Cary Grant made four films with Alfred Hitchcock. The first two made in the forties were quite atypical Grant with Suspicion where he played a husband possibly planning a murder, and Notorious where he played a very cold government agent. They would re-team again a decade later with To Catch a Thief which likely is more fitting to Grant's usual style, but that film was really just a bit too breezy for its own good with the thriller elements being particular lax in nature. North By Northwest is the only time where Grant collaborated with Hitchcock as one of his wrong man on the run characters. Although he was wrong man of sorts in To Catch a Thief as a thief who just happened to be the thief the police were looking for, he certainly did not seem very worried about getting caught at any point. North By Northwest is a much stronger thriller, and in turn Grant gets a far more interesting role to play in the film. As most wrong man performances though Grant begins the film as a fairly innocuous character, while innocuous in that his biggest concern is to make sure he gets a message to his mother.
Cary Grant is completely in his element in these early scenes as he has such a delicate feather almost feather touch manner towards the proceedings. Grant is his extremely charming self as he is in such a lighter role, although this might be Grant as his most charming. He really does just brighten up the screen with his presence this time, as he makes Thornhill an immensely likable character in just a couple of these early scenes, and by couple I mean two, that by time he is kidnapped, due to a mistake by his captors, we are fully invested into his character's survival. Thornhill realizes he's become the wrong man by being greeted by a group of strange men including a well spoken yet sinister fellow (James Mason). Grant is simply superb in this role as he simply thrives so well in the material he is given. Grant not only fully shows how any average man would react to being confronted with such strange accusations, that being complete confusion, but he also injects so much humor into the proceedings. This scene might not even necessarily have been that funny, but the way Grant plays through it is remarkable. He never takes away the seriousness of the situation yet is marvelous in the way he brings out the joke that's being played on poor Roger.
Of course in perhaps the film's most overt comic scene though where Thornhill attempts to make out where he is exactly after ending up in a police station after narrowly surviving assassination via drunkenness. Well Grant's good at doing a Thomas Mitchell sort of drunk, and is quite enjoyable throughout the sequence. I've particularly loved his surprise while being in a certain daze as he attempts to drive the vehicle that was meant to ensure his demise. Due to not being able to find any exact proof his captors existence this leads Thornhill on a strange chase to try to find out who this person is that those men were so sure he was. This does lead Thornhill any where particularly helpful since one of these places ends up making him another wrong man in a murder investigation. The simple fact of it is Grant is supremely watchable and compelling just to view go through the process of the thriller. The screen could not be more his friend here, because one would be hard pressed to name a performer more at ease than Grant is here, while still keeping one invested in the story. Grant does not slack in this regard in the least and is excellent in the way he reflects every little twist that Thornhill faces in his expression. He's captivating here and flows so well with the style of the film.
Thornhill only gets further into the plot when he runs into a woman Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) on a train who seems to have plenty of secrets of her own since she is perhaps just a little too willing to help Thornhill who by this point is a suspected murderer. Grant's flawlessness in the role only seems to continue in these scenes as maneuvers in these scenes quite adeptly. Although a lot of their talk is Bogie/Bacall sort of innuendos, Grant brings a little more to it then that as he shows the way that Thornhill is swept up a bit by her let's say eagerness. Of course after she leads him into a trap Grant is terrific in the way he projects the coldness and suspicion in Thornhill as starts to figure out she is perhaps another trick being played on him. This brings us to one of my favorite scenes of the film where Thornhill has another face off with Mason's character. Now it needs to be said that Grant has such a wonderful understanding of the tone of the film, and while quite simply the style of the dialogue. There is not a wasted line that Grant delivers that he does not bring something to. This includes Thornhill unorthodox method of getting away from potential assassins by acting as the lout at an auction, and Grant is absolutely hilarious in his realization of Thornhill's plan.
This eventually causes Thornhill to leave his position as the wrong of the film and forces him to become a bit of James Bond figure. It's easy to see why he was approached for the role of James Bond in Dr. No as he certainly shows his chops for that role in the film, particularly in the film's climax. Well Grant already has the charm in spades, and can deliver a line for all its worth. Grant here shows even more than that though in the way he does bring weight to the action sequences, which in a way shows the strength of this performance. You always care about what happens in the action sequences because you care about poor Roger Thornhill throughout, and Grant never depicts Thornhill as some sort of action hero in any of these scenes. In fact he presents him to have plenty of fear of death during these scenes, and helps heighten the tension of each. It actually seems a little odd that it took Hitchcock so long to fully utilize Grant's abilities, but at he finally managed to do so here. Grant could not be a more perfect fit for the role. He is just on top of things throughout the film as he ensures to deliver just about as much entertainment as the film has to offer through his work. Grant here shows that one does not need to bare his soul to give a great performance, since this is a great performance by Cary Grant.