Every great director has at least one departure from their film-making blueprint, an entry in their portfolio that diverts from the tones and formulas that have worked for them up until that point. This seems especially prevalent in English language directors and their drive to build a "mainstream" picture: Martin Scorsese has The Color of Money, Billy Wilder has The Fortune Cookie, and Alfred Hitchcock has To Catch a Thief. Even in their lighter fare, these directors still showcase the skills that have etched a place for them in history -- but To Catch a Thief is a matchless diversion, and something of an relaxed one from Hitchcock. It's certainly not a picture on the same caliber as his classic espionage whodunit, North by Northwest, but it's a playful one that elicits some early notes that would arise later in his stronger films.
Hitchcock introduces us to John Robie, a revolutionary solder turned ex-jewel thief living on parole in his beautiful Southern French villa. His calming world would soon crumble when reports of "The Cat", his signature burglar name, start circulating in the newspaper amid some high-profile robberies in a relatively nearby resort town. Since the police seem determined to apprehend Robie as the man responsible for these recent crimes, he brings together a clump of old and new acquaintances alike to "trap" the real burglar in the act. He does so, with the help of industrious insurance executive H.H. Hughson (John Williams), by staking out some of the high-dollar suspects and analyzing the ways that the thief rips them off.
Though there's a veil of mild suspense draped over To Catch a Thief in skulking towards the real identity of "The Cat", the romantic angle between John Robie and a closeted thrill-seeking debutant, Frances (Grace Kelly), quickly takes center stage. They meet in the middle of John's entry into his temporary secret life, all while he dazzles a jewel-encrusted lady of old money -- and Frances' mother. Played by Jessie Royce Landis, she incorporates a quirky, non-austere air to the mix that carries over into her seemingly stiff daughter. She gets their cloak-and-dagger swooning started, but the two Hitchcock veterans scoop up the fireworks and zip along from there.
The interplay between Cary Grant and Grace Kelly develops into little more than a cozy pairing, largely because of the two actors' velvety dispositions. Cary Grant's sleek aura works wonders at counterbalancing Ingrid Bergman's bent-up presence in Notorious, while Grace Kelly does an equally postured job at containing the exponentially-twitchy James Stewart in Rear Window. But instead of succeeding as a dreamy coupling between two indelible actors, their chemistry somehow feels overly easy and soft in this exotic environment. That's likely the aim from Hitchcock, as he seems to purposefully capture both of their radiant charismas in a way that approaches whimsical romance -- but the ease in their connection slurps up a bit of the electricity brewing between their naturally intriguing characters. Each handle their respective parts with sophistication, but the unfussy nature of their interchanges speak more to the quixotic side of things.
Complication just isn't To Catch a Thief's forte. Hitchcock's always has his eye on entertaining the crowd with his films, whether it's in the disturbing twists in Psycho or the satisfying dread in The Birds. With To Catch a Thief, he goes down a slightly more maudlin path by only sprinkling in graspable suspense as he sees fit. Instead of a swelling level of anticipation built within each precisely-edited frame and growingly-robust score inclusion, he only adds glimmers of each throughout all the mild twists and sweeping cinematography in a way that keeps the story lively and buoyant instead of incrementally brooding. It's not particularly thrilling, but the simplicity in the way that it orchestrates a subtle buzz between John Robie, his former French rebellion cohorts, and his new colleagues along the French Riviera carries its own nonchalant flavor.
It's obvious that Hitchcock has a blast with To Catch a Thief by the slippery sense of humor and confetti-style showering of bold colors interwoven in his picture. But he also makes certain to infuse his scheming sense of imagery and vision -- such as in a fantastic scene where he positions Kelly in this pool of light that drowns out her face and emphasizes the jewels around her neck, signifying the guided desire of a thief's eye. He indulges in a number of these, most of which gravitate around the lackadaisical chemistry brewing between John Robie and Frances. What makes these nuggets interesting is their precursory nature, many of which can be spotted in Hitchcock's later films. When looking at the bath of green light present in moonlit scenes atop pseudo-gothic rooftops and within open-windowed sitting rooms, it's impossible to not think of his use of the color in Vertigo, while many of the quirky ways he rustles up humor with Grant's character easily look forward to his tongue-and-cheek manner in North by Northwest. It's a different type of Hitchcock film, but there's plenty of the director's tricks and tableau concepts that make it distinctive.
Largely, To Catch a Thief is a playground of lavishness and picturesque tranquility within the legendary director's mind, one where he tinkers with familiar elements -- and some not so familiar -- like a batch of new toys used to create something decadently fresh instead of one of his by-the-book mysteries. With some input from Paramount, Hitchcock captured everything completely in VistaVision to gather together all of the lush palettes and magnificent landscapes in the French locale. Plant robust stars Cary Grant and Grace Kelly in the front seat, and it seemed destined to be a grand Hollywood affair filled with enchanting scenery and star-studded magnetism. Hitchcock's signature panache and painstaking focus on perfection drives To Catch a Thief to blossom into an entertaining piece of soft-edged, semi-thrilling eye candy -- and certainly a different sort of concoction from the "Master of Suspense".
As with Paramount's Centennial Collection presentation of Sunset Boulevard (reviewed here), To Catch a Thief comes in a two-disc package with a thick, side-loaded slipcover. Inside, both discs have their own separate hub on each side, sporting the matte golden finish with the title printed on them. In it, there's a nice Photo Booklet with a series of anecdotes about the director and his history with Paramount.
Video and Audio:
If you're like me, you might have skimmed over the recent 2007 Special Edition of To Catch a Thief (click for review) in wait for a reasonable price -- then eventually neglected to double-dip. Since that's the case, we're only able to do a full capture comparison with the 2002 Widescreen Collection DVD. It's an anamorphic, nice-sounding disc with a solid handful of special features, but this Centennial Collection offering puts all of this to shame and makes the upgrade well worth the time. Presented in an expanded 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image, To Catch a Thief sports an outstanding transfer that likely presents the visuals in the best way possible in standard definition.
The first thing that you'll notice in the pulled-back image is a greatly improved grasp on contrast and color, both in bold saturation and in more controlled tones against skin and landscapes. Leafy greens are ample and well-balanced with the rest of the color scheme, while the seaside blues and sandy tans all compliment the rest of the image in fantastic fashion. Detail is greatly improved, showing off minor details in the costume ball scene (in the costumes and the jewels around the ladies' necks) and the sprint through the French market. Edge enhancement can be spotted here and there, however, as well as a few scarce blips. And, of course, Cary Grant's striped shirt still shimmers to no relent, all while showcasing a few instances of aliasing at a distance. But they're all largely swallowed up by the solidity in its many strengths, preserving the signature '50s feel while giving it exceptional grace and dimensionality.
As for the sound options, we've got both a English Stereo and Mono tracks to accompany the film. Essentially, it's the difference between a narrower or broader focus, as both tracks default to an "All Channel Stereo" option on my receiver. Compared to the old audio, it's mixed a bit lower -- but sporting a far better balance in dialogue and sound effects. It's more natural and a lot less "pushy", as the dialogue seems to try and swallow up the ambient effects. Louder noises, like the rumble of a boat or the screeching of tires, carry a stronger, more equalized tone, and the classic score intermingles with the other sounds with equal solidity. It's still a little raspy in spots, but that's probably something inherent in the source. Optional subtitles are available in English, French, and Spanish, while French and Spanish language tracks are also available.
Commentary by Dr. Drew Casper, Hitchcock Film Historian:
On Disc One, replacing the Peter Bogdanivich commentary is an in-depth, full-on dissection of To Catch a Thief, one with as much theory on Hitchcock's lightest film as you can stand. Dr. Casper goes into Hitchcock's full history, the metaphorical "chases", and the nature of the film as a "vacation" for the mystery director. He also goes into the film's novel source, as well continuous emphasis on the framing and lighting.
A Night with the Hitchcocks (23:22):
Taking place at a USC director-devoted film class, Alfred Hitchcock's daughter, Pat , and granddaughter, Mary Stone, answer questions from the students about his life, his movie tastes, and how he would interpret film as it is today. The questions are hit-and-miss regarding the replies that they receive, but some of them are choice anecdotes that offer up great windows into the legendary director.
Unacceptable Under the Code: Film Censorship in America (11:48):
This featurette encapsulates Hitchcocks's dance around censorship, something that he persistently came under fire for (see several reference articles regarding Psycho and his choice for black and white filming). It talks about the corruptive nature of Hollywood during the Silent Era, the parameters that choke films (drinking, sexual behavior, etc), and the innuendos laced within To Catch a Thief.
Writing and Casting To Catch a Thief (9:04, from 2002 DVD in FF):
Here, interview time with Mary Stone, Pat Hitchcock, author Stephen DeRosa, and others fill the space with discussions on Cary Grant and Grace Kelly as Hitchcock's choices. It's covers emphasis points with the characters and the ways that the script melded to them, all while dancing around a good chunk of footage from the film.
The Making of To Catch a Thief (16:54, from 2002 DVD in FF):
As a fairly general assembly feature, this making-of piece covers the troubles in some of the location choices, the huffing and puffing over costume design with some of the actresses, the continuity of historical context in the picture, the choice for Cary Grant's crazy striped shirt, and Hitchcock's rigidness in his film-making concepts. Plenty of heartwarming and insightful anecdotes slip into the mix with interviews and film footage, making for a very solid and compact supplemental feature.
Behind the Gates: Cary Grant and Grace Kelly (6:13):
Taking a similar tone to the Behind the Gates featurette on previous Centennial DVDs, this one dives into the radiance of these two iconic Hollywood staples. It gives some background into Cary Grant's history before becoming an actor, including his time as a trapeze performer and as a comedy troop member, along with the love affair that all the world was having with Grace Kelly.
Alfred Hitchcock and To Catch a Thief: An Appreciation (7:33, from 2002 WE):
Here, Pat Hitchcock and Mary Stone discuss Alfred Hitchcock's impressions on the French, fun tidbits about the director himself, and a brief analysis on his differences between his public image and the type of father that he was. It's a delicate, hearty little featurette that supplements the Making-of piece rather well.
Also available are the Edith Head: The Paramount Years featurette, an Original Trailer, a :57 second Travelogue leading into an interactive map, and a series of Photo Galleries, separated as such: The Movie, Publicity, Visitors to the Set, Production Part I and Production Part II.
To Catch a Thief is referenced in this Centennial Collection's special features as a "vacation film" of sorts for Alfred Hitchcock, which means more than just filming at his favorite French locations with his staple actors, Cary Grant and Grace Kelly. It's a lighthearted diversion with Hitchcock's polish lathered on top, full of his visual techniques and iconic dialogue sequences scattered into a bubbly, easy-to-digest crime caper narrative. It's pure, old Hollywood romantic mystery with a healthy spritz of his impressionable attitude, even though it diverts from his -- and our -- comfort zone of suspense and human turmoil.
Paramount's Centennial Collection DVD offers strong visual and aural properties, along with a wide array of special features, both old and new. For those that own the 2002 edition of the film or that haven't picked up Hitchcock's lighter fare, it's a solidly Recommended package of an enjoyable entry into the Hitchcock catalog. Just don't expect the same bundle of nerves.