d. Alfred Hitchcock / USA / 106 mins.
Is it an insult to call an Alfred Hitchcock movie "cute"? The word is likely not one that might jump to mind in the same sentence as the so-called Master of Suspense, but To Catch a Thief – a flashy blur of romance topped with a sprinkling of intrigue that stars Cary Grant and Grace Kelly and is set in the French Riviera – is cute. I can't think of another word for it. The jokes are cute, the romance is cute, even the MacGuffin is cute. (It's also cute the way the film thinks you won't be able to figure out the mystery identity of one of the characters, but more on the screenplay in a moment.)
Not that there's anything terribly wrong with cuteness. It can put a smile on your face, but it is all too fleeting. One needn't reach the end of To Catch a Thief to feel the cuteness already waning away. Grant stars as John Robie, a reformed jewel thief known as "the Cat," who abandoned thievery to fight with the French Resistance movement. Robie is living quietly and keeping to himself in the south of France when jewels begin to go missing, often lifted using the exact same tactics Robie once. After receiving some help from an ex-fling (Brigitte Auber) who knows all his secrets too well, Robie makes his way to coordinate with an insurance agent (John Williams). Robie's plan is to go incognito and use the agent's list of wealthy clients to predict where the thief will strike next, catch the thief in the act, and prove himself innocent. The first potential victim is a sassy and wealthy American (Jessie Royce Landis, who would later play Grant's mother in North by Northwest) and her beautiful daughter, Francie (Grace Kelly).
Robie and Francie hit it off, naturally, and most of To Catch a Thief is devoted to their romance. (In a famous Hitchcockian sequence, Robie and Francie seduce each other in front of a terrace while orgasmic fireworks burst and pop in the night sky.) The screenplay – by John Michael Hayes, who adapted it from a novel by David Dodge – is laced with expected double entrendres; some are worth a chuckle or two, particularly those stretch the limits of sexual innuendo, but most fall flat. It has been said of Hitchcock that often the screenplay was never as important as the playing on the screen. I'm not sure I entirely believe that, especially when you consider the fact that his most successful films contain scripts of unexpected density and depth. To Catch a Thief often feels like an excuse to put Hitchcock's most revered male and female leads in a scene together, watch them voyeuristically and experience their chemistry in a vicarious way. (It seems like something about of abnormal psychology, yes, but that's Hitchcock.)
As such, it's a rather appropriate follow-up to Rear Window, which, it should be noted, Hayes also wrote with Hitchcock. The most rewarding aspect of To Catch a Thief is merely watching it – two pretty people flirting and romancing each other on the Riviera, and it's a process that comes across as something even dirtier than Rear Window because, at least with that film, we're supposed to be making the connection between how we feel about voyeurism and the fact that we are engaging in it. The same thing can be said of other Hitchcock endeavors, like Vertigo, where you can feel the obsessions swirling, but in a way that is intellectually worthwhile for the audience to explore. Here, it is all too implicit and greedy on the director's part, although strangely not wholly unpleasant. (While this potent sensation tends to overwhelm the film and its flimsy script, it should be noted that Landis is a wonderful supporting high-roller here, effective in a way that supersedes the gravitational pull of Hitchcock's voyeurism, and she keeps up with the antics of Grant and Kelly with sparkling aplomb.)
Robert Burks, a Hitchcock loyalist who helmed the camera for nine of the director's films, won only one Oscar in his career, and it was for To Catch a Thief, an unlikely choice in a portfolio that includes strong black-and-white photography on Strangers on a Train, I Confess, and The Wrong Man, and the equally impressive color work he did on Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, and Vertigo. One might consider a win for this film as a consolation prize for being passed over the previous year. (The winner in 1954, Milton R. Krasner, was a prolific cameraman and certainly deserving of an Oscar at some point – just perhaps not for a film that is less impressive than Rear Window.)
Burks shot To Catch a Thief in widescreen VistaVision, the first of five widescreen films from Hitchcock. There's no doubting the film is gorgeous; Grant, Kelly, and the Riviera seem naturally born to be captured in Technicolor. But To Catch a Thief lacks the daring stylistic flourishes one expects in a Hitchcock film. There is only one worth noting, and it occurs near the end when a spotlight on the ground shines on Grant, who is crouched on a rooftop, and the result is a split-second silhouette of beauty. It's a pretty film, and it seems like a dream straight out of Hitchcock's unconscious, but that's all it seems to have going for it.
18 December 2008
d. Alfred Hitchcock / USA / 106 mins.