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An amusing but unambitious undertaking, 1955's 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. A trio of polished performances and the glories of VistaVision enliven the proceedings, but the film remains one of the director's laziest pictures.
Former cat burglar turned resistance hero John Robie (Cary Grant) teams up with trusting insurance investigator H.H. Hughson (John Williams) to unmask an unknown jewel thief operating on the Riviera using Robie's old methods. With the police and his old pals from the underground after him, Robie links up with a wealthy mother and daughter, Jessie and Frances Stevens (Jessie Royce Landis & Grace Kelly) who have jewels that the imitator might steal. But the only progress Robie makes is with the flirtatious Frances, who flaunts her charms with the aim of catching a sexy crook for a husband.
Hitchcock has a problem when he tries to make 'light' entertainments outside the suspense genre. Working away from 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, a pale retread of 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 wealthy owner of a million dollar chateau overlooking Cannes but doesn't seem to have much in the way of visible income. His ex-crook resistance buddies are all impoverished kitchen help in a restaurant, and some try to kill Robie (?) when he's suspected in a new wave of burglaries. The concept of old patriots turning on their comrade is poorly established -- in this artificial situation, they might as well be jealous because he's turned into a movie star.
Hitchcock had certainly earned a break from his more experimental movies in favor of straight storytelling, but what we're left with isn't very interesting. The images of jewel robberies alternating with a black cat stalking the roofs of Cannes are not very imaginative, even if they evoke silent-movie imagery. The film is punctuated by un-dramatic fades to black. Indeed, Hitchcock is behaving like a lazy Hollywood producer, falling back on VistaVision travelogue filler of beautiful French scenery at every opportunity. 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 send you, this is just the ticket. But there's just nothing special in the script. "A breast or a leg?" chirps Kelly, but the cheeky dialogue is just as shallow as Kelly's take on Hitchcock's personal fantasy of a sexy blonde. Frances acts snotty and then throws herself at Grant, like a brat with airs but no finesse. The celebrated fireworks kissing episode displays the two stars' sex appeal, but it's one of the more awkwardly blocked scenes in all of Hitchcock. The actors drift about on either side of a window while a rear-projected fireworks show (silent, of course) provides an obvious comment on the 'sparks' building up between them. Kelly pushes her wares and Grant acts coy: "You can't keep your eyes off them." / "Don't you want to touch them?" The strait-jacket of good taste robs the fun from other situations, such as the weak gag where Cary drops a casino chip down the cleavage of a female card player. It's all saying, "Aren't we being naughty?" 1
Aside from a couple of tense moments on a tiled roof, no really interesting Hitchcock scenes emerge. There's an almost embarrassing sequence of creeping 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. Grace and Cary will of course please their fans, but I've yet to see anything particularly wonderful about this show, except for the scenery.... and perhaps the final line of dialogue.
However, there is Jessie Royce Landis' rich widow abroad. The plot has enough leeway to give her character a funny off-the wall line or two. Landis 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 the actor in one of Henri-Georges Clouzot's suspense shockers, Les Diaboliques or La salaire de la peur. Maybe Hitch hired Vanel just to make him unavailable to the competition!
Paramount's new Blu-ray of To Catch a Thief erases bad memories of a painfully weak DVD released back in 2002. Quite suddenly we realize what made 1955 audiences so happy -- the French scenery and the Hollywood stars look fantastic when rendered in an edition reflecting the beauty of the original Technicolor and Vistavision. All those helicopter shots on the hill roads, and the chase that takes place in a flower market will give your HD display a serious chroma workout. In old transfers Cary Grant's ruddy complexion could make him look like a boiled lobster; here we applaud the makeup artists' ability to smooth out all imperfections. When Hitchcock gets around to Ms. Kelly's choker close-ups, we see little evidence that this porcelain woman even has pores on her skin. Again, those makeup people surely knew what they were doing.
Various studio centennials are rolling around, and the celebrations (at Universal and Paramount, at least) involve some desirable Blu-ray remasterings and releases. Judging by what Paramount selected for a 'classic' line of DVDs in the last few years, I'd expect Sunset Blvd. to be showing up sooner than later. Amazon is taking preorders for Chinatown but the disc hasn't been given an official release date yet.
The roster of handsomely produced extras covers the production from all angles, through a studio-friendly filter. Drew Casper provides an admiring commentary, while making-of documentary duties are spread out among a variety of smaller featurettes: on the Hitchcock family, the film's censorship issues, the two stars, and costumer Edith Head. A travelogue piece is included along with the expected paean to Hitchcock. A gallery section includes an original trailer.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
To Catch a Thief Blu-ray rates:
1. As Robin Wood suspected, the writers of the James Bond movie Thunderball may have taken direct inspiration from To Catch a Thief. Just like John Robie, Bond sneaks into a villa, meets two jealous women out in a sparkling bay, and makes a classy egress by walking ashore through a crowded exclusive resort beach. The matching casino scenes are surely coincidental, but both 007 and John Robie take crazy car rides with an aggressive seductress aiming to demonstrate how dangerous/sexy she is. Now, of course, Grace Kelly's reckless driving conjures sad associations with her personal life story.
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T'was Ever Thus.