The Awful Truth (1937)

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Leo McCarey was probably the best looking, classiest, coolest director in Hollywood in his time. When smoother-than-thou Cary Grant suffered a crisis of confidence shooting this comedy of remarriage and couldn’t switch roles with Ralph Bellamy he ended up imitating McCarey and inadvertently became the hero of the screwball genre and probably the greatest comic actor of all time – and that’s saying something. And this was the role that shaped his approach to most of his other performances. He and Irene Dunne are both playing around and agree to a divorce – but argue for custody of the fabulous Mr Smith the wire fox terrier played by Skippy aka Asta from The Thin Man series – and who wouldn’t? Bellamy is the hayseed oilman she takes up with, Molly Lamont is the wealthy playgirl Cary fools around with, but they can’t avoid their attraction to each other. This ends with a notorious tease and a black cat. Truly, Leo McCarey had the Lubitsch Touch – better even than Lubitsch himself. Art Deco screwball at its most sophisticated and witty. Adapted from Arthur Richman’s play by Vina Delmar with help from Sidney Buchman and McCarey himself. Sublime.

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North by Northwest (1959)

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Alfred Hitchcock wanted to acquire the rights to Graham Greene’s scintillating Cold War (predictive) satire, Our Man in Havana. But Greene was disgusted by what Joe Mankiewicz had recently done with his Vietnam novel, The Quiet American, utterly reversing its political critique, and demurred. Hitchcock was in a rut and his only go project was an adaptation of The Wreck of the Mary Deare but got nowhere in his meetings with screenwriter Ernest Lehman. He really wanted to make a movie with all his usual tropes, starting with an innocent man caught in a case of mistaken identity, culminating in a cliffhanger at Lincoln’s nose on Mount Rushmore. Lehman took his work seriously and travelled across the United States, starting at the United Nations in NYC and finishing at the Presidential monument. And what a ride this is, the first ever movie to mention the CIA, then enjoying a decade of interventionist invasions, coups and takeovers with nary a word in the collaborationist media. Thus we have heavy drinking Mad Man Cary Grant mistaken for a (decoy) spy as he has a drink with colleagues (A Most Unusual Day is the muzak playing in the hotel lobby) and chased all over the place, from suave James Mason’s Long Island mansion in Glen Cove (homaged in Eyes Wide Shut), fingered for murder in the Delegates’ Lounge at the UN, meeting cute with Eva Marie Saint on a train ride, chased by a crop-dusting plane in cornfields, to (literally) hanging out of Mount Rushmore. It’s all about a piece of microfilm  and fake spies, but nobody cares. This is extraordinary, audacious filmmaking, with everyone concerned at the top of their game, from the cinematographer Robert Burks, to editor George Tomasini, composer Bernard Herrmann who gifts it with a marvellous score and the classic title sequence designed by Saul Bass, to Cary Grant, who couldn’t have been more sophisticated if he tried. Did anyone ever look better in a grey suit? Hitchcock made a series of serious spy films in the 1960s, attempting to deflate the ironic effect of this film – it bred James Bond (Hitchcock was the first choice to direct Dr No) and a host of camp imitators. The audience didn’t like the realism that was John le Carre’s signature being hoicked onto Hitchcock’s style and despite the success of the star-led Torn Curtain, the director’s influence began to diminish. Yet we are in constant danger of underestimating his importance. With this, the action film was born:  an attractive hero, an innuendo-laden romance with a dubious woman, staggering standalone setpieces, and all the while tongue firmly in cheek while satirising contemporary politics at large in a film with a crazy plot that nobody cares about but which physically acknowledges the audience, De Mille-style. The only letdown nowadays is the impossibility of seeing it in VistaVision – what an amazing experience that must have been in 1959. Dazzling.

Charade (1963)

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One of the great entertainments, from the pen of Peter Stone (aka Pierre Marton – get it?!) with a story by him and Marc Behm, and directed by the estimable Stanley Donen. Audrey is the befuddled widow whose husband turns out to have been in on a wartime heist and she’s expected to know where he stashed the loot; Cary’s the guy from the US embassy keen to help her out … or is he? With hubby’s ex-gang after her for the money, nobody is who they seem in this play on identity, a pastiche of thriller tropes that is betimes gleefully black – George Kennedy’s hook for a hand lends itself to a lot of interesting outcomes! Walter Matthau is brilliantly cast as the CIA man. Great romance, wonderful locations in Paris and Megeve, incredible stars and extremely slickly done. This is pure Hitchcockian enjoyment with the difference being that the gender roles are switched and we care about the McGuffin. On a meta level, the use of names is particular to people on the production – eg Cary is called Peter Joshua after Stanley Donen’s sons. Stone plays the man in the elevator, Jim Clark edits and Charles Lang does the incredible cinematography. Audrey is dressed by Hubert de Givenchy – qui d’autre?!  For lovers of Paris you get a travelogue of practically everything you want to see – the Comedie Francaise, the Eiffel Tower, Les Halles, the Theatre de Guignol … Watch for that classic titles sequence by Maurice Binder and music by Henry Mancini. This came out the week after JFK was assassinated so maybe its humour wasn’t loved that winter, but it’s going with me on that desert island for sure. Totally delightful.

I’m No Angel (1933)

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“A story about a gal who lost her reputation – and never missed it!” Mae West’s only sole screenwriting credit offers good lewd raucous fun in this tale of a circus performer who wings her way to New York and woos rich men but a fortune teller says she will fall for a man with black hair. And he’s Cary Grant, whom West spotted on the Paramount lot one day and made a star. Yowza!

Notorious (1946)

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Roman Polanski has said that films are made of moments – and there are so many of them here in this story of adultery, espionage and post-war intrigue in South America. The alcoholic stupor of Bergman. The kissing scene (dialogue by Clifford Odets, uncredited). The keys and uranium in the wine cellar. The race. S&M, drinking, Nazis, spying … what a screenplay (by Ben Hecht from an uncredited story by John Taintor Foote) and what sublime direction by Hitchcock (originally under the very watchful eye of producer David O. Selznick). One of the first great mature Hitchcock films. Classic.

His Girl Friday (1940)

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The originating play The Front Page had already been filmed in 1931 and the Ben Hecht-Charles Macarthur hit was turned into a battle of the sexes/career woman comedy by Howard Hawks at a reading in his home one Sunday afternoon when Rosalind Russell was visiting. She becomes Hildy, the ex of Walter Burns, go-getting newspaper editor, who wants her to cover an execution at Cook County Jail just as she’s going to get married to a man who will let her settle down. The overlapping dialogue is legendary and the performances classic, yet it’s still not my favourite screwball, despite its great newspaper jibes and submerged violence. Adapted by Charles Lederer with some uncredited help from Hecht and Morrie Ryskind. And that’s Ralph Bellamy in the Ralph Bellamy part, as Grant helpfully informs us.