To Catch A Thief (USA, 1955)
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
NEXT REVIEW: Fifty Shades Darker (2017)
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Starring Gary Grant, Grace Kelly, Jessie Royce Landis, John Williams
The 1950s found Alfred Hitchcock in his prime. Having been freed from the shackles of his early work in Hollywood, including his tempestuous run with David O. Selznick, he was finally free to make the films he wanted to make, exactly the way he wanted to make them. His astounding technical skill, coupled with his burgeoning reputation and ability to attract big-name stars, would produce some of the most iconic films of the mid-20th century, from obsessive character studies like Vertigo and Strangers on a Train to gripping thrill-rides like North by Northwest.
To Catch A Thief fits firmly into the latter category, being an example of Hitchcock having fun, pure and simple. Armed with a brace of glamorous leads and a range of opulent locations, he takes a simple premise and carries us on a wave of light-hearted mischief throughout the film’s running time. You could hardly call it his most suspenseful work, or his most accomplished, or even his most interesting – but after more than 60 years it still holds up well and remains very entertaining.
When I reviewed The Lady Vanishes (one of Hitchcock’s last films made in Britain), I spoke about his “underlying interest in technique over content: his concern was never with what the story is about, as with how was the best way to tell it.” Both films find him applying this principle in different ways; The Lady Vanishes altered a lot of the plot and character details from Ethel Lina White’s novel The Wheel Spins, while To Catch A Thief breezes through its plot, keeping the pace up sometimes at the expense of character development. You get the impression that Hitch almost doesn’t care about the final reveal; while its production is immaculate, the pacing is somewhat hurried, as if the director was drawing attention to how much of a confection the story is.
Even by the general standards of 1950s Technicolor, To Catch A Thief looks great. Robert Burks worked with Hitchcock a lot during his Hollywood period, shooting Strangers on a Train, Dial M for Murder, Rear Window and Marnie among others. The two clearly compliment each other, with Hitchcock’s editing skill and shot composition being congruous with Burks’ sumptuous colour palette and superb vistas. Where Marnie and Rear Window drew out the red from their situations, this film is built around different shades of blue, from the coolness of the sea to the near-regal fashions of the characters. Burks deserved his Oscar for his work here, and it’s part of the reason the film still holds up today.
This is even true of the driving scenes, despite the use of back projection. Only a few years later, when Terence Young used it in Dr. No, this technique would look very dated; the chase involving Sean Connery’s blue Sunbeam Alpine showcased its limitations and undercut the tension it was trying to generate. Hitchcock gets around this through very clever editing and plenty of coverage; he gives us the back projection for a sense of time passing, but intersperses it with cuts of the car interior, to Grant’s legs, or the wheel on the road, or even the following car, to keep it physical. The result is an effective and diverting little chase with a nice punchline: after risky driving and almost running over an old woman, the police are finally undone by poultry, in a droll take on the old ‘why did the chicken cross the road?’ gag.
To Catch A Thief also benefits from the luminous nature of its two leading players. Grace Kelly, in her final Hitchcock film, is miles more appealing here than she was in High Society just a year later, marrying timeless elegance to a playful and mischievous streak. Cary Grant, by contrast, is urbane and composed without coming across as brooding or glum; he’s very at ease in the part and isn’t afraid to let his guard down every so often. Their banter is a great deal of fun, even if there is little about their conversations which is memorable afterwards.
The film is very successful at evoking its period – so successful, in fact, that it makes us glad that the French Riviera doesn’t exist in the same way now. It’s very easy to get all misty-eyed about the golden age of Hollywood, or to remember Robert de Niro’s speech in Casino about the way that casinos used to be run (as they were in Bond’s time). But the closed-off nature of the jet set, coupled with the judgemental attitudes of a world where wearing the wrong sort of pearls would get you shunned, is not something that anyone in their right minds should seek to replicate. The costumed ball scene is a case in point: it’s an effective set-piece as far as the plot is concerned, but otherwise the whole thing is pretty tasteless.
Richard L. Coe, writing in The Washington Post, summed it up when he described To Catch A Thief as “one of those deluxe pictures in which everyone lives in glorious workless luxury on the French Rivera, looks wonderful, speaks amusingly and is unconcerned with transit strikes or hurricanes.” There are odd moments in the film where we get some ambiguity or double meanings, such as Grant’s exchange with the young girl in the sea which is full of loaded insults and playful sniping. But by and large the film is a breezy, frothy affair, scoring over the likes of High Society or The Millionairess by the likeability of its leads. And that’s not to mention the supporting cast, from the loveable stereotype of John Williams’ insurance agent to Jessie Royce Landis, whose battleaxe performance falls somewhere between Bette Davis and Dame Edith Evans.
Don’t think, however, that the film is completely devoid of Hitchcock’s brilliance. It may not have the depth of Vertigo, the darkness of Strangers on a Train or the intrigue of The Man Who Knew Too Much (the latter version), but it still contains plenty of examples of Hitch’s characteristic tropes. Grant starts where he would later go on in North by Northwest, making the best use of his props in any given situation – whether it’s losing the police in the flower market, or using the shotgun as misdirection when they arrive at his house. Grant’s whole arc is a lighter reworking of the ‘wrong man’ trope that Hitchcock loved, and there are nice touches throughout to keep us slightly wrong-footed about the romance.
Where North by Northwest puts its ‘wrong man’ plot very much front and centre, To Catch A Thief uses it as a subtle leitmotif, gently returning every so often to keep things undulating on until the climax is needed. The showdown on the rooftop doesn’t have the tension of the opening of Vertigo, but it’s still an effectively staged sequence which ties things up without feeling too predictable. The film may pander to the cliché of the police being idiots compared to the brilliant amateur (or ex-criminal), but it’s so pleasantly staged that it doesn’t feel like a problem in the moment.
To Catch A Thief is Hitchcock at his most enjoyably care-free, retaining many of his master touches despite being frothy and insubstantial in its construction. It’s hard to argue that it’s his finest work from any perspective, though it does possess some of his best ever production values and makes good use of his two leads. Hardcore Hitch fans can get their kicks elsewhere in his 1950s work, but as a means of introducing someone to his oeuvre, it isn’t a bad place to begin.
NEXT REVIEW: Fifty Shades Darker (2017)