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.
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
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:
Supplements: Featurettes, photo and poster gallery
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: November 18, 2002
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.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson