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To Catch a Thief (Special Collector's Edition)

Paramount // Unrated // May 8, 2007
List Price: $14.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted April 28, 2007 | E-mail the Author
Alfred Hitchcock's To Catch a Thief recently topped a list of the worst movies by the best directors. Admittedly, this playful romp in the South of France is a far cry from the director's best work, and Hitchcock himself dismissed it as "lightweight" and "[not] meant to be taken seriously" in an interview with François Truffaut in which he preferred to talk about Grace Kelly's icy sexuality than anything directly related to the movie itself. In fact, when Hitchcock bought back the rights to such classics as Rear Window and Vertigo from Paramount, To Catch a Thief is the only movie he left with the studio, presumably because he thought so little of it. It's slight, yes, but To Catch a Thief is also precisely the film it sets out to be -- an exotic frolic with a sexy smirk and two of the screen's most charming, incandescent stars.

John Robie (Cary Grant) may have been able to effortlessly evade capture as one of Europe's greatest jewel thieves fifteen years ago, but he can't escape the shadow of "The Cat", despite long since leaving behind that nickname and the life of crime it represents. The officials' first stop whenever a brooch or necklace goes missing in Cannes is the front door of Robie's palatial estate, but this most recent rash of burglaries isn't as easily dismissed. Whoever the cat burglar is, he's flawlessly reproduced The Cat's M.O. The police doubt there's any substance to Robie's claims of innocence, but he has a short window before the official inquest begins, and as the saying goes, set a thief to catch a thief. With the help of an embattled insurance agent (John Williams) whose home office won't stand for any more claims, Robie sets up an alias and skulks around some of the wealthiest women on the Riviera, all in the hopes of catching the imposter in the act and clearing his name. He first sets his sights on brash but endearing oil millionairess Jessie Stevens (Jessie Royce Landis) who disinterestingly drapes herself in hundreds of thousands of dollars of jewelry. Robie's eyes are on Stevens' jewels, but her spoiled daughter Francie (Grace Kelly) has hers set squarely on Robie. Francie discovers the past Robie has gone to such lengths to hide and is hopelessly intrigued by least until her mother's quarter-million dollar collection goes missing. Francie's certainty that Robie is to blame gives the former cat burglar even more of an incentive to unmask the imposter, but The Cat has already exhausted eight of his nine lives...

To Catch a Thief followed in the wake of Dial M for Murder and Rear Window, two thrillers produced under exacting, controlled parameters that almost certainly had exhausted the director. Hitchcock and his family had long vacationed in the South of France, so why not relax with some of his favorite actors in his preferred playground, get Paramount to pick up the tab, and make a mint in the process? To Catch a Thief makes no real effort at offering the sort of mystery and intrigue that had earned Hitchcock his well-deserved reptuation. The premise is thoroughly ordinary and really just an excuse to get Cary Grant and Grace Kelly in the same room and toss in some sexual tension. It's the cast that really makes To Catch a Thief what it is; Grant and Kelly are endlessly charming and as engaging as ever on-screen. Some of the dialogue sparkles, particularly anything and everything delivered by Jessie Royce Landis with her dry sarcasm, but clumsy innuendo that might have gotten a smirk from audiences fifty years ago falls as flat now as the endless parade of puns that swirl around Robie's unimaginative nickname of The Cat. I can't claim to be much of a fan of Francie and Robie's first implied sexual encounter being accompanied by fireworks in the background either, but maybe it seemed more clever before The Brady Bunch more memorably seized hold of that idea some years later.

To Catch a Thief is often shrugged off as a travelogue -- indeed, the movie's opening credits play over a shot of a travel agency, followed by a lingering look at a poster reading "If you love life, you'll love France!" -- but its European setting is as much a character as its retired cat burglar, his drop dead gorgeous love interest, or her impossibly wealthy, bourbon-swilling mother. To Catch a Thief netted an Academy Award and two other well-earned nominations for its visual flair, and the expansive shots of the French Riviera and the villas littering the countryside remain as gorgeous as ever. The film doesn't carry Hitchcock's unmistakable visual stamp, but he does fit in some clever shots. My favorite pits Francie against Robie in her dimly-lit hotel suite; as she teases Robie about the diamond-studded necklace she's wearing, her face subtly slinks into the shadows while the diamonds continue to sparkle in the moonlight.

Paramount has issued To Catch a Thief on DVD once before, and this revised collector's edition adds a stereo surround mix, an updated anamorphic widescreen presentation, and a newly-recorded audio commentary alongside the extras from the 2002 release. To Catch a Thief is too light and insubstantial to stand out as a recommended starting place for those with a budding interest in Hitchcock's films, but those who know and love the director's work should find this new special edition to be well worth the modest asking price. Not everything has to stand out as a timeless classic, and sometimes a fun European romp with two of my favorite actors is a welcomed change of pace.

Video: My introduction to To Catch a Thief was a cropped, battered, washed-out print on Cinemax, and although I missed the previous DVD release, this new collector's edition is a revelation compared to my first impression of the film. I've frequently been floored by the way VistaVision productions have turned out on DVD, and To Catch a Thief is no exception. Film grain is hardly ever noticeable, and the 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image is crisply defined and often striking with its fine object detail. One example is a close-up of Hughson's client list in which the texture of the paper and each and every letter are clearly and distinctly rendered.

Cary Grant's deep brown tan may look oddly claylike on DVD, but color saturation is frequently impressive. The biggest misstep with the color is shooting through a green filter in the day-for-night shots, something Hitchcock had himself acknowledged as a bad idea in retrospect. As sharp and clear as the image generally is, there is some scattered softness, and a number of shots appear to have been artificially sharpened. The fine lines of the blue and white striped shirt Robie wears at the beginning of the film occasionally take on a shimmering, unstable appearance, and the definition of a similar red and white shirt another romantic foil dons while spiriting Robie to shore appears and disappears mid-shot. Still, these are minor concerns and easily ignored. The source material has been nicely cleaned up for this new edition, and virtually no speckling or wear were spotted throughout the film's 106 minute runtime.

To Catch a Thief isn't without a few negligible flaws but generally looks very nice on DVD; my greatest gripe is that Paramount didn't see fit to issue a high-definition version on HD DVD and Blu-ray alongside this collector's edition.

Audio: To Catch a Thief includes a new 2.0 surround mix alongside the original monaural audio, although the differences between the two are marginal at best. The fidelity of the remix is passable. There isn't much in the way of dynamic range -- only some rumbling engines during a short chase have any heft to them -- and it's flat enough that I doubt I would've been able to tell much of a difference if I'd piped the audio through the built-in speakers on my TV rather than through an overpriced home theater rig. Also of note, although it's no fault of this DVD, is the glaringly unconvincing looping of Charles Vanel's English dialogue. All in all, the audio is as perfectly listenable as expected but not much more that.

A monaural French dub as well as English subtitles and closed captions have also been included.

Extras: New to this special collector's edition of To Catch a Thief is an audio commentary with Peter Bogdanovich, a former film critic and a director in his own right, who's joined by author and documentarian Laurent Bouzereau. Like the movie itself, the commentary is light and breezy. Bogdanovich's comments are of most interest when he touches on To Catch a Thief from a director's perspective as well as reflecting on his meetings with Hitchcock on the sets of Topaz, The Birds, and Torn Curtain and sharing such personal touches as the tearing up of Cary Grant's eyes when he laughed. His remaining comments are otherwise fairly routine for anyone who's done any reading on Hitchcock; skim through Hitchcock's Wikipedia entry and read through Truffaut's extensive interview with the director, and little of this will be revelatory. Bouzereau acts more as a moderator than a speaker, trying to stave off gaps in the discussion, but the two of them have so little to say about To Catch a Thief in particular that they veer into such side conversations as the first Hitchcock movies they'd seen. There are enough interesting notes to make this commentary worth a listen, though, such as how this was a rare whodunnit? for Hitchcock, the director's work in the silent movie era shaping his later work as a filmmaker, contrasting the more overt sexuality of the films of the '30s with the repressed '50s, and likening To Catch a Thief with other of his works, particularly Rear Window, Notorious, Marnie, and The Birds. Pleasant enough, if not an essential listen.

The remainder of the extras have been carried over from the 2002 DVD release, chief among them a set of four featurettes.

"Writing and Casting To Catch a Thief" (9 min.) features the director's daughter Pat Hitchcock, his granddaughter Mary Stone, and Writing with Hitchcock author Steven DeRosa discussing the difficulty getting the innuendo-riddled screenplay past the Production Code Authority, an elaborate sequence deemed too expensive to film, and brief comments about the film's three leads.

Hitchcock, Stone, and DeRosa are joined by production manager Doc Erickson and script supervisor Sylvette Baudrot for the seventeen minute featurette "The Making of To Catch a Thief". Among the topics are the film's fairly seamless blend of European location shots with interiors at Paramount's Hollywood studios, the high expectations surrounding a release so closely following Rear Window's enormous box office success, Paramount's enthusiasm for such a colorful film to be shot in VistaVision, and nearly every aspect of production, from costuming to editing to a clever use of the score to skirt the prudish Production Code. Some of its most interesting notes come from personal stories about Hitchcock and Cary Grant, such as the director creatively sidestepping Grant's suggestions for script changes once filming was underway while being more flexible to incorporating alterations from his wife and long-time collaborator Alma. Other highlights include an alternate epilogue pitched by screenwriter John Michael Hayes and To Catch a Thief's early use of the helicopter as a filmmaking tool. There's enough being discussed that the featurette would likely have benefitted from a few extra minutes to breathe, but I really enjoyed it, and Steven DeRosa's extensive familiarity with the shoot makes me wish he'd been a part of the disc's audio commentary.

The remaining two featurettes are more personality-driven. The seven and a half minute "Alfred Hitchcock and To Catch a Thief" spends as much time talking about the director's sense of humor and warm personality than it does about this film in particular. It features candid excerpts from some of Hitchcock's home movies, and I particularly enjoyed hearing about Hitchcock being baffled by what his granddaughter was learning in a film class about his movies.

Finally, the fourteen minute retrospective "Edith Head: The Paramount Years" briefly touches on To Catch a Thief but casts a much wider net than that as it delves into the legendary costume designer's more than forty years at the studio. Some of the topics include Head's early days at Paramount and how she so quickly rose through the ranks, an eye as keen for publicity as design, her preference for dressing men rather than designing for women, the rationale behind her own understated personal style, and some of the iconic outfits she designed for Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn, Rosemary Clooney, Gloria Swanson, and, of course, Grace Kelly.

A full-frame trailer rounds out the extras. The DVD includes a set of 16x9-enhanced animated menus, and To Catch a Thief has been divided into eighteen chapter stops. The disc comes packaged in a latched keepcase, and no insert has been provided.

Conclusion: To Catch a Thief may be one of Hitchcock's lesser works, but it captures the director at his most playful, buoyed further by its deeply charismatic leads and stunning location photography in the South of France. Paramount has done the film's Academy Award-winning cinematography justice with this widescreen presentation, and a decent set of extras coupled with a very modest price tag make this collector's edition of To Catch a Thief an easy recommendation.
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