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28 April 2021updated 08 Sep 2021 7:22am

Cary Grant’s turn in the 1950s romcom Indiscreet is a lesson in effortlessness

In challenging times, I often find myself returning to a clip from Stanley Donen’s slight and elegant 1958 film Indiscreet. 

By Philippa Snow

In challenging times, I often find myself returning to a clip from Stanley Donen’s slight and elegant 1958 film Indiscreet, a film about the travails of true love between two stubborn, clever people, which is also an advertisement for the extraordinary flexibility of Cary Grant.

In the scene in question, he and Ingrid Bergman are attending what can only be characterised as an upmarket Highland fling, with Bergman in a silken, burnished Dior gown and Grant, of course, in a tuxedo. She is furious with him, having been deceived about his marital status, and intends to let him stew. Instead, he tries to melt the ice by dancing.

It is futile to try to describe what exactly happens in the following two minutes: per the age-old saying about writing about music, writing about Grant’s attempt at an ecstatic Highland jig is very much like dancing about architecture, maybe because his attempt is as much architecture as it is a dance. Grant is all right angles, sharp lines, superhuman stretch; he is cool and he is also, in the best possible way, a goober and a lunatic. He does a high kick while maintaining a transfixing stillness in his upper body that is almost spooky in its genius. Because times have rarely been more challenging than they are now, I have had more reason than ever to revisit this particular, peculiar comic spectacle many times over the past 12 months. It is never disappointing, never dated and consistently, miraculously funny.

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Indiscreet, being a romcom from the tail-end of the 1950s that somehow manages to feel more contemporary than most of those made in the past decade, will appeal to viewers who tend to prefer sparring over sweetness. Bergman is a bachelorette named Anna, a successful theatre actress and a brilliantly tough and independent kind of broad – the opposite of an ingénue. She has recently returned from a holiday in Mallorca with a man her sister describes as resembling “a Greek statue”, having cut short the trip after swiftly growing bored of her Adonis. “He talked like a Greek statue, too,” Anna observes sharply, noting that she is looking for someone with a brain – a thinker rather than a rich man or a pretty piece of decor. Moments later, her brother-in-law arrives with Grant in tow; he stands there in the doorway of her home, bronzed, glowing and casual, as if he already lived there.

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Grant, of course, does not look entirely unlike a Greek statue (perhaps better yet, he looks just like Cary Grant). Still, the real moment of connection between Anna and his character, an economist called Philip Adams, is exactly as she’d hoped: they thrust and parry conversationally until both are spent. Later that night, she watches him give an extremely boring speech about investments with such interest that we know the two will end up engaged, even if it takes them 90 minutes of hijinks and bickering to arrive at their destination.

Grant and Bergman, who remained close friends off-screen for many years, have the kind of easy, smooth rapport that makes Philip and Anna’s on-and-off-and-on-again romance feel like it wasn’t simply designed by a screenwriter adhering to a formula. We are never unsure about how Indiscreet will end, but the way it gets there – lightly, cleverly, at a pace and with a rhythm that is closer to a foxtrot than a sprint – makes the exercise worthwhile. Effortlessness, or the illusion of effortlessness, can be steadying and soothing.

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Another clip I’ve found extremely cheering lately is the closing scene of Thomas Vinterberg’s complex and melancholy pitch-black comedy, Another Round (2020), in which Mads Mikkelsen’s character finally cuts loose and performs some of the jazz-ballet he studied as a younger, happier man. Mikkelsen – an actor who has the distinct advantage of being delicate and moving in close-ups at the same time as possessing, thanks to a formative background in the dance world, a supreme and weightless grace in wider shots – may be the closest thing we now have to Grant in cinema: a clothes horse and a gymnast, a consummate pratfaller and a dramatic leading man.

Evidently, I am not the only person to find similarities between the two. “Mikkelsen’s effortless performance,” the film critic Walter Chaw wrote in his review of Another Round, “nudges him farther into Cary Grant territory as someone who won’t be recognised for the actor he is because he doesn’t appear to be trying.” What could be more pleasurable, in trying times like these, than the idea of being somebody – airborne, unencumbered and entirely free – who does not seem to need to try at all?

“Indiscreet” is available to watch on Amazon Prime Video

[See also: Mank and the long, troubled history of Hollywood and politics]

This article appears in the 28 Apr 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The new battle of ideas