By Maureen Lee Lenker
It’s impossible to pick a list of favorite Cary Grant movies. Grant was the quintessential movie star of the classic era (and this writer’s favorite actor of all time). His unique combination of charm, humor, gravitas, and dashing good looks gave him an enduring and successful screen career. This was aided by his ability to play anything from screwball comedy to nail-biting suspense to heart-tugging romance.
Born to a working-class family in Bristol (England) and using his skills as an acrobat and circus performer to take him across the sea to a Hollywood career, Grant’s own life was often far from the suave image he put forth. He once famously said, “Everybody would like to be Cary Grant. So would I.”
Grant made over 70 films, and many of them are prime examples of their genre. So, how on earth can we possibly reduce a man with a staggering filmography chock-full of excellent movies to a list of five titles?
To be honest, we can’t. For this list, we’ve tried to pick at least one film from all the varied genres he succeeded in and to pick a wide swath of titles from his multi-decade career. But, we could just as easily substitute equally as compelling and exciting films in each of these slots and still have a “Cracker Jack” list. So, keeping that in mind, here are our top five Cary Grant films…
5) An Affair to Remember (1957)
With An Affair to Remember, Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr set the gold standard for weepie romantic films. Grant’s playboy Nickie meets Deborah Kerr’s singer Terry onboard a transatlantic cruise and the pair fall in love, despite their prior attachments. They plan to meet in six months atop the Empire State Building, but tragedy intervenes when Terry is hit by a cab while she’s “looking up.” Grant was nearing the tail-end of his career here, but he’s rarely been more romantic onscreen. We dare you to keep a dry eye and a lump out of your throat in the final scene when the lovers reunite and Nickie realizes what a cad he’s unintentionally been.
4) Notorious (1946)
Though Grant’s most romantic film is undeniably An Affair to Remember, he smolders with desire and longing in Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious. Grant plays Devlin, a government agent, who recruits and oversees the spy work of Alicia (Ingrid Bergman), as she must seduce and marry a man suspected of leading a Nazi spy ring. The complication – in the midst of their espionage, Devlin and Alicia fall in love. Hitchcock pushed the barriers of the censorship code with one of the longest kisses ever recorded on screen (sneakily breaking the characters apart in keeping with code restrictions but keeping them touching at all times). It sizzles right off the screen. And the push and pull between Devlin’s duty that manifests as callousness and his deep yearning for Alicia tugs at the heartstrings. Hitchcock never made a more romantic film, as he nails the ending with a mix of terror and romantic climax.
3) Charade (1963)
Charade is arguably the best and most Hitchcockian suspense film ever made by someone other than Alfred Hitchcock. Directed by Stanley Donen (best known for collaborations with Gene Kelly), the film follows Reggie (Audrey Hepburn) who finds herself in danger following her husband’s murder when she is pursued by fortune hunters. Despite not knowing whether he’s a good guy or not, Reggie finds herself falling for Peter Joshua (Cary Grant), a man who comes to her initial rescue – though he may also be in pursuit of the mysterious, missing fortune. Grant and Hepburn make a lovely onscreen team – their elegance, sophistication, wry humor, and gift with subtle emotion create the ideal match. Grant plays their significant age difference for laughs, and the film manages to include multiple moments of humor and romance amid all the thrills. In this film, he is at turns duplicitous, irresistible, and dashing – the perfect romantic suspense thriller hero.
2) The Philadelphia Story (1940)
Cary Grant excelled in the screwball comedy, and never is this on better display than in The Philadelphia Story. Opposite the likes of Irene Dunne, Rosalind Russell, and Katharine Hepburn, Grant cultivated a wry, wisecracking, satirical sense of humor that made him the ideal rom-com leading man. His comedy chops are on full blast here as C.K. Dexter Haven, Tracy Lord’s (Katharine Hepburn) first husband. When he shows up at the Lord estate just days before Tracy’s wedding, he upends the entire proceedings. In the process, he makes Tracy and the audience understand why these two broke up, but how much they still belong together. Grant had many outstanding co-stars (and made other hilarious films with Hepburn), but it doesn’t get much better than a trio that includes him, Katharine Hepburn, and Jimmy Stewart.
1) North by Northwest (1959)
Grant was one of Hitchcock’s favorite leading men, and he put his skills as a comedian, former acrobat, romantic leading man, and suspense thriller hero to good use in North by Northwest. Perhaps no other film so expertly uses all of Grant’s immense talents in one place. As Roger Thornhill, a man who finds himself on the run after being falsely excused of murdering a U.N. diplomat, Grant veers from comedy to terror to romance. One minute he’s wooing Eva Marie Saint in a train car and the next he’s being mowed down by a crop duster or scaling Mount Rushmore. With North by Northwest, Hitchcock took hold of Grant’s persona and employed every aspect of it to further his own storytelling aims. It’s a nearly perfect blend of the two Hollywood giants’ masterful skills.
Though you could easily replace Philadelphia Story with Bringing up Baby or put Suspicion in place of Notorious and so forth, one thing is inarguable – Cary Grant was a consummate movie star who always put a unique and irresistible stamp on every role he played.