Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint in "North by Northwest"
Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint in "North by Northwest"

My own fever dream of Cary Grant takes place between cities, sitting down for a Gibson with Eva Marie Saint on a moving train somewhere in Middle America. Headed "North by Northwest," he's at his sexiest then, temples just flecked with gray, tanned and almost ageless. He's not just the recipient of her advances: he's asking for it.

"The most publicly seduced male the world has known," Pauline Kael wrote in The New Yorker in 1975, "The Man from Dream City" held his leading ladies' brazen overtures at arms length as surely as he did studio contracts, of which he signed exactly zero after 1937. For Kael, Grant -- whether with Mae West or Audrey Hepburn, Ingrid Bergman or Jean Arthur -- was "the pursued," not the pursuer, maintaining his elegant reserve in the face of innumerable temptations. Like the sharp, sheen part in his hair, like the hint of southwest England's Archie Leach that warbled past on the soundtrack, this reticence seemed never to recede, as though woven into the fabric of his character.

But Kael underestimated his sly aggression, the way he had of egging on men and women alike. He could play stubborn, even willful. In "Holiday" (George Cukor, 1938), pleading for a respite from the drive to make money, Grant presses his case to his fiancee (Doris Nolan) and future father-in-law (Henry Kolker), mixing idealism with forthright vigor. "You knew all that talk would antagonize him!" she cries. "You think talk is all it was?" he asks. "Haven't you the remotest idea what I'm after?"

Making Grant "the male love object," as Kael does, allows us to forget that he was always "after" something -- someone -- too, even if the snare he laid was a silent one. It's Grant, after all, who shows up at Irene Dunne's apartment in "The Awful Truth" (Leo McCarey, 1937) hoping to patch up their marriage; who devises the newsroom plot to sabotage Rosalind Russell's impending nuptials in "His Girl Friday" (Howard Hawks, 1940); who lands the first jab, against Katharine Hepburn's Main Line socialite, in the opening sequence of "The Philadelphia Story" (Cukor, 1940). To use a writer's metaphor: Grant wasn't just object but subject, the actor on the leading edge of the verb.  

When the women inevitably came to him, drunk or desperate near the end of the movie, the slight chilliness he exuded may have implied distance, but in this lay his enduring genius. If I agree with Kael on the merits, I disagree (gulp) on the mechanics: Grant the movie star achieved that irresistible balance we look for in our own love lives. He's the man who wants us, though not too much, at least not enough to grovel.

He charms Deborah Kerr in "An Affair to Remember" (McCarey, 1957), for example, by ordering pink champagne, then undercuts his own intentions by saying he's reserved a table for one, then waits for her to suggest they get out of here. "The heroine who chases him knows that deep down he wants to be caught only by her," Kael wrote, but it's Grant who's doing the catching. He knows, as perhaps even she does not, that she's the one who wants to be caught -- and sets his snare as though cornering the king in chess, always three moves ahead.