Alfred Hitchcock brought out the sinister side of Cary Grant like no one else. Arguably the greatest male lead in romantic comedies of all time, the star had perfected a persona that was by turns sophisticated and goofy. These traits were by no means absent in the four films Grant made with Hitchcock, but the Master of Suspense managed to make Grant seem dangerous, and mysteriously so. His characters (with the exception of accidental hero Roger Thornhill in North by Northwest) were clearly capable of wickedness, but there was room for doubt. The Grant-Hitchcock collaboration produced some of the most entertaining suspense films ever made. A few years later, toward the end of the actor’s career, Stanley Donen directed Grant in Charade, a self-consciously Hitchcockian caper. In that film, the mysterious undercurrents are amplified to near-parody, with Grant’s character taking on multiple aliases.
I called an audible on this month’s double feature. Originally, I had planned to pair Charade with Hitchcock’s Notorious, but I didn’t think those movies matched up all that well. To Catch a Thief was a movie I hadn’t seen before, but it was in color, widescreen, and had a reputation for being light on its feet like Charade. Furthermore, the films star Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn respectively, Hollywood’s two queens of mid-century style and sophistication. Their characters are, naturally enough, romantically involved with Grant’s, but each isn’t sure at first whether the man is good or evil. Both films are set in France. World War II and the French Resistance play a critical role in the backstories of both films. In To Catch a Thief, thieves become soldiers. In Charade, soldiers become thieves.
Donen is a director with enough personality that Charade could never be called a rip-off. It’s been argued that his film doesn’t plumb the psychological depths of Hitchcock’s work from the same period, but To Catch a Thief, at least, is another film without much on its mind. Donen generally goes for broader gags, but there are comparable moments involving unnamed female characters. In the Hitchcock, Grant runs afoul of an elderly flower seller, to whom he nearly delivers a karate chop in the neck. In the Donen, he’s drafted into a bawdy game wherein he tries to retrieve an orange from a woman’s ample chest using nothing but his cleft chin. The main difference in the storytelling of these two films is that in To Catch a Thief everything is from Grant’s point of view, while in Charade everything is from Hepburn’s.
In the Hitchcock film, Grant plays a reformed cat burglar named John Robie who gets in the news again when someone else starts stealing jewels in a style reminiscent of his. To clear his name, he sets out to find the real culprit. The personal darkness is all in his past, and when Kelly’s character, Francie Stevens, suspects him of robbing her mother, it’s just a setback in their inchoate romance. The audience knows he’s innocent. In the Donen film, Grant begins as a mysterious stranger and proceeds to flip back and forth, appearing in one scene as a friend to Hepburn’s Reggie Lampert and in the next as someone out to steal her dead husband’s fortune. Charade cheats a little with its point-of-view, following Grant away from Hepburn for private conversations with the other crooks, but the deceptions keep piling up. Is he a double agent? A triple agent? Does even he know? The film’s plot is built on misdirection for its own sake. Even Reggie plays along, acting coy when discovering a potentially game-changing suitcase on top of a wardrobe.
The difference in point-of-view ultimately says a lot about the two films’ central relationships. Grant was famously reluctant to take a role opposite Hepburn because of their age difference. The script was altered to mitigate his discomfort, with a couple self-aware jokes thrown in. Oddly enough, Grace Kelly was six months younger than Audrey Hepburn. This speaks to the difference in their personas. Kelly at 25 was serene and aloof, the ideal Hitchcock icy blonde. Much of the pleasure of To Catch a Thief comes from watching her character think as she deduces Robie’s identity. Hepburn (age 34 in 1963) was more vulnerable, an innocent in over her head. Charade climaxes with Reggie oscillating between two protectors, one of whom is secretly the villain. Of the two, only one is Cary Grant. The other is played by Walter Matthau, who, though sixteen years younger than Grant, already looked like Walter Matthau at this time. Maybe the real distinction is that, when To Catch a Thief came out in 1955, Grant could still convincingly play younger men. By 1963, his slick Superman hair had gone irrevocably gray. Anyway, there’s no figuring out the logic in Hollywood’s treatment of age: Grant simply had the benefit of being a man. Jessie Royce Landis, seven years his senior, plays his mother-in-law in To Catch a Thief (and is an absolute joy to watch) and his mother in North by Northwest.
The important thing about Grant and Kelly vis-à-vis Grant and Hepburn is that each pair exhibits tremendous chemistry. The camera adores all three of them. These films are the definition of “star vehicles,” with plot mechanics ultimately pushed out of focus. Hitchcock’s film treads lightly on its themes (we all steal; we all gamble) so that it can go ahead and soak in the countryside of the French Riviera with some beautiful VistaVision long shots. The characters in Charade are always flirting and goofing off on the knife’s edge of extreme peril. And the wisecracks — oh, the wisecracks! John Michael Hayes’s script for To Catch a Thief is loaded with jaw-dropping double entendres. Peter Stone’s dialogue for Charade is more direct: forceful, cutting remarks delivered, at all times, with a smile.
In the end, the hidden menace of Cary Grant may have been a feint after all. He’s lovable in To Catch a Thief, at least. Some of the most memorable moments of that film involve his character (and maybe the actor himself) nearly cracking up, visibly enjoying spending time in the company of women. His character in Charade, known by several names, has a better poker face, so his threat remains real despite all his clowning. That film’s final sequence begins with a suspense piece worthy of Hitchcock, as Reggie outruns her pursuer only to have to wait for a subway train. When these movies get down to business, they know how to deliver some surprises. As far as romantic comedy-suspense thriller hybrids go, they’re tough to beat.