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Parting shots from Cary Grant

A new boxed set studies the actor in transition through the prism of some farewell roles.

January 06, 2008|Dennis Lim | Special to The Times

The new four-disc Cary Grant "collector's set" from Lionsgate, to be released Tuesday and which samples from the final decade of the actor's screen career, might be more accurately termed a "completist's set."

Sony's 2006 box, which draws from Grant's screwball-comedy heyday (and includes, among others, "His Girl Friday" and "Holiday"), is without question a more valuable addition to any home-video library.

Those looking for examples of his finest dramatic roles would do well to start with the classics he made with Alfred Hitchcock: "Notorious," which is available in a Criterion edition, loaded with extras, and "North by Northwest" and "Suspicion," which can be found in Warner's Hitchcock box.

Flimsy as it is, though, this new set -- which contains "Indiscreet" (1958), "Operation Petticoat" (1959), "The Grass Is Greener" (1960) and "That Touch of Mink" (1962) -- has a certain curiosity value. The movies are, to put it kindly, minor. But they speak to the eternal conundrum of the aging movie star, and this was a problem Grant deflected and tackled with customary agility.

He appeared in his last film -- the forgettable comedy "Walk Don't Run" -- in 1966, at age 62, a full 20 years before his death. He first decided to pack it in at age 50 but was lured back to the business after a two-year absence by Hitchcock, who paired him with Grace Kelly in 1955's "To Catch a Thief." By then, next to a younger, grittier generation of Method men led by Marlon Brando and James Dean, Grant was already a throwback. Which, of course, accounted for his appeal.

Off-screen, the middle-aged Grant had his eccentricities -- he openly discussed experimenting with hypnosis and LSD therapy, which was legal at the time. On-screen, however, he was as dependable as ever, the perfect gentlemanly specimen, and his popularity only increased after the false alarm of his early retirement.

The Lionsgate set provides a somewhat misleading snapshot of his autumnal period -- he did some of his most vivid work in such late triumphs as "North by Northwest" (1959) and "Charade" (1963). But even in the trifles gathered here, you can see how well he took to maturity.

Grant's magnetism was rooted in the knowing, exuberant ease of his manner, and, as he got older, things seemed to get more effortless for him. And as Pauline Kael noted in a 1975 appreciation, Grant somehow got better-looking. "The sensual lusciousness was burned off," she wrote. "Age purified him."

"Operation Petticoat," a dopey World War II comedy directed by Blake Edwards, is the odd one out in this set. In the other three movies, Grant plays variations on the rakish sophisticate familiar from the overwhelming majority of his filmography -- which is to say, he plays "Cary Grant." (Grant himself best summed up the allure of his persona: "Everybody wants to be Cary Grant," he famously said. "Even I want to be Cary Grant.")

There are similarities between "Indiscreet" and "The Grass Is Greener." Both are semi-satirical attacks on the institution of marriage, both were directed by Stanley Donen -- who gave Grant his last great role in "Charade" -- both were adapted from plays (as is glaringly apparent in their stiffer moments) and both reteamed Grant with costars (Ingrid Bergman and Deborah Kerr, respectively) who had appeared with him in better films ("Notorious" and "An Affair to Remember").

In the '60s films, an ambivalence creeps into the standard conception of Grant the romantic hero. In "The Grass Is Greener," his character is a cuckold, on the losing end of a romantic battle with, of all people, laconic tough-guy Robert Mitchum. "That Touch of Mink," in which Grant tries to bed a virtuous Doris Day (20 years his junior), self-consciously tiptoes to the brink of lechery. It was the last time Grant, a self-invented man and a star who understood the terms of his own stardom, played the romantic aggressor. The script of "Charade" was rewritten, at his request, so that Audrey Hepburn's character would pursue his.

Three years later, with his trademark mix of tact and control, he would take his leave, before age could do any harm to "Cary Grant," the icon and ideal he had spent decades refining.

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