Alfred Hitchcock’s Boundary-Defying Leading Men

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While Alfred Hitchcock’s penchant for blonde leading ladies–Grace Kelly, Kim Novak, Tippi Hedren, and Janet Leigh–was widely known, the director also favored several starring actors. But as he played on the strengths of the women he cast, with Kelly playing well-to-do socialites in Rear Window, Dial M for Murder, and To Catch a Thief, Hitchcock pushed his male leads–namely James Stewart and Cary Grant–into challenging, psychological roles. Full of drama, suspense, and sometimes downright terror, Hitchcock’s films tapped into another side of the Hollywood stars who were recognized for their box office hits like The Philadelphia Story and His Girl Friday.

At the start of his collaboration with Hitchock in 1948, Stewart was already a three-time Oscar nominee and one-time winner, with a reputation for his amiable charm on and off the big screen. His impressionable drawl, good looks, and affable demeanor made him Hollywood gold and he became known as the model everyman of American cinema. Stewart starred in four Hitchcock films throughout his career, and while always the protagonist, his roles in the thrillers pushed him to explore darker themes.

For his debut Hitchcock film, Rope, Stewart played Rupert Cadell, a college professor who’s philosophical discussions inadvertently inspire two former students, Brandon and Phillip, to murder a fellow schoolmate. Cadell’s suspicions rise as he spends an evening at a small party hosted by Brandon and Phillip, who become increasingly reckless and guilt-ridden, respectively, throughout the movie.

Stewart would continue playing men who get caught in the web of deceit and murder for his other Hitchcock titles. In 1954’s Rear Window, which is largely celebrated as the director’s best film, Stewart’s character voyeuristically inserts himself in his neighbor’s misdoings by watching him through a pair of binoculars. Two years later, he starred opposite Doris Day in The Man Who Knew Too Much, which follows an American couple on holiday who get swept into an assassination plot. For Vertigo, his final Hitchcock feature, Stewart played a private investigator with a fear of heights. His character’s assignment leads him to fall in love with and become fixated on his subject, all while unwittingly becoming tangled in a murderous scheme. Throughout these roles, Stewart stepped further away from his persona as a stalwart man of decency as Hitchcock pushed him towards characters that give into their obsessions and operate in the shadows.

With Grant as another marquee leading man, also starring in four Hitchcock films, the director took a different approach. While Grant’s characters in Suspicion, Notorious, To Catch a Thief, and North by Northwest all are subject to the hallmark suspenseful twists and turns that Hitchcock masterfully devised, they emerge as vindicated figures for the most part. Grant’s reputation as a handsome good guy even altered the plot of Suspicion, in which Hitchcock originally intended for the actor’s character to be the villain. The film studio, however, wouldn’t allow it, in the name of protecting Grant’s image.

Instead of falling victim to feverish infatuations with the mysteries at hand, like Stewart’s characters, Grant’s suave presence helps him clear his name and get the girl. Nevertheless, Grant’s roles in Hitchcock’s movies frayed at his charming facade, introducing a more ambiguous and dark side to his portfolio. In To Catch a Thief, the actor plays a retired cat burglar whose checkered past leads the authorities to suspect him as the perpetrator of a string of jewel robberies–until he corners the true criminal red-handed.

Besides bringing in the star power of Stewart and Grant, Hitchcock also favored the talent of Leo G. Carroll and Donald Calthrop for supporting roles. Carroll appeared in six Hitchcock flicks (including Suspicion and North by Northwest), and Calthrop in five, giving them second and third place for the most Hitchcock titles under their belts. First place goes to actress Clare Greet who worked with Hitchcock on seven films over nearly two decades.

Hitchcock’s leading men no doubt helped bolster their respective films within the director’s canon, with Stewart and Grant’s thrillers largely recognized as important works in classic cinema. Even ones that did not originally receive critical praise at the time of release, such as Vertigo, are now considered among the greatest films of all time.

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