North by Northwest is a movie we think we remember. The set pieces are common currency fifty years later: meeting that willing blonde on the train; the auction scene; the crop-dusting plane on the prairie; and the finale on the perilous faces of the Mount Rushmore monument. And everyone says, “Of course, Cary Grant!” He’s an emblem now, not just of the sophistication he seemed to embody, but of an age of effortless entertainment.
Grant and his director, Alfred Hitchcock, understood this gloss even in 1959. So they pushed a brief marvel into their picture. Roger O. Thornhill (it says R.O.T. on his monogram match books) is on the run. He is confined in a hospital room for his own safety. He needs to get out, so he slips through the window at night and into the next room, in darkness. An “attractive brunette” sits up in bed and puts on the light. Roger is on his way out. “Stop!” the outraged woman shouts. But once she gets a proper look at him she says, “Stop” (“in an entirely different tone of voice”—this is from Ernest Lehmann’s witty script). It’s a throwaway, but we know what she means. We want more of his shy glory.
Nor is it enough to pass over North by Northwest as just the comic relief Hitchcock allowed us and himself between Vertigo and Psycho. North by Northwest is a screwball thriller, but it’s also a chance to see Grant as a charming, frivolous advertising man with wives strewn in his past, who is pulled up short by feeling and relationship. Eva Marie Saint’s character seduces him on that train because it’s her job (she’s a secret agent), but Roger goes from being her mindless, unquestioning pickup to falling for her. So this debonair suave man looking like Cary Grant must grow up and face emotional consequences. Still, the film was so wild that in 1959, the world said, “Oh, it’s just Cary Grant. He’s being himself!” The acting Oscar that year went to Charlton Heston grappling with Ben-Hur—Grant wasn’t nominated.
The world has been catching up. In 1975, I said that Grant was “the best and most important actor in the history of movies,” and the same year Pauline Kael wrote “The Man from Dream City,” a fine appreciative essay for The New Yorker. In 1975 my enthusiasm was sometimes dismissed as English, youthful, and foolish, and the point may have been harder to digest in that I wasn’t proposing to admit Grant to the pantheon that included Charles Laughton in Mutiny on the Bounty, Paul Muni and Emil Jannings doing anything, Laurence Olivier as Richard III, or Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront. These strenuous pieces of masquerade were all very well, but I was trying to propose a different approach: that the best movie acting was more …