Hitch and Cary: A Study in Charm

"Even Cary Grant isn’t Cary Grant."—Cary Grant
Grant and Hitchcock—not exactly identical twins, but the same kind of guy, really. They had charm. "Thin people," Jackie Gleason said, "are beautiful, but fat people are adorable." Hitchcock seems to have agreed. "In England," he said when he got to Hollywood, "everybody looks like this." He does his de rigueur cameo in Lifeboat, with its confined setting, in a weight-reducing ad. He's the one on the left. Neither of these blubber-bellies ever got serious about dieting. 
As the television host of Alfred Hitchcock Presents he came into our living rooms every Sunday night with perfect British aplomb,  the merry mock-lugubrious image of sophistication. "Good evening," he always began.
"Television has brought murder back into the home," he said, "where it belongs." Like Grant he was a symbol, in America, of debonair elegance. Not your average food-on-the-teeth Brit.
Back home, though, he was lower-class. When he worked in England, even as late as Stage Fright in 1950, his actors complained that they couldn’t understand him through his Cockney accent. And notice, when he goes into the houses of the rich, how the camera always stays downstairs looking up at a world into which it dare not intrude. Strangers on a Train and Marnie fly to mind; here's Rebecca:
And Grant, real name Archie Leach, was, class-wise, Hitchcock's Bristol equivalent. He worried all his life that he lacked the background for what he was supposed to be. 
Both, despite their enormous success, were always slightly out of place in the US. Hitchcock's American films, though his obsession with detail is inspiring, never seem to me to be quite American: the people are too mild, too mannerly—too British. Even his salesclerks are polite—chatty without being intrusive. There is never the undercurrent of physical threat that haunts American movies, and indeed American life. Murder and psychopathology are there all right but they're disguised, as they are in Agatha Christie, not, as in the United States, a matter of style. 
Same goes for Grant: he was never all the way American. Imagine him getting angry. Impossible. Anger is the opposite of charm. Anger says things aren't going your way. Everything went his way, except when it didn't, in which case he ran like hell. Scarcely an American hero.
Part fool, part coward, is what he was, and here I am at one with him. Punch somebody? No no no. When it comes to a fight, as in Charadehe allows the George-Kennedy giant to defeat himself, then lectures him on loving thy neighborthough that wasn't entirely his policy. Fuck you, I'm Cary Grant, is more like it.
A recent article in The Atlantic, "The Rise and Fall of Charm in American Men," centers of course on Grant, but then shifts the focus to Orson Welles and James Garnerwell, all right—but leaves Fred Astaire out entirely! And in predictable Puritan fashion it pronounces a negative judgement on charm: it is "amoral," unAmerican and to be watched out for. Thank God it's gone. Grant may have been gay.

And indeed, what would he do in a film by Crapola or Scorsleazy, advertisements, both, that America has run out of decency. It seems clear what he would not do, but what would he do? (For more on this see Italian-American Filmmakers.)

Which brings us to the question of the psychopath. Hitchcock had dealt with psychopaths in his British films, so I don’t know whether it was by insight or by predilection that he so consistently exploited this theme in Hollywood. As a Frenchman in one of my scripts says, "The psychopath is an American tradition since Captain Ahab and poor Mr. Poe. One daren’t make a film without one. Such people are the norm here—corporate conventioneers, fast food waiters, religious fanatics—even the hotel clerks glow with sinister joy.  Observe yourselves in television audiences. You are all quite mad!"
A header in yesterday's New York Times: "Once I got pregnant I had to abandon the drugs that made me stable enough to want to be become a mother in the first place." Everybody's a psychopath. When Martin McDonagh came to make an American film he wrote for himself Seven Psychopaths, which, as a strategy, couldn't miss.

In Suspicion Grant plays the psychopath, and Hitchcock complained to Francois Truffaut (a man of extraordinary dullness) that he couldn’t end the film the way he wanted to because you can’t make Cary Grant a murderer.
He also told Truffaut that, although he had only made one overt comedy, all of his films were more or less comic. Perhaps this explains why my favorite Hitchcock films are the Cary Grant onesespecially To Catch a Thief and North by Northwest, which to me are romantic comedies—so much so that I’m inclined to regard Grant as their real auteur.
Now, please, Hitchcock is a master, for many people the master of cinema, an inventor not just of images—the chase among the umbrellas in Foreign Correspondent, the tennis-game in Strangers on a Train, all faces going back and forth with the ball except the psychopath’s—but of sounds: he was the first to experiment with electronic synthesis in The Birds. (And let's mention casting—George Sanders as a used-car salesman in Rebecca: inspired!)
But more than that he could give you the feel of a relationship. James Agee remarked of Notorious that Hichcock was "as good at domestic psychology as at thrillers, and many times he makes a moment in a party, or a lovers' quarrel, or a mere interior shrewdly exciting in ways that few people in films seem to know." 

One thinks of his silent The Lodger, in which the lovers are endeared to us by their habit of hovering in a restaurant until they can pounce on their favorite table; and of Marnie (where the psychopath, for the first time since Rebecca, is a woman), when Sean Connery’s character tells her that, although marriages are said to succeed or fail in bed, they’re really about control of the bathroom.
And—this I love—Hitchcock was impatient with Method acting and the Actors Studiowhich made Brando the punk and De Niro the lunk high priests of seriousness. ("When you hear the phrase a good acting job," says Toby in one of my books, "it usually means a depressing movie.") As a filmmaker in Europe I always forget what I’m going to confront when I work with an American actor—back story, motivation and cetera, the whole spiritual exercise. (See The "Character Arc", where I really get my rocks off on this.) 

"When an actor comes to me and wants to discuss his character," said Hitchcock, "I say, It's in the script. If he says, But what's my motivation? I say, Your salary." All he wanted Paul Newman to do was hold still for the camera, but no, he was too involved in the part. ("Never do eating scenes with Method actors," said Bogart, "they spit all over you.") "I don't feel like that, I don't think I can give you that kind of emotion," Ingrid Bergman told him. "Ingrid," said Hitch, "fake it."
When an actress asked him which of her profiles was better he said, "My dear, you're sitting on your best profile."
His attitude to character is clearest in Psycho: if you kill the heroine in the first act you'd better replace her—and yes, here comes her look-alike sister, thrown so together with the hero that she's set up to be his new squeeze. It's the kind of mix 'n' match you get in A Midsummer Night's Dream and Così fan tutte—whichever partner the dance gives you. But the Puritan must think one self, one love, one moral quest, and God help you if you enjoy it. I'm not a Christian but I did like the way the new Pope ended his first speech: "Have a good lunch."
Nor does Hitch care much about connections. Plot, yes, his plots are tight, but he moves us from scene to scene with a beautiful arrogance. In To Catch a Thief policemen stalk Grant's character through a market (where, in Cannes? Nice? Monte Carlo? Hitchcock, usually so careful about place, uses all of them to compose a Riviera town) at an ever faster pace until he upsets a flower stall and the owner snags him by the sweater and won't let him go. "Madame! S'il vous plaît, Madame!" What happens—do the cops arrest him? Do they take him to the station? Do they question him? Hitchcock doesn't care, and neither do we: cut to lunch on the terrace overlooking the village on the sea, with not even the mention of a resolution of the previous scene. 

Or did he care? Did he, as most filmmakers would, agonize in the editing room over some dull takes he didn't dare slow the film down with? Did he perhaps realize that, like Fellini but in his unique way, he was a master of gorgeousness? We are accustomed to thinking of his art as severe but in that film, as in many others, spectacle was all that interested him.

On the other hand there’s a lot of b.s. about Hitchcock, to some of which he contributed himself.  He said things like "If it's a good movie, the sound could go off and the audience would still have a perfectly clear idea of what was going on," and "When the screenplay has been written and the dialogue has been added, we're ready to shoot." Balls. Nobody has committed more bla-bla than Hitchcock. Psycho has three exciting, nay, emotionally scarring scenes, and an hour and a half of yack-yack.
A curious thing happened to this draftsman-cum-storyboarder: long about 1949 (though it might have come as early as Lifeboat) he fell in love with the theatre, and started directing movies as if they were plays. RopeStage FrightRear WindowThe Trouble with Harry—these could all be performed on the stage, and that’s the way he shot them. Dial M for Murder has one exciting visual scene, the scissors in the back; otherwise it’s all dialogue in rooms. And Under Capricorn—oh, God! "Always make the audience suffer as much as possible," he said. Uh-huh.
In the Grant films the problem disappears—perhaps not so much with Notorious, which, as he told Peter Bogdanovich, "Hitch threw to Ingrid." But in To Catch a Thief and North by Northwest we’re in the world of Cary Grant comedies and buoyed by the Grant charm, which never requires excessive dialogue.
He's not my favorite actor, I’m not saying that. I prefer the Boyer-Irene Dunne version of An Affair to Remember. (I prefer the Irene Dunne version of anything.) And, here’s an irony, Grant wasn’t as famous as Hitchcock. To quote the above Frenchman, "The very first rank of fame is to be known by your nickname, like Liz and Bogie and Di and Satchmo. The second is to be known by your initials—mainly for American presidents, but Brigitte was BB, which means in French baby, and Marilyn in the headlines became MMM. Then come the first names, Sophia, Marcello, Frank, and fourth are the last names, Garbo and Gable. And fifth…." Well, Cary Grant. Hitch’s nickname was a company-town secret until it got out, but it got out.
Let's tie this up with Charade, the best film Hitchcock never made.  Stanley Donen, he of Singin’ in the Rain and Two for the Road, made it instead.  It’s got Grant (hoarse at fifty-nine—why do actors seem to age so quickly?); it’s got the darling Audrey, clearly crazy about him and at her breathiest ("I’m not hungry at all any more, isn’t it marvelous!"); it’s got a score by Henry Mancini, one of the Magnificent Seven (Louis, Cole, Django, Stéphane, Henry, Nino and Miles); it's got Paris, and some nice digs at the French; it's got charm from every possible direction; and it’s got warmth, which you’ll look hard for in Hitchcock.
But it couldn't have happened without him. 


  1. I loved this post it resonated. I went to the same High School as Alfred Hitchcock - many years after him. He was supposedly expelled in the fifth form (11th grade).

    With regard to his disdain for 'the method', I am reminded of a story about the movie 'Marathon Man'. Apparently in preparation for a scene, Hoffman effectively starved himself for a few days in order to portray his character's situation perfectly. On set he got a bit woozy and explained to Lawrence Olivier that he had been starving himself. Olivier replied, "Why don't you try acting?"

    1. Thank you, Robert. You reminded me to include Bogie's advice: "Never do eating scenes with Method actors; they spit all over you."

  2. Coppola and Scorsese represent the end of American decency? I suspect auteurs like Russ Meyer, John Waters, Wes Craven, and Rob Zombie would beg to differ.

    1. Why, because they do sexy stuff? It's what I see in Crapola and Scorsleazy that's indecent.

    2. Yeah, I defy you to point out any moment in any Waters, Craven, or Zombie film that could be described as "sexy." And seriously, Bob? "Crapola and Scorsleazy?" When did you turn into an Evangelical camp counselor? And why carp about Sofia's poor old dad anyway? The man's barely scratched the cultural radar since 1979. The line sticks out of your otherwise engaging essay like a sore thumb. And come to think of it, I can imagine Cary Grant working for Scorsese: he would have been great as Palantine in TAXI DRIVER (and an eerie foreshadow of Ronald Reagan) or Jerry Langford in THE KING OF COMEDY. As for Coppola... I dunno. How about the Martin Landau part in TUCKER?

  3. Jon, I just can't make myself remotely enjoy anything by those two directors. Mea culpa. Nothing I can do about it. Reminds me of a line in Cocteau's Orphée, when Orpheus protests to a critic who trashes him that, after all, the public likes him. "The public," says the critic, "is wrong."

    1. And, my dear Jon, you're imagining Grant in secondary, nay, tertiary roles, a thing as impossible as to make him a murderer.