Cary Grant Had A Thin Line To Walk While Working On North By Northwest

Despite his reputation as one of the greatest directors of all time, Alfred Hitchcock did not become a success overnight. It took many years for his career as a director to really take off, and in those years he went through a lot of tribulations that he would later take as lessons. One of the most important lessons of his early career was the importance of casting, and how vital it is to pick the perfect actor to carry your movie not only with star power, but with their acting ability. During his early career, Hitchcock would refer to his casting choices as "indifferent," which would lead to some of his early career flops such as "Rich and Strange," in his estimation.

Enter Cary Grant, one of the biggest actors of the '40s and '50s. By the time Hitchcock was working seriously on "North by Northwest," which would come out in 1959, he had already worked with Grant multiple times. Grant was an example of Hitchcock's very intentional casting. Grant had a persona about him, related to his rise from a working-class background to one of Hollywood fame and fortune. He had both the presence and the skill that made him perfect for the role in "North by Northwest," and he perfectly toed the line between straight suspense and absurdism that made the film as great as it was.

A balancing act

"North by Northwest" is the story of an ordinary man who is mistaken for another. Grant stars as advertising executive Roger Thornhill, who is mistaken for a man named George Kaplan. The misidentified Thornhill then is forced to go on the run from government agents, who believe he is Kaplan and has a plan to stop them from smuggling microfilm with government secrets out of the country.

The movie is genuinely suspenseful. Hitchcock is sometimes referred to as "the master of suspense." But the movie also carries an absurdist charm to it, with scenes like Grant hanging from the faces of Mount Rushmore. The role required a bit of a balancing act for Grant. He would have to simultaneously take the movie seriously enough, so that the suspense was not dampened, while not too seriously so that the more absurd scenes seemed like poorly written humor.

A piece by legendary film critic Roger Ebert sums this balance up well. In the interview he wrote following Cary Grant's death, Ebert talks about how Grant was the only man for this job. "Here Grant's ability to play against the material was crucial to the success of the movie," said Ebert. "A serious performance here would have been comical. A comic performance would have undermined the movie's genuine suspense. Who but Grant could have found just the right note, halfway between drama and farce?"

An intentional partnership

Hitchcock and Grant's partnership was an extremely fruitful one. They only made four films together- "Suspicion," "Notorious," "To Catch a Thief," and "North by Northwest," but their work together is considered some of both of their very best.

Grant also held fond personal memories of his work with Hitchcock, according to the last interview he did in his life with Interview Magazine in 1987. "I have only happy ones," the actor said after being asked about his memories of working with Hitchcock. They're all vivid because they're all interesting. It was a great joy to work with Hitch. He was an extraordinary man."

Hitchcock clearly also had an affection for Grant, at least as an actor. You don't have someone star in four of your movies if you don't. The two legends working together was a surefire recipe for success and they kept going back to the well.

To imagine someone else playing the lead role in "North by Northwest" is an interesting thought exercise, but ultimately is not worth your time. Because, as Hitchcock learned during his career, casting ought to be intentional. And the choice of Cary Grant as his star was the most important intentional choice he made.