadvertently separate. He plays on the impact created by surprising figures of style, the majority of which turn out, on reflection, to be perfectly logical. We laugh firstly from surprise, secondly by the logic of it all, and thirdly by Grant’s creative shrewdness. And we also laugh upon discovering his trade secret and, later, when we review the film in our head or in reality. In any case, I take great pleasure in trying to lay bare the entire comic framework that the reader, I hope, will share.

I must add that a figure like the slant doesn’t seem to me to be totally innocent. Is it going too far to read it as an attempt at forging a bridge—somewhat shaky or rough or on the verge of collapse—between Cary Grant’s two faces? To say that Grant seems torn, into a Z rather than a cross, between his official image and reality? The exercise of dramatic art seems in this case to be a form of catharsis. Grant tries to conquer his demons by constantly expressing them, unbeknown to the spectator and hence in complete peace.

The slant finds its real purpose when Grant stretches out to his companion at the end of a film (Bringing Up Baby, North by Northwest), the preceding diagonals expressing a convoluted, compensating, ambiguous sexuality.

The slant also stands for the stress of modern life, afflicting the heroes of His Girl Friday, Arsenic and North by Northwest, an editor-in-chief, a theatre critic and an adman respectively, all three very busy and sought-after, constantly mixing up their identity with someone else’s, often that of a telephonic interlocutor—an old trope of Hawks’. The slant is the resultant of their varied activities, even more developed thanks to a highly complex dramatic structure.

Deformed, uncertain body. The most mysterious film. (An Affair to Remember, 1957)

  1. The Recoil of the Eyes

When our hero looks at the photo of his brother, dreadful even as a kid, he steps back a little to better see the photo, which is only twenty centimetres from his eyes. A rather typical reaction of a farsighted person. I don’t know if Grant was farsighted—I could not find the address of his optometrist, the stinginess of my editor, alas, having refused me the necessary funds for this research. But everything gives the impression that he was one or, at the very least, wanted to play a farsighted person.

This gag is quite systematic and is employed in various situations: Grant approaches the document allowing the admission of his cousin to an asylum, and recoils before signing. Ditto when he meets the very banal Duffy, whom he takes for his ex-wife’s fiancé (His Girl Friday). It’s even more funny here because, if it’s normal for a farsighted person to step back a little to better see a piece of paper, it’s probably implausible to step back to better see a man of five-feet-two standing next to you. What makes us laugh here is then the insertion of a very natural reaction into a situation where it isn’t natural anymore. One could also argue that Grant considers the false groom an object, a contemptible little object: “You married that? That wretched thing?” It is to be noted, unless I’m mistaken, that this is the first time we find this recoil gag with Grant—Brechtian or not, I don’t know. This gag is the cousin to the one in which Cary steps closer to better hear Roosevelt’s clarion which thunders inches away from him. The normal thing to do is to step back, since it’s a noise that shatters the ears, not step closer. It goes even further here: it’s a contrary reaction instead of a misplaced reaction.

A hypothesis: this look of the farsighted person, apparently inaugurated in His Girl Friday, could have its roots in a deleted scene or an aborted idea of Bringing Up Baby, made a year before, where Cary sported spectacles for the first time in his career, inspired greatly by another four-eyes, Harold Lloyd. A study must be undertaken of the entire genesis of characters and performance in American comedy (and not just in comedy) as a function of the legacy of silent burlesque. It’s a gag with a long life: at the beginning of North by Northwest, sloshed in a car going at top speed on a cliff, he still performs this little recoil of the eyes at once to better see the danger (but a withdrawal of three inches isn’t going to help him see the cliff or the chasm, whence the joke) and to get away from the danger zone, slow down the shock or to better protect himself from it. Equally futile reaction in a car that’s going at thirty metres per second…

There is also the exact opposite: suddenly short-sighted, he pores over the measuring tape to better see Ginger Rogers’ measurements (Once Upon a Honeymoon).

Another facial mannerism based on displacement and inversion.

  1. The Iris in the Desert

I’d be amiss if I didn’t link this recoil of the eyes to the quality of the look. The famous hazelnut, almost dark eyes that surprise and scare. I think that if Grant had come very late to colour, it’s not just that he was afraid colour will make him old, it’s not just that Hollywood’s miserliness, worse than my editor’s, avoided colour for films with superstars (everyone was going to go see them anyway) and for that which was not Great Spectacle. It’s also because he was afraid colour might make him lose the virulence of his dark gaze. Indeed, a whole image composition in colour is required—draining away the lively tints from the deep space as well as the foreground—to make Grant’s iris stand out.

Grant’s system consists in opening the eyes wide such that a white desert opens out around the iris, well highlighted, just after the actor has a gaze that is lowered or excluded from the frame. It’s specifically a surprise effect, with a little terror at times as well. The strength of Arsenic is that the most terrifying character is not the murderer—the old women or Frankenstein—but Cary Grant, with his unusual play on gaze and body language, while, in principle, he is the only one in the house who could be called sane. A secondary character from outside the house would be tempted to consider him as crazy as the others, if not more.

That’s what is the most facile and questionable aspect of Grant’s performance: those dark or crusty eyes rolled around by the worst ham actors of the Three Pierres style (Blanchar, Richard-Willm, Fresnay)! But it works well with Grant because the eye trick is wrapped up in a package that also contains the recoil gag, which is infinitely fresher. And because this trick, often unbearable in drama, sails through inside a comedy. It makes us laugh, and it makes us laugh at the character—an unthinkable outcome in tragedy.

These dark eyes, suddenly turned on, open up multiple meanings. They can express the malice of a misogynist (The Philadelphia Story), surprise (when the old ladies of Arsenic tell him that they have poisoned twelve men), the terror he feels (when the sidecar of I Was a Male War Bride is about to run into a haystack or when the cop [in Arsenic] wants him to read his play) or, on the contrary, the wish to frighten (the old ladies, to order them not to let anyone inside the house) or the prevention of a danger to another person (the wine with arsenic close to the old man’s mouth), jealousy (when he sees his rival Ralph Bellamy—The Awful Truth) and even exaggerated self-criticism (His Girl Friday, when he says to his ex-wife that he was a bad husband) or the difficulty in accomplishing a physical task (the apple tucked under the chin in Charade).

The impact of the dark eyes is at times increased by a play on hair, which allows its insertion into a vast, multi-staged comic deployment that goes beyond the easy option of the individual gag. His lock of hair, or even two locks of hair (at the prison in Bringing Up Baby), falls over his forehead at the same moment that he begins his murderous play of the iris.

The art of getting down quick (North by Northwest, 1958)

  1. The Prestige of the Concealed

From the eyes, I move on to the face, to note that it matters particularly when it’s hidden, or half-hidden. Especially in Hitchcock. The hero of To Catch a Thief spies. He often hides behind a window or a wall. Only the upper part of his face is visible, and the eyes of course. This half-hidden face serves, on one hand, to make the famous gaze stand out better and, on the other, to unsettle us through the lack it hints at. It’s a variation on the principle of Suspicion: one obscured cheek, one well-lit cheek. Duality once again.

It’s even more evident at the end of North by Northwest, where Hitch constantly plays with the disturbing and comic aspects of this half-face that appears and disappears abruptly. Grant surveys James Mason and his gang from the roof of a wing of the house. We only see the top of his face, the only one illuminated. Or he gets down behind an architectural element—tile or wall—to avoid being seen. As the danger grows for his accomplice Eve, stuck inside the house, Cary Grant’s head grows too, since he gets up a little and since we see, not just his eyes, but also his mouth: he wants to speak to Eve, despite the distance between them and despite Mason’s proximity. Then Grant’s head goes down again. These partial entries and exits of the head through the bottom of the frame are identically present in a scene in Arsenic and one in North by Northwest. There, Cary is more or less hidden behind a counter—of a marriage registry office in the first and of a railway ticket office in the second. Grant doesn’t want to be recognized. In both cases, he tries to hide himself, not just through his vertical movements but also behind dark glasses.

At times, the face doesn’t have to move to be expressive: towards the end of Arsenic, perhaps owing to the choice of a particular lens, he seems to have a perfectly round head when he meets Witherspoon. Elsewhere, his head is quite elongated when he repeats the word “twelve”, referring to the twelve victims of arsenic. Some shots of The Philadelphia Story make him look like an undertaker.

We mustn’t forget the indispensable contribution of accessories to this transformation of the face.

  1. Headgear

It’s what in fact plays the primary role, much more than spectacles, which are present, as we have seen, in Bringing Up Baby, Monkey Business and briefly in Arsenic, North by Northwest and The Grass is Greener.

The hat generally makes him look ridiculous. It may be the hat borrowed inattentively from the dead (Arsenic) or from his rival, too big for him and too round (The Awful Truth): he has the look of a mythical Russian spy. Or a crushed top hat, or a butterfly net on the head (Bringing Up Baby). Or he wears his hat like Gary Cooper (This is the Night): since Cooper did very well at the box-office and couldn’t outdo the already-inhuman rate of four films per year, Paramount replaced him with Grant in four other films. There is also the picturesque dimension, a white hat with a black band (Sylvia Scarlett), a curious kerchief-turban (Gunga Din), a wide-rimmed South American hat (Only Angels), French kepi (I Was a Male War Bride), the cap of the average Frenchman (Once Upon a Honeymoon) and the more banal one in Sylvia Scarlett and Walk, Don’t Run, the black hat that exaggerates the face, making it unlikeable (In Name Only, The Philadelphia Story). The complete opposite of Cooper and Wayne, who almost always wear near-identical headgear.

The most typical element of Grant’s costume remains the suit with vertical or horizontal stripes. It could be a three-piece suit, but also a pullover or a pyjama. Most often, this particularity gives the impression of experimentation and also of rigour. It could, as we have seen, convey the idea of a convict in the making (To Catch a Thief) or have a very Hitchcockian meaning of a man struck by adversity, by external elements. It’s a throwback of sorts to the parallel shadows from grilled windows and shutters that expressionist cinema wore thin.

  1. Zoomorphism

I already touched upon the relation, often Hawksian, to animals. I should add that it’s expressed chiefly through sound. It begins with Bringing Up Baby, where he roars at the dog on the staircase. He appears to be dancing with the mutt in Once Upon a Honeymoon. He shows his teeth to the reporters who corner him (Arsenic). He hoots with pleasure when he learns that he doesn’t belong to this family of loons. He seems to bark (Monkey Business) when he is led to play cowboys and Indians. He roars into the telephone just to say a “hello!”.

Truth be told, the resemblance to an animal is only one of the means for Grant to move closer to the savage, and to the state of nature. The stress of modern life makes man return to a primitive state, either for the need to compensate or because it’s the inevitable culmination of a world overwhelmed by speed that, through artifice and sophistication, spurns the human being. It’s not necessarily an animal, it could be another primitive: an Indian like in the famous scene of Monkey Business, copied from Arsenic, where he still twists himself into handsome Zs while throwing his dark glance around. Only that, in Monkey Business, it’s not Cary who is tied, awaiting his torture, but his rival. Contagion, once more…

In Arsenic, he tries to speak despite being gagged. Elsewhere, he will try in vain to alert his wife by whistling as planned, or to simply speak (Bringing Up Baby) when he can’t get a word in with the psychiatrist or the assembly of ladies in the country house or even in the prison with Katharine Hepburn. This impossibility of speaking, following a gag, a surprise or a rivalry, places him in a sub-human category and is especially funny given that Grant, in most of his comedies, is the one who speaks all the time. Serves him right if he can’t speak, that’ll teach him a lesson, that’s a welcome change, thinks the viewer who is perhaps fed up with Grant’s volubility. And Cary’s mimicking intensifies for lack of the most usual means of communication that speech is.

Or he does get to speak, but it’s to belt out his own private onomatopoeias, the “hou hou” on the telephone (Arsenic or His Girl Friday), the continuous “mm” that we hear in the latter film as well as in North by Northwest, an “mm” that, in general, means yes.

A variation: he has spoken so much or he is so stunned that—still playing with fire—he can only produce very feminine sounds, for example when he is scared his aunts will call the police as they said they would. And there is, of course, I Was a Male War Bride, where the transvestitism of the voice is voluntary.

Final films: stepping up before stepping down (Charade, 1963)

  1. The Choir

At times, Grant is an element of an ensemble. He is part of the Three Pierrots group, which, with Katharine Hepburn and Edmund Gwenn, which gives its performance (Sylvia Scarlett). In that, he contrasts with Wayne and particularly Cooper who (except in Design for Living) always play great solitary individualists, slightly on the fringes of their co-stars. Even when the latter have a very good rapport with their main actresses, their well-opposed dramatic roles never converge. The roles complement each other, with Wayne and Cooper having an edge in general. In the case of Cary Grant, it’s completely different. It’s an ensemble with two heads, or three, like members of a ballet.

The best example one can give of this fusion is the famous scene in Bringing Up Baby (recopied in Monkey Business in minor key) where Grant makes several gestures in the restaurant, then takes two steps forward, two backward, sticking close to Katharine Hepburn whose dress is torn, so that the diners can’t see her buttocks. A marvellous moment that borrows from the arts of the tango dancer and the toreador (the protective hat replacing the muleta). It has all the advantages of ballet without its disadvantages, that is to say, its conventional, unrealistic and predetermined aspect. When we go see a ballet, we expect to find that. But when we go see Bringing Up Baby, we’re immersed (more or less till this sequence) in a reproduction of real life, and it’s an excellent surprise to find here, in the turn of a reel, the quintessence of dance, of ballet and of bullfighting, without any of the three being present, strictly speaking. This scene owes as much to Katharine Hepburn as to Cary Grant and, as a result, one might be tempted to give all the credit to the director. But I think it’s somewhat silly to want to separate the responsibilities. It’s truly a collective work, where a flaw in one single participant’s creative activity—even for an instant—would make the scene fall flat. Like the show in Sylvia Scarlett, we’re dealing with a work in which the actor doesn’t steal the limelight, and blends into an ensemble. Contrary to his reputation, Cary will remain a champion of this altruistic art throughout his career. He makes himself inconspicuous in front of another male co-star in The Philadelphia Story—unprecedented!—or lets a monkey steal his thunder (Monkey Business).

It’s this art that Arsenic—everyone acts as crazy has him and as fast—and The Awful Truth (cf. the simultaneous getting up of the two spouses at the divorce tribunal) partake in.

A prolongation of this principle is found in His Girl Friday, where the duo is expressed in time as well—in a long sequence-shot of one minute and forty-seven seconds. Remember that the film’s characters speak without a pause with the speed of a Tommy gun: in this shot, no less than twenty-eight subtitles just to translate Grant’s lines… Rosalind Russell enters via a door on the right, turns towards the left, followed by her ex, Cary of course, who tries to persuade her to write an article for his newspaper (and, at the same time, win her back as his wife). Grant’s speech determines Rosalind Russell’s first stop, then a second, and then she comes back towards the right to an acceptance phase. She begins by moving away from Grant, then she goes towards him. In this kind of scene, the two actors make up just one. They are always a few inches from one another, and they can’t afford to conceive even one second of their performance without taking each other’s reaction into account, even if the scene contains elements favourable to Grant (for example, to amplify his speech, according to which Rosalind will win the greatest honours, Cary tucks his hand into his coat Napoleon style, ideal position for a statue, and points his cigar to the skies, all in the blink of an eye). The need for a sequence-shot, which few actors could hold for such a long time—and none other as well—arises because it’s a scene where a psychological transformation takes place. Even if this duration—one minute and forty-seven seconds—is short in itself, it’s very long for a normal film. We’re gripped by the lively continuity of Grant’s speech and the scene, and we accept the transformation—which is actually implausible in this stretch of time—better than we would’ve through a banal succession of ten shots. The length of this shot (with respect to normal cinema) gives us the impression of an even longer duration. These ten minutes feel like half an hour or an hour, a duration more suitable for a psychological transformation. This team performance is confronted with a kind of osmosis, which is like the panacea of contagion: an actor is never as great as when his co-actors start acting like him. The Frankenstein-brother sits on the chest exactly like Grant. The police bigwig, too, will have a delayed reaction when he inattentively salutes the fake-Roosevelt. All the way until Hugh Marlowe, his rival in Monkey Business, who copies his performance from Arsenic. To perfect the whole thing, Grant will reprise Roosevelt’s dashing descent down the staircase. Grant’s triumph lies in the loss of identity: we’re all Cary Grant.


I realize a little late that I’ve forgotten many other facets of Grant’s art. I know that it’s so vast that it seems impossible to me to be exhaustive on this subject. Nevertheless, I’d like to point out four interesting figures of style:

  • The finger pointing front, present in all his films.
  • The fake laughter (This is the Night, Sylvia Scarlett, Arsenic), the most beautiful of which is perhaps the very forced one, with open teeth, in the casino in To Catch a Thief.
  • Immobility in movement: he stands straight, absolutely fixed, in a vehicle (car or bike) going at top speed, in deep space with the forest in the foreground. It’s a very funny, specifically Hawksian contrast (Bringing Up Baby, I Was a Male War Bride), whose comedy stems from the fact that we only see the top part of his body: he is a limbless man going at full throttle…
  • The misplaced gesture, which we had a little taste of: when he telephones, he speaks into his left hand instead of the handset. Or, in Bringing Up Baby, the toreador’s gesture, or the tall Cary who raises his finger like a schoolkid to try and interrupt his talkative co-actors or jumps like a little child to express his intention to marry the next day.



[1] Cary Grant – The Lonely Heart, 1989, Harcourt Brace

[2] Cf. the study by S. Cavell: Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage, Ed. Cahiers du cinéma, 1993.

[3] [Translator’s Note] Underworld was, in fact, written by Charles Furthman, Jules’ brother.

[4] [Translator’s Note] The line is actually “What is darkening your brow?

[5] A subdued performance that we will see again—and it’s just as magnificent—in An Affair to Remember, in even People Will Talk or Crisis, but which offers infinitely fewer samples for the analyst than the art of the comic.

[6] To succeed in a good role, an actor should have a reference animal: the bull or the crocodile for Wayne, the bird of prey for Cooper, the sheep for Stewart…

[7] One can go on: dinosaur and dragon (Fig Leaves), shark (Tiger Shark), vultures (Only Angels Have Wings), turkeys (Sergeant York), fish (To Have and Have Not), cows (Red River, El Dorado), the Thing, snake and crocodiles (Land of the Pharaohs), wild beasts (Hatari!), bear (Man’s Favorite Sport?), mosquitoes (Rio Lobo), plus the monkey – Muni (Scarface), which brings us back to the kangaroo…