The man who made men seem like a good idea

Gaby Wood

  • Cary Grant: A Class Apart by Graham McCann
    Fourth Estate, 346 pp, £16.99, September 1996, ISBN 1 85702 366 8

A man has been mistaken for somebody else. He has been kidnapped, forced to drink a bottle of bourbon and sent off to meet his death in a stolen car. He survives, and decides it is time to get things straight. He bribes his way into the hotel room of the man he is supposed to be. On the table he finds a photograph of the person who tried to kill him the night before. In the bathroom he finds a ‘bulleted’ hairbrush – his double had dandruff. In the wardrobe he finds a suit. He takes off his impeccably tailored Hitchcock-grey jacket and pulls on the other man’s. He shrugs uncomfortably to make the collar sit, then lets his arm hang in mid-air as he stares with distaste at the shortness of the cuffs. He holds the trousers up to his waist. They couldn’t be less his style. Gangster bags with woven stripes and turn-ups – and they stop halfway down his shin. ‘Obviously,’ he exclaims, as if this were the worst injustice done to him, ‘they’ve mistaken me for a much shorter man!’

The well-dressed man in a fix is, of course, Cary Grant – a man whose ‘lean-fitting suit’, according to Pauline Kael, ‘seemed the skin of his character’. His audience has come to see his suits as part of his image: clean-cut and suave, all-weather, drip-dry. Together, they can go through anything and come up smelling of Fabergé. As in art, in life: Grant remembered his father being the person who had ‘first put into my mind the idea of buying one good superior suit rather than a number of inferior ones. Then, even when it is threadbare, at least people will know at once it was good.’ Grant’s personal assistant in the Seventies recalls that ‘there was something about Grant that made his clothes stay in perfect shape. While on other people clothes developed stains, creases and spots, Grant’s remained impeccable.’

But the image of a well-cut suit covers up the ever-present underside of Cary Grant. Whether he’s the grinning fibber of The Awful Truth, the nervy nincompoop of Bringing Up Baby, or the irresistible lover suspected of murder in Suspicion, there is always something in Grant that makes sophistication turn. In some films this aspect is unknowably criminal, but even at Grant’s silliest, ‘each movement,’ Kael wrote, ‘was as certain as the pen-strokes of a master cartoonist.’ He was awkward to a tee.

So the moment in North by Northwest when Grant puts on somebody’s else’s ill-fitting jacket epitomises his screen image. By 1959, when this film was made, Grant had spent some of his most famously ridiculous screen moments wearing clothes that were not his own: a feathery negligée in Bringing Up Baby, a leopard-skin dressing-gown in My Favourite Wife, full drag in I Was a Male War Bride. The more renownedly well-fitting his own clothes were, the funnier he was in someone else’s.

In the Hitchcock film, the suit marks a turning-point: having been kidnapped, Grant (Roger Thornhill) is taken to a country house and interrogated by James Mason (Van Damme), who assumes Grant is one George Kaplan. After the bourbon and the car, Grant returns to the scene of the crime with the police, only to find all signs of his story erased. While he is trying on Kaplan’s suit in the hotel room, the phone rings. He answers. It is one of his kidnappers, who sniffs at Grant’s protestations about his identity: ‘You answer his telephone. You live in his hotel room. And yet you are not Mr Kaplan.’ The kidnapper is right to sniff. Grant has put himself in a position in which, logically, he ought to be George Kaplan. The valet assumed he was, so did the housekeeper. (‘This is room 796 isn’t it? So you’re the gentleman in room 796, aren’t you?’) A few minutes later we are watching a US Intelligence meeting, where someone is saying with a shrug: ‘How can you get mistaken for George Kaplan when George Kaplan doesn’t even exist?’

We find out long before Cary Grant does: George Kaplan is an invention, a ‘non-existent decoy’. The suit that Grant was trying on didn’t belong to anyone. Or rather, it belonged to nobody; the same nobody Grant’s identity would get tangled up in for the rest of the film. For a moment he was inside that suit, the unsuspecting accomplice in the making of another man. The suit didn’t fit him, but there is no ‘shorter man’ it ever did fit. Since it wasn’t made for anyone else, it must belong to the person who has it on (‘you’re the gentleman in room 796, aren’t you?’). George Kaplan isn’t anyone else, so he must be Cary Grant.

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