Hitchcock’s Cary Grant: A Man at Work

Cary Grant starred in four Alfred Hitchcock films. Here’s how all the characters he played are related.
North By Northwest Rear Projection
By  · Published on August 22nd, 2018

The end of North By Northwest (1959) may be the most amusing of Alfred Hitchcock’s filmography. Just after the villains are defeated and the MacGuffin is saved, Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) holds onto Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) as she dangles off the side of Mount Rushmore. As he pulls her up to safety — “Come along Mrs. Thornhill,” he says — the camera cuts to her joining him atop a train car bed. The two embrace and we cut to the film’s final shot: a train entering a tunnel.

While I do not wish to discount the importance of humor and sex (especially in this film), the final shot is more significant than either of those two nouns. Not only is it Cary Grant’s final moment in the world of Alfred Hitchcock, but as my Hitchcock teacher John Bertolini has observed, it is reminiscent of his first appearance: in Suspicion (1941), Grant, playing Johnnie Aysgarth, is introduced on a train, where he shares a car with his future wife, Lina (Joan Fontaine). “I had no idea we were going into a tunnel,” he says, offering his apologies for entering the car as it turns pitch black.

That Grant both enters and exits Hitchcock’s world via train could be nothing, or it could be seen as merely a director giving a winking goodbye to his favorite actor. I think it is much more. 

Hitchcock often drew connections between the different characters his actors and actresses played; in some cases, they were even playing different versions of the same character.

The most well-documented example is the relationship between the characters played by Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window (1954) and Vertigo (1958). Both L.B. Jeffries and Scottie Ferguson are voyeurs, longing for adventure, and unsure, to say the least, of their love life. Hitchcock makes the connection clear in Vertigo: After the film’s opening scene, Scottie is resting comfortably in Midge’s apartment with his feet up, and, for a moment, we mistake him for the immobile L.B. at the beginning of Rear Window. (The connections between the James Stewart characters in Rear Window, Vertigo, and 1956’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) are worthy of their own analysis.)

In the case of another actress, Hitchcock was even more explicit, telling François Truffaut, “Anyway, to build up Grace Kelly, in each picture between Dial ‘M’ for Murder (1954) and To Catch a Thief (1955) we made her role a more interesting one.”

I have digressed to illustrate that, on some level, Hitchcock considered the relationship between characters played by the same performer. And, in the case of Cary Grant, the two trains are more than just a wink but a thread that connects North by NorthwestSuspicionTo Catch a Thief, and Notorious (1946).

If we are to understand the relationship between the men Grant plays, it’s essential to view them all through one lens: work. More specifically, how their profession, or lack thereof, informs the relationship they have with their love interest. While all four performances are similar, the best way to proceed is to group them in pairs and examine how each relates to the other. The first: Suspicion and To Catch a Thief. The second: Notorious and North By Northwest.

A Reluctant Worker

In Suspicion, Grant plays Johnnie Aysgarth, a playboy who has never worked a day in his life. He marries Lina (Fontaine), assuming one day they will be able to live off her inheritance, or at least the financial support of her parents until they bite the dust. She falls in love with him because of his carefree attitude, wanting to show those around her she is not the rigid, proper, church-going girl they believe.

The film’s central conflict begins just after their honeymoon when the couple moves into an extravagant home Johnnie has “bought” them. Their happiness soon evaporates, when Johnnie admits to not having a single schilling and going into debt to pay for both the honeymoon and home.

He suggests they live off her money. “I think you must be mad,” she says and suggests he get a job.  “I’m afraid you’re a bit of dreamer darling,” he replies. “Let’s be practical about this.”

She insists, so he reluctantly begins working for his cousin. Lina loves Johnnie despite his naivete — “Oh you’re just a baby,” she says lovingly.

But that feeling soon evaporates, after Johnnie sells two chairs (family heirlooms) that her father gave them as a wedding present. He soon buys them back, though, with money he says was won at the racetrack. Lina, while momentarily pleased, doesn’t buy it. Suspecting that Johnnie may not actually be going to work, she visits his office and learns that Johnnie was, in fact, fired six weeks ago for stealing money to pay back his gambling debts and buy back the chairs. She returns home intending to leave him but receives word that her father has died. She puts the separation on hold.

Johnnie then tries to enter into a business deal with his old friend Beaky. The deal goes south, and Beaky winds up dead. Lina suspects Johnnie, who accompanied Beaky to London, to be the murderer, and that she is his next victim.  

Each of Johnnie’s subsequent actions, movements, and facial expressions feed her suspicion. When he plays word games, all she can see is the word “murder.” When he reads a book about a killer, she thinks he is using it as a manual. Suspicion is perhaps Hitchcock’s best use of the subjective point of view. One of the most famous moments comes after Lina’s learns of Beaky’s death: The window panes cast a web-like shadow over her. She is trapped by Johnnie, the spider.

Johnnie’s unwillingness to go to work informs her view of him: There is nothing he won’t do. He would rather work full-time as a criminal than behind a desk with his cousin. 

By contrast, John Robie, the Grant character in To Catch a Thief, has a love interest who is drawn to him because he is a criminal. Unlike Johnnie A., Robie, aka The Cat, is a reluctant worker. He is a retired professional thief, who lives in a comfortable villa on the French Riviera. One day, he is forced out of retirement, after the area is hit with a string of high-profile robberies that, with his criminal record, make him the prime suspect. He must use his skills to catch the real thief so that he can, as Truffaut put it, “resume his peaceful existence.”

One could say The Cat is an older, more accomplished, competent version of Aysgarth. After all, they share the same name.

While trying to prove his innocence, The Cat meets Frances Stevens (Grace Kelly), who seduces him. She invites him on a drive, where they are pursued by the police. After they escape, they stop for lunch near a cliff, where she falls for him and proposes to become his partner: “The Cat has a new kitten. When do we start?” Her fascination soon evaporates, after her own jewelry goes missing; just as Lina’s does when she realizes Johnnie has sold her chairs. The difference: The Cat is innocent, Johnnie is not.

For Hitchcock, the man’s profession (or lack thereof) is more than just a job — it is the embodiment of who they are as individuals, and how they relate to us.

Johnnie Aysgarth appeals to our frustrated side, the one that is just looking for a break in an unfair world. All Johnnie wants is to provide his wife with a beautiful home, honeymoon, and gifts, and have some fun in the process. Why should the rich drink all the champagne?

At the end of the film, we realize he was not scheming to kill Beaky or Lina; he was planning to take a life insurance policy out on himself and commit suicide. As creepy and manipulative as he is, in that moment, we sympathize with him. We see ourselves.

The Cat is the side of us that has done wrong but yearns for a chance at redemption. Who among us has not been defined, whether in one’s own mind or that of another, by a past transgression? And would we not do anything to make it right?

Even though The Cat has abandoned his illegal ways and is trying to live life the right way, society forces him out of his comfort, and labels him something he is not. He decides to use the opportunity as a chance for redemption. That is what makes him an admirable character.

The Busy Man

While The Cat and Johnnie A. are both men who operate outside the law, the men Grant plays in Notorious and North By Northwest are both agents of it, whether knowingly or unknowingly.

In Notorious, Grant plays T.R. Devlin, an agent of the US government. His love interest is Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman), whose father is a convicted Nazi spy. Devlin is charged with convincing Huberman to use her father’s standing to infiltrate the American Nazi ranks and pass along information back to the government.

Devlin is a cold figure, so much so that Hitchcock first shows him from behind; an unusual introduction for Hollywood’s premier leading man. It becomes clear that Devlin’s coldness is a byproduct of his serious work. But, he is soon distracted and softened: while on the job, he and Alicia fall in love.

The film’s main conflict concerns Alicia’s infiltration of the American Nazi Party, but the real tension is found between Devlin’s work and the love he feels for her. This is revealed in one of the most famous scenes in Hitchcock’s filmography: a three minute long kiss, captured in one continuous shot. The camera follows them from a balcony, through a hotel room and to the telephone, where Devlin accepts a call from work. While the intimate moment is not broken, we are reminded of his job: to convince Alicia to seduce the head Nazi, Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains). How are Devlin and Alicia ever going be together?

Eventually, Sebastian and Alicia get married. When she informs Devlin, he coldly tells her to do whatever she pleases. Unlike Johnnie or The Cat, Devlin is a figure committed to his career, to a cause that is bigger than himself. Devlin is willing to sacrifice his love life, however painful, for his country. While cold, he is a selfless hero.

Roger Thornhill, the Grant character in North By Northwest, is selfless in a similar way, though by accident. In fact, it may be fair to say that he is more like Alicia than Devlin: a man roped into helping the United States fight a foreign adversary on friendly soil.

Thornhill, like Devlin, is committed to his career. He is an advertising executive, one of the many cogs in the Madison Avenue machine. The opening of North By Northwest concerns the monotony of corporate life in New York City: crowds of people fill the streets, making their way to and from work in a never ending cycle.

Like the crowds of New York, Thornhill too is in a cycle of his own: stuck in the same job, visiting the same restaurants, carrying on with the same appointments, etc. It’s a comfortable, boring life.

A dose of excitement is one day injected after a couple enemies of the United States mistake him for “George Kaplan,” a man they believe to be a government agent, but who does not actually exist. They kidnap him, he escapes, is framed for the murder of a UN ambassador, and embarks on a journey across the country to prove his innocence.

While on the run from the police, he meets his love interest, Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), who hides him in her train car. The two strike up a romance, until it is revealed that Kendall is romantically linked to the antagonist Phillip Vandamm (James Mason). It is then revealed that Kendall is, in fact, like Alicia, a double agent, working on behalf of the United States. Kendall and Thornhill then join forces and take down Vandamm, which culminates in the aforementioned scene on Mount Rushmore. Like Thornhill, Devlin rescues his love at the end of Notorious, presumably bringing about the end of the Nazi Sebastian in the process.

Hitchcock came to the US during the Second World War, when his native Great Britain was under attack every day. Because he felt guilty about leaving his family and countrymen behind to make movies in the comfort of Beverly Hills, his films often deal with defending democracy from those who wish to destroy it. The two most notable examples are Saboteur and North By Northwest, which both climax at the national landmarks, respectively the Statue of Liberty and Mount Rushmore.

As Devlin and Thornhill prove, defense of the greater good can lead to personal happiness and fulfillment. Just as Johnnie and The Cat embody the flaws that make us human, Thornhill and Devlin remind us of the greatness of the human spirit. 

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Will DiGravio is a Brooklyn-based critic, researcher, and video essayist, who has been a contributor at Film School Rejects since 2018. Follow and/or unfollow him on Twitter @willdigravio.