Body-conscious acting,perfected by Cary Grant,has nearly vanished from movies today
North by Northwest,Alfred Hitchcocks sprawling 1959 thriller that takes us to the top of Mount Rushmore by way of a near-miss with a killer crop-duster,begins with the basics. A man is walking down a corridor. But because the man is Cary Grant,the moment is anything but ordinary.
He has us at the first step: that long,brisk stride and its driving rhythm,a ticktock pace that telegraphs purpose,clarity and elegant efficiency. We watch him stroll out of an elevator towards the street,dictating correspondence to the secretary at his side. Theres a relaxed,easy give in Grants body as he moves,and as he leans towards his secretary while he speaks to herhes so very pleased with his own labours,and yet so exquisitely courteous to his assistant. Hes getting further under our skin with every move.
What Grants character,advertising executive Roger Thornhill,is actually saying in this scene isnt nearly as important as his movement. Its the movement that hooks us. It always does. Grant knew a timeless truth: There is nothing we watch so keenly as the human body in action,because the way it moves tells a story.
Grants art was all about physical expressiveness and emotional understatement. Like the very best dancers,Grant based each role on an array of physical details. Revisit His Girl Friday (1940),one of filmdoms most perfect creations,directed by Howard Hawks. Sparks between newspaper editor Walter Burns (Grant) and his ex-reporter and ex-wife Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) pop the whole way through,but in one scene Grants nuanced physical maneuvering is particularly marvellous. Seated over a polite lunch with his former bride (for whom he still pines) and her new fiance,Bruce (Ralph Bellamy),Walter aims to show Hildy just how foolish her fantasy of impending domestic bliss sounds.
Ah yes,a home with Mother, he enthusesthen theres a smothered chortle and a little roll of his shoulderand in Albany,too! Its a picture of devastating mockery,but so slight and slippery that Bruce doesnt notice. Hildy does,and we do,too. Grant orchestrates the moment perfectly. Its not flamboyant,theres nothing self-indulgent in that gesture,and its over in a winkbut it reveals the calculating trickiness as well as the feelings of his character.
Hitchcock was a master at exploiting Grants elegance,and North by Northwest is the definitive study of Grant in motion. Here,in fact,is film as modern ballet,revolving around brilliantly restrained duets and Grants stylised bravura solo turns that explode with drama and emotion.
There are no Cary Grants today. But there are a few actors who engage us with performances of luscious physical awareness. Sean Penns liberating,joyous mobility in Milk is a sterling example. Tom Cruise pays attention to his physical form in his movies. Particularly when hes runningnobody looks better in a sprint than Cruise did in Mission: Impossible III. The ever-relaxed,deadpan Bill Murray is another Grant offshoot. He delivers a Grant-like sense of comfort in his own skin in the masterfully underplayed Lost in Translation.
Yet,its a woman who is most like Grant todayCate Blanchett,who plays a dancer in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. There is a reined-in elegance about her,a sense of explosiveness carefully under wraps,which gives her an active presence even when shes not moving.