(Youtube Streaming, November 2018) It’s easy to like Arsenic and Old Lace if you already like Cary Grant—after all, the film is his showcase, as he goes from being a suave newlywed man of letters to becoming increasingly frantic as he discovers that his aunts and then his brother are all proficient serial killers in their own ways. It’s not a good thing to discover on one’s honeymoon, and things get crazier as he also tries to manage an insane uncle, friendly policemen and fights to stay alive given the presence of a psychopath or two. The black comedy of Arsenic and Old Lace is a bit surprising in a post-Code mid-1940s comedy, but the film did have a strong theatrical pedigree, being an adaptation of a long-running Broadway play. Frank Capra directs what is essentially a stage play with some flair (a bit of a departure from his usual fare), but much of the work is done by the actors. If you want to see a face-off between Cary Grant and Peter Lorre, well, this is your movie. Grant does play the role very broadly, but his facial expressions are terrific—the sequence in which he’s tied up and gagged has some hilarious comedy moments simply because of the way he uses his face and eyes. Grant hasn’t often played a character as out-of-control as in Arsenic and Old Lace, but it works largely because his usual persona is the one we see at the beginning of the film—what if such a person got in as bad a scrap as in here? There’s even a metafictional moment in which his character comments on the stupidity of stage characters … while making the exact same mistakes. The beginning of the film is a bit laborious, but like most farces it converges in time for a high-spirited last act in which everything collides. Some of the acting and staging choices will seem a bit on-the-nose, but Arsenic and Old Lace is still funny and still well-worth seeing today.
(On DVD, September 2018) Alfred Hitchcock, Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman. I could just stop here and that’s all you’d need to know about Notorious. If you really want to know more, consider that it’s a romantic suspense thriller in which an American agent asks the daughter of a disgraced man to offer herself as bait to enemy agents, with the complication that he himself is falling for the woman. (If this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s been re-used in many, many other movies such as Mission: Impossible II) But, of course, the plot is the least of the film’s strengths, what with Hitchcock gleefully messing with the conventions of the romantic thriller and the limitations of the Hays code to deliver a two-minutes on-screen kiss. It’s good fun, especially when you measure today’s expectations against what’s shown in the film. (Ten minutes in, and there’s a drunk-driving sequence that would be flat-out unacceptable today.) The ending is a bit abrupt but no less satisfying. Grant and Bergman are at their respective best here, even though they’re both playing darker version of their usual persona. Still, Notorious remains a worthy Hitchcock thriller from his black-and-white Hollywood phase.
(On TV, July 2018) Cary Grant, Alfred Hitchcock, Grace Kelly and the French Riviera—what more could you ask from To Catch a Thief? Hitchcock here lets go of relentless suspense in order to favour a breezy romantic comedy involving jewels thefts and a former master burglar trying to clear his name. Grant is effortlessly charming as the retired cat-burglar and he sets the mood for the rest of the film. Kelly is blander than expected, although it’s amusing to see her strut around the Riviera given her later position as the Princess of Monaco. John Williams (who always looks like John Cleese to me) also gets a good supporting role as an insurance man helping out the protagonist. Set against the sunny seaside scenery, this is a bit of a departure of Hitchcock, who doesn’t really try for suspense (even when the film could have called for it, such as the final sequence) as much as romantic banter and gentle crime. The atmosphere is well executed and the result is good sunny fun. To modern audiences, To Catch a Thief does have a bit of awkward fifties-style staging—most notably in the nighttime villa burglary sequence, not to mention the quasi-omnipresent rear-screen projection. But, as with the unnatural colours and high-class characters, this is part of the package: watch the film, travel back in time.
(On Cable TV, June 2018) There are many reasons why His Girl Friday shouldn’t work. The characters aren’t particularly nice people. A man about to be executed is at the centre of the film’s premise, which is odd for something often billed as a romantic comedy. A woman in a tragic situation becomes a comic device, and then the film makes it even worse by playing her quasi-suicide for laughs. The ending shows no real character growth. And yet His Girl Friday is fantastic. It’s a riot of laughs, a whirlwind of lightning-fast dialogue, a strong show of characters and it still has, more than seventy years later, both crackling energy and some thematic depth. Cary Grant is wonderful as a tough newspaper editor who browbeats both employees and lovers into doing what he wants—an utterly repellent character transformed into a striking comic figure through sheer acting talent. The first fifteen minutes, in particular, have Grant at his best. Rosalind Russell is equally good as a reporter who can’t quite quit either the business or her ex-husband. A sparkling battle-of-the-sexes comedy of remarriage, doubling as a highly cynical (yet uplifting) look at the news business, His Girl Friday still has plenty to wow audiences even today—the speed of the dialogue alone feels very contemporary and so does the biting cynicism about the news business. The film is optimized for speed, not detail—then-veteran director Howard Hawks (in almost exact mid-career) knew that he didn’t have to do anything to get in the way of his two lead actors, and the results speak for themselves. His Girl Friday is well-known today partly because it accidentally ended up in the public domain and has since then been a staple of late-night cable TV broadcasts, but it’s actually really good on its own. It’s got enough laughs to please modern audiences, especially now that the bad behaviour of its characters doesn’t seem so awful.
(On DVD, June 2018) The great things about digging deeper and deeper in a hobby is that the digging eventually produces its own rewards. In my case, I’ve been watching older and older movies, and discovering new favourite actors. To have The Philadelphia Story pop up on my pile of films to watch at this point is a gift: A movie starring Katharine Hepburn and James Stewart and Cary Grant? What have I done to get such a treat? Even better: it’s a screwball comedy, fast establishing itself as one of my favourite bygone genres. I was primed for a good time and got exactly what I wanted: A fast, witty, fun romantic comedy featuring Hepburn at her most alluring, Stewart as his usual sympathetic self and Grant in a plum comic role. The script provides witty lines, great characters and a savvy understanding of the mechanics of the genre, while director George Cukor keeps things moving even as the film multiplies small subplots on the way to a satisfying conclusion. Among supporting players, Ruth Hussey is surprisingly fun as a no-nonsense photographer, while Virginia Weidler is a discovery as a sassy young sister. Still, this is a picture that belongs to Hepburn, perfectly cast as a woman struggling with goddess-hood. Both Stewart and Grant also play to their strengths, helping to make The Philadelphia Story a definitive statement about three screen legends. It still plays exceptionally well today.
(On Cable TV, May 2018) Great casting can make or break a movie, but I’m still not too sure what it does to Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion. Casting Cary Grant as a suave, sophisticated, easily charming man who ends up hiding an inglorious past to his wife seems like a slam-dunk: By that point in his career, Grant had developed a screen persona ideally suited to this kind of role. But the sword cuts both ways, given how audiences weren’t (and still aren’t) so willing to accept Grant as a purely evil character. Hence the ending that explains a few things and allows viewers to walk away satisfied and reassured in Grant’s persona. It’s a relief of an ending, but is it the most appropriate one? I still don’t know. The novel on which the film is based took a far more ambiguous approach to the same material, keeping up the eponymous suspicion through which the heroine (Joan Fontaine; rather good) comes to regard her new husband. Still, Suspicion remains a joy to watch. Hitchcock had achieved an unusual mastery of balance between comedy and suspense at that stage of his career, and the film’s domestic-paranoia theme would dovetail with a number of similar thrillers throughout the 1940s. The lack of a dark ending may stop the film from reaching its ultimate potential, but I’m not sure I’d change it. After all, I do like my Cary Grant suave, debonair and (ultimately) on the side of the angels even if he’s been a little devil along the way.
(On Cable TV, May 2018) Considering that The Awful Truth is the movie that created Cary Grant’s comic persona, we should be grateful for its existence and for director Leo McCarey’s instincts in guiding Grant toward his vision of the role. This is a late-thirties screwball comedy that practically exemplifies the sophisticated and urbane “Comedy of remarriage” so characteristic to the years following the introduction of the Hays Code: Here we’ve got Grand and co-star Irene Dunne as an unhappily married couple that decides to divorce, then sabotage each other’s new affairs before realizing that they are each other’s best partners. (Try not to think too much about the liberties allowed to only the very rich people in the 1930s.) It’s decently funny—maybe not as much as other later efforts from Grant, but still amusing, and Dunne has good timing as well. (Plus Skippy the dog!) Divorce has rarely been so much fun. The comedy isn’t just about the lines, but the physical performances of the actors and their interactions—read up on the improvisational making-of imposed by McCarey to learn more about how the picture was shaped by on-set ideas and follow-up. If I didn’t already know how much I love screwball comedy, The Awful Truth would have taught me.
(In French, On Cable TV, May 2018) It’s easy to see why Monkey Business is often considered to be a loose follow-up to Bringing up Baby—Howard Hawks is back with a fast-paced comedy, Cary Grant reprises his silly intellectual mode, Ginger Rogers steps in as the wilder female partner and the film is at its best when it’s just goofing around. Thanks to a high-concept premise (what if a serum gave you back your youth … or at least made you regress back in age mentally?), there are plenty of opportunities for random silliness. The film never gets better than seeing Day play at being a bratty schoolgirl, although seeing Marilyn Monroe vamp it up as a voluptuous secretary is also fun. While it’s technically a science-fiction film, Monkey Business is best seen as a farce reteaming Hawks and Grant together and just having fun along the way. (This being said, the film’s best laugh comes early on in the opening credits sequence, as the director tells Grant “not yet” and to go back behind the door before making an entrance. Alas, the film doesn’t go back to metatextual comedy.) It’s really not quite up to Bringing up Baby’s standards—the film is occasionally annoying (the monkey), occasionally dull (anything with the scientists), occasionally offensive to modern sensibilities (never mind “the secretary”; I have in mind the “Indian scalping” schoolyard playing.) It’s still not a bad time thanks to the aforementioned goofing off, but it could have been better.
(On Cable TV, March 2018) It does take a while before Charade comes into focus. It begins strangely, with a contrived meet-cute at a ski resort in the Alps that turns into an even stranger succession of events once the heroine comes back to Paris to find out that her husband has died, a large amount of money is missing, and three strangers really hated her ex-husband. The artificiality of the setup is almost overpowering, and even the comforting presences of Audrey Hepburn as the widow and Cary Grant as a mysterious free agent aren’t quite enough to unpack the heavy-handed setup. But as the deaths and double-crosses being to pile up, Charade does acquire a nice velocity, and even answers the questions raised in the first act. Hepburn is adorable as the endangered heroine, despite being too young for the role. Meanwhile, Grant is terrific as someone who may or may not be friendly—he’s occasionally very funny (ha, that shower scene!), and his last grimace of self-revelation at the very end is like seeing a split-second callback to the classic comedies early in his career. Also noteworthy as supporting roles for Walter Matthau, George Kennedy and James Coburn. Great scores and visual design by Henry Mancini and Saul Bass round up an impressive crew. Surprisingly not directed by Alfred Hitchcock, Charade is increasingly endearing the longer it goes on, and satisfyingly blends romance, comedy and suspense. It’s well worth watching. Just make sure to give it more than thirty minutes to make sense.
(On Cable TV, January 2018) All right. This is it. I am a contended cinephile. When I embarked on a conscious program to watch older movies, I did so supposing that sooner or later, I’d watch a movie that I’d fall in love with. While I’ve been really happy to revisit some old favourites and see them hold up (2001: A Space Odyssey, for instance), or to confirm that some beloved classics are beloved for a reason (Singin’ in the Rain, anyone?), I started watching Bringing up Baby without any expectations other than crossing off a popular title from 1938. Within minutes (specifically the torn dress sequence), however, I was squarely identifying with Cary Grant’s proto-nerd protagonist, falling in love with Katherine Hepburn’s drop-dead gorgeous romantic interest and gasping at the speed and precision of director Howard Hawks’ movie. To put it simply: Bringing Up Baby is as funny, witty and fast as any contemporary romantic comedy, and the 1938 year of release is irrelevant. The plot is a big ball of nonsense that has something to do with a paleontologist, an heiress and a tame leopard. But never mind the plot, as the real strength of the film is in its witty fast-paced dialogue. Hepburn is an instant favourite as a character too crazy to be true … but the entire film is like that, and it plays beautifully even eighty years (!) later. Those who complain that “old” movies are dull and slow clearly haven’t seen Bringing up Baby. It’s raucously funny even today—while contemporary comedic theory holds that chicken and monkeys are the funniest animals, the film makes a strong case that leopards may be a comic engine of their own, as several of the film’s funniest sequences hinge on the eponymous “Baby.” (To be fair, one scene also involves chicken. Being eaten by the leopard.) Considering that the film is often upheld as a representative example of screwball comedies, I have a feeling that I’ve just discovered an untapped vein of pure cinematic bliss. At the pace at which I see movies, I often see them and move on, never to re-watch again. In Bringing up Baby’s case, however, I ended up ordering it on DVD (along with three other similar Hepburn comedies) within days of seeing it. I have a feeling I’ll be extolling its virtues and often lending the DVD in the next few years.
(On TV, August 1999) With Hitchcock’s 100th anniversary celebrations, two local TV stations ran some of his films. While I was not interested enough by Psycho to keep watching it beyond the infamous shower scene and couldn’t muster the interest to see most of The Birds (watched the set-pieces and returned to my book for the remainder of the film), I must admit that North By Northwest still works very, very well forty years later. Okay, most of the special effects are weak and the beginning could be tightened, but the dialogue and the plotting gradually build to a high pitch of interest. Interestingly, the movie uses (defined?) most of the modern conventions of thrillers, up to the gimmicky ending at A Famous Location. Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint are great in their roles, and the overall result is worth a look.
(Second Viewing, On Cable TV, January 2019) Revisiting North by Northwest after seeing so many other Hitchcock or Cary Grant films seemed inevitable—now that I’m more familiar with that era of filmmaking, now that I know the quirks of Hitchcock and the charm of Grant’s performances, would it be as good? Happily, not only is it just as good as I remembered it—it’s even better. There’s a thrilling sense of adventure, plot twists, set-pieces and humour to the film, as Cary Grant becomes the prototypical Hitchcockian man on the run alongside Eva Saint-Marie, going from New York to the Rushmore monument along the way. The conclusion is abrupt, but there’s something to be said for not overstaying one’s welcome. The direction is top-notch, the actors couldn’t be more likable, and the mystery/suspense just keeps going. North by Northwest is simply a fantastic film no matter how you look at it, and no matter when you look at it.¶