However, Grant also could transition effortlessly to action-adventure movies and dramas, including Gunga Din (1939), Destination Tokyo (1943), and Notorious (1946). The latter is of special note while regarding his Bond pedigree since it was a thriller directed by Alfred Hitchcock and the second of four movies the star and auteur made together. As always, Hitch was attracted to Grant’s box office-friendly charisma as well his seemingly preternatural ability to conjure an unshakable coolness. And in Notorious, Hitch cast Grant as a spy; one who seduces and then falls in love with an asset (Ingrid Bergman), whom he still sends into the lion’s den in order to root out Nazis hiding in South America (a general plotline that Mission: Impossible II would more or less steal to worse effect 55 years later).
But it’s really the movies Grant and Hitchcock made after Notorious that laid the groundwork for what would become the James Bond franchise and all other mainstream espionage thrillers. The first was To Catch a Thief (1955), which is also a forerunner for the modern, smirking heist genre. In the film, Grant plays a retired cat burglar extraordinaire who spends his days living the good life at high-end casinos along the French Riviera. Living in a world of baccarat and martinis, cigarettes and sex, and an existence where cocktail hour always demands a tuxedo, Grant epitomized in this film the kind of lifestyle that author Ian Fleming was also glamorizing for readers around the same time in the novel Casino Royale (1953).
That film presented audiences with what was obviously Hitchcock’s not-so-platonic ideal of the “cool blonde,” with Grace Kelly as a thief of her own who catches Grant’s eye and attempts a cat-and-mouse game of flirtation and manipulation between fast drives in the country and perpetual evening gown attire. And in retrospect, Kelly also was something of a proto-Bond Girl in that movie (although one with far more agency and interiority than early roles for women in the Bond franchise).
Meanwhile Grant’s next movie with Hitch, North by Northwest (1959), is generally credited as being the first modern action movie. It certainly was the first of its kind with an actual rotating series of locales that the Hollywood filmmakers actually visited and filmed at: New York City, Chicago, the rural plains of Indiana, and even the top of Mount Rushmore for a cliffhanging climax.
While the movie was not quite a globetrotting adventure, it was certainly a continental one in which Grant’s character is mistaken for being an international man of mystery by a nefarious criminal syndicate. In point of fact, he’s a fairly mild mannered divorcée named Roger! Nevertheless, he rises to the occasion, particularly after meeting his own blonde femme fatale on a fateful train sequence (Eva Marie Saint). It’s a scene that Bond movies still emulate, too, a la how Daniel Craig met Vesper Lynd in the movie version of Casino Royale (2006).
When it came to the big screen image of a dashing English adventurer who gets wrapped up into spy games and escapades, and who always has a dry joke on his lips, Grant was that guy.