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DVD SAVANT

To Catch a Thief


To Catch a Thief
Paramount Home Entertainment
1955 / Color / 1:78 anamorphic 16:9 / 106 min. / Street Date November 5, 2002 / $26.98
Starring Cary Grant, Grace Kelly, Jessie Royce Landis, John Williams, Charles Vanel, Brigitte Auber
Cinematography Robert Burks
Art Direction Joseph MacMillan Johnson, Hal Pereira
Film Editor George Tomasini
Original Music Lyn Murray
Written by John Michael Hayes from a novel by David Dodge
Produced and Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

A troublesome movie, To Catch a Thief is always classified as Good, but not Great Hitchcock. Of all the non-classic Alfred Hitchcock movies, this lightly scripted travelogue is the closest he came to making an ordinary studio picture. There's a trio of professional performances at its center, but this excuse to show off VistaVision is one of the director's laziest pictures.

Synopsis:

Retired cat burglar John Robie (Cary Grant) teams up with trusting insurance investigator H.H. Hughson (John Williams) to unmask an unknown thief operating on the Riviera using Robie's old methods. With the police and his old Resistance pals after him, Robie links up with a wealthy mother and daughter from Oregon, Jessie and Frances Stevens (Jessie Royce Landis and Grace Kelly) who have jewels the imitator might steal. But the only progress Robie makes is with the encouraging Frances, who flaunts her charms with the aim of catching a jewel thief for a husband.

Hitchcock has a problem when he tries to make 'light' entertainments. Working away from the suspense turf where he's the unquestioned master, his taste in scripts can go very slack, as if he expects his top-flight star cast to carry weak material. As a plot, To Catch a Thief is a creaking bore, reading like one of those 1930s clunkers about gentleman jewel thieves. John Robie, a master thief sprung from prison during WW2, joined the resistance (like 99% of France, according to the movies) and earned his freedom by killing 72 Nazis. Ten years later, he's the contented owner of a million dollar chateu on a mountain overlooking Cannes, rich, but without much in the way of visible income. His ex-crook resistance buddies are all impoverished kitchen help in a restaurant, however, and actually want to kill Robie (?) when a new wave of burglaries start. The conception of old resistance cronies wanting to see their comrade dead just because he's suspected of a crime is poorly established - in this artificial situation, they might as well be jealous because he's turned into a movie star.

Hitchcock clearly wanted to take a break from his more experimental movies, in favor of straight storytelling, but what we're left with isn't very interesting. The sequences alternating the discoveries of jewel robberies with a black cat stalking the roofs of Cannes are in themselves dull, and the film is punctuated with un-dramatic fades to black. Indeed, Hitchcock in To Catch a Thief is behaving like a lazy Hollywood producer, allowing much of the picture to be VistaVision travelogue filler of the beautiful French scenery. Add up the helicopter footage, back-plates for the driving scenes, and plentiful second unit work shot by Assistant Directors working from Hitchcock's storyboards, and you have a director's vacation movie.

To Catch a Thief does have its charms. If Grace Kelly or Cary Grant in anything is the height of charm for you, this is just the ticket. But there's just nothing special in the script. "A breast or a leg?" chirps Kelly, but the supposed double-entendre dialogue mostly clunks for these ears, just as Kelly's personification of Hitchcock's uptight notion of a sexy blonde leaves me cold. She acts snotty and then throws herself at Grant, which is an okay fantasy but nothing I'm holding my breath to experience in real life. The celebrated fireworks kissing scene is an attempt to play off the two stars' sex appeal, but it's one of the more awkwardly blocked scenes in all of Hitchcock, with each actor drifting about on either side of a window with a rear-projected fireworks show (silent, of course) providing the obvious comment on the 'sparks' building up between them. Kelly pushes her wares and Grant acts coy: "Don't you want to touch them? / You can't keep your eyes off them." The strait-jacket of good taste robs the fun from some situations, such as the poorly-played gag where Cary drops a casino chip down the cleavage of a female card player. 1

With its tepid mystery leading up to a couple of tense moments on a tiled roof for a conclusion, there aren't any really interesting Hitchcock scenes. There's an almost embarassing sequence showing shadows and rustling shrubbery around a targeted villa. I'd avoided To Catch a Thief for a long time, waiting to see a good print before deciding finally it was as dull as it seemed. As I say, unless Grace and Cary can do no wrong for the individual fan, there's nothing particularly wonderful about this show, except for the scenery.

However, there is Jessie Royce Landis' rich widow abroad. The plot has enough leeway to allow her character to say some funny off-the wall lines. She also makes a good Mom for Kelly, if not a convincing one, and she enlivens every scene she's in. Dependable John Williams has little to do. Hitchcock signed ace French tough guy Charles Vanel to an even more-nothing supporting role. He'd obviously seen Vanel in one of Henri-Georges Clouzot's suspense shockers, Les Diaboliques or La salaire de peur. Maybe he hired Vanel just to make him unavailable to the competition for a whole summer!


Paramount's DVD of To Catch a Thief can't even get the most out of the film's beautiful scenery, because of an inadequate transfer. Big sections of the film play on aerial views of the hills behind Cannes, and a chase is contrived to occur in a flower market to show off the joys of VistaVision and Technicolor. Unfortunately, a composite pre-print element was used, that has grain, color, and sharpness problems. To Catch a Thief was probably so gorgeous in a theater that the audience was charmed into enjoying it, but the DVD experience doesn't have that. On a larger monitor it looks flat, with the color imbalance just strong enough to make the constant rear-projections stand out. When the Vista-Vision logo rolls up, it has big pieces of dirt on it.

The show has a ton of attractive extras. Instead of a lengthy docu, Laurent Bouzereau has produced three shorter-length shows, probably to avoid new guild rules that mandate residual payments for shows over a half-hour long. He has an interesting group of interviewees (including the original French continuity woman) and manages to make the show much more interesting than it should be. The third short subject is a remembrance by Hitchcock's daughter and granddaughter. It has several minutes of home movies demonstrating that, at least at home, Hitch was not the sicko claimed by some biographers.

A secondary mini-docu on Edith Head tries to praise her but between the lines paints her as a so-so designer who survived for decades in the competitive industry by affecting a savvy personality that could please stars, directors, and her studio as well. It's nice to see author David Chierchetti, an old acquaintance-friend from UCLA, as the main expert commentator.

About a decade ago, Video Watchdog had a little article about a subliminal flash frame of a cat that was interjected into the car-ride sequence, when Grace Kelly tells Cary Grant she knows who he really is. It certainly doesn't show up here ... to my view, this is the least 'experimental' film Hitchcock made.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, To Catch a Thief rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Fair
Sound: Good
Supplements: Featurettes, photo and poster gallery
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: November 18, 2002


Footnotes:

1. As Robin Wood suspected he did, Richard Maibaum, one of the writers of the James Bond movie Thunderball, might have watched To Catch a Thief just before scribbling out his script. Just like John Robie, Bond sneaks into a villa, meets two jealous women a few yards out from the shore in a sparkling bay, and walks ashore through a crowded exclusive resort beach. Casino scenes seem generic to Bond, but both 007 and John Robie take crazy car rides with a female who speeds to demonstrate how dangerous/sexy she is.
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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