- Rated NR
- Buy the DVD
Reviewed by Bob Westal
e was “the master of suspense,” but not all of Alfred Hitchcock’s films even tried to be particularly suspenseful. After the success of “Rear Window” in 1954, a tightly plotted, darkly comic suspenser shot entirely on a single extraordinary soundstage, Hitch seems to have wanted to take a break and make more relaxed and expansive films. And so it was that his next picture was a tale of light intrigue set against the majesty of the French Riviera, where the suspense/mystery element presented the thinnest veneer of camouflage against both commercial considerations and Hollywood censorship. The director often referred to his films as “slices of cake” and, with this film, three ingredients were on the baker’s mind – sex, romance and more sex.
That may be why “To Catch a Thief” fails as a suspense film – but many viewers don’t care. Indeed, this enjoyable mixture of wit, low voltage intrigue and highly charged attraction is really about the appeal of its two great stars and the beauty of its seaside setting, captured in stunning Technicolor and large-frame VistaVision. This is not a film to watch on the edge of your seat, but one to enjoy while (if possible) sipping your favorite cocktail in the close company of your favorite person. What it lacks in storytelling velocity, it largely makes up for in wit and beauty.
Based on a novel by David Dodge and one of several mid-‘50s Hitchcock films highlighted by the writing of dialogue genius Jon Michael Hayes (“Rear Window”), “To Catch a Thief” brings us what amounts to a summit meeting of the male and female ideals of 1955 in Cary Grant and Grace Kelly. Grant is John Robie, a.k.a. “the Cat,” a wealthy retired gentleman thief and former fighter with the anti-Nazi French Resistance. When a copycat burglar starts breaking into mansions and making off with hugely valuable jewelry along the French Riviera, the police prove entirely unsympathetic to his claims of innocence. (This is a Hitchcock film.) However, a friendly English insurance investigator (John Williams, “Sabrina”) believes Robie’s story and helps him in his attempts to unmask the real thief while evading capture.
Meanwhile, the ridiculously tan Robie/Grant catches the eye of a charmingly blunt millionaire widow (Jesse Royce Landis) and Grace Kelly as her stunning daughter, Francie. From there on, Robie’s attempts to clear his name put him at loggerheads with his old thieving/resistance cohorts, as well as another much-younger female offspring (sexy Brigitte Auber), who, naturally, also has her eye on Robie’s charms. Robie thinks he has little time for romance in the midst of all this, but Francie, a “cool blonde” with a warm heart, will ensure that he makes the time.
Famously, the title of “To Catch a Thief” has a double meaning – there’s the cliché about using a thief to apprehend another one, but it also applies to the behavior of the Grace Kelly and Brigette Auber characters. Considering he’s the lead in what amounts to a romantic comedy, it’s somewhat intriguing that Cary Grant’s Robie may have slightly more in common with his mean-spirited, bone-deep cynical FBI agent in Hitchcock’s mid-‘40s masterpiece, “Notorious,” than he does with Grant’s comically suave but initially hapless advertising man, Roger Thornhill, in his 1959 action-suspense romp, “North by Northwest.” After all, it is hinted, Robie’s work with the resistance amounted to being an assassin. His problem is that, even if Grace Kelly doesn’t even appear until 22 minutes into the film, the movie around him is all about love, sex and beauty, and not terribly concerned with his efforts to clear his name. It’s a bit of dramatic tension that probably saves the film from edging into boredom or complete triviality.
The usual Hitchcockian high-caliber acting helps a great deal. By this point, the future Princess Grace of Monaco had really come into her own, and the depth of her performance here makes it clear just why she remained Hitchcock’s favorite actress, and an object of his personal obsessions. In supporting roles, Brigitte Auber makes her grasping, sexually avaricious youngster all too believable. Better yet, John Williams (“Sabrina”) – a specialist at slightly befuddled Englishmen – and Jesse Royce Landis, herself a specialist at wealthy matrons, beautifully hold up the comic end of things. Indeed, Hitchcock later cast her as Cary Grant’s even more tart-tongued mother in “North by Northwest,” despite the fact that the she claimed to be only a year or two older than Grant (it was more like seven).
On the semi-downside, Hitchcock, a control freak’s control freak, famously disliked shooting on location. But he was also an avid traveler, and this rapturously gorgeous film is, for better or worse, largely a travelogue. This was the mid-‘50s, and studios were desperate to lure audiences into theaters with hi-fi sound and visual marvels that 13-inch black and white TVs could never deliver – and “To Catch a Thief” certainly delivered those marvels. Hitch wisely accompanied the new technology of VistaVision -- and some of the first-ever helicopter shots -- with the richness of three-strip Technicolor, a process that by 1955 was slowly on its way out. Those views of the French Riviera provided by cinematographer Robert Burks, who took home an Oscar for his labors, remain a magnificent sight. Indeed, I’m sure part of the reason I find myself liking “To Catch a Thief” substantially more on this viewing than in the past is that this Paramount DVD is the first time I’ve had the opportunity to view the film in a form that even approaches how it might have looked in its original format (basically the same as 70mm, itself a rarity these days).
One aspect that still bothers me about the film is its treacly score by Lyn Murray, which further drains the tension from the proceedings – and gets downright bothersome during some of the love scenes. Still, I’m sure it added to the film’s profit for theater owners, as it must have sent countless preteen boys scurrying for the popcorn stand back in the day, even as their female counterparts decided they wanted to marry Cary Grant and be Grace Kelly. And while the film’s romantic denouement is just about perfect, the attempt at a memorable suspense set-piece in the rooftop chase that precedes it feels like little more than a bland dress rehearsal for the dynamic opening of “Vertigo.” It fulfils the film’s obligation to provide a bit of action and suspense, but nothing more. But, as I’ve made clear, suspense wasn’t the point; amour was.
Of course, Alfred Hitchcock was no one’s idea of a great lover – indeed, he all but bragged that he and his much-beloved, respected and feared wife, Alma, had been celibate since some time after the birth of his daughter, Pat Hitchcock. In any case, that left plenty of libido for his films, and Hitch outdid other such censorship-busting contemporaries/competitors as the carnally voracious Billy Wilder in the onscreen sex department, and made some of the greatest date movies of all time. If you don’t get what those fireworks mean after Cary and Grace kiss, you’re really not getting the point.
Centennial Collection DVD Review:
As I alluded to above, without a doubt the best thing about this two-set edition is how fantastic “To Catch a Thief” looks in this superb transfer, which I gather is a major improvement over the reputedly visually flawed 2002 DVD, if not the more recent 2007 edition. (I haven’t personally seen either.) As for the extras, for a movie with sex so clearly on its mind, it might seem appropriate that the commentary is from a Dr. Drew. Fortunately, we’re spared any lectures from Doc Pinsky about why 25-year-olds should not be dating 50-year-old ex-jewel thieves. In this case, our informative but breathless commentator is Hitchcock historian Dr. Drew Casper of the film school at the University of Southern California.
The second disk includes a Q&A session held at Casper’s Hitchcock class with Hitchcock’s granddaughter, Mary Stone, and his daughter, Pat Hitchcock, best known for her strong supporting roles in “Shadow of a Doubt” and “Strangers on a Train.” While the Hitchcock women are personable and funny, there really isn’t anything at all here that will be new to Hitchcock aficionados, and the memories they present paint a picture that is understandably rosy and not terribly revealing. Similarly, several other features, mostly left over from previous discs -- on Hitchcock’s dealings with film censorship, the making of the film, and costume designer Edith Head -- have their moments, but say very little that hasn’t been said a great deal elsewhere. Overall, the extras in this package fall very far short of the often outstanding features covering the same period recently featured on Universal’s Legacy series reissues of “Rear Window,” “Vertigo” and especially “Psycho.”