12/1/10

Hitch on The Hump: To Catch a Thief (1955)

It’s been an incredible nine months since the last entry into Hitch on the Hump, but, thanks to popular demand, I’m going to start it up again with four films in December and a few special ideas in store for January. To get going again, I thought I would look at one of Hitchcock’s more enduringly beautiful and influential films, 1955’s To Catch a Thief. It was a film that would combine the suspense of his previous film, Rear Window, and hints at Hitch’s comedic side that he would explore in his next film The Trouble with Harry. It would also form a template for couples involved in crime capers, and reflections of stars Cary Grant and Grace Kelly can be seen anytime a movie throws together a couple to, as Hitchcock called it,  "meet cute" and get involved in a crime caper.

The original novel was penned by David F. Dodge, a writer who often wrote mystery and suspense novels as well as a series of travelogues. Hitchcock, always looking for new properties that fit his needs, picked up the rights to the book before it even went to press, possibly due to the attraction of the French Mediterranean setting. It has often been noted that Hitch liked to choose projects around where he and his family enjoyed living or vacationing, and this may well have been another occasion. Hitchcock would give scripting duties to John Michael Hayes, screenwriter of Rear Window, The Trouble With Harry, and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), and the finished product tailored for the high profile stars, bore little resemblance to Dodge’s novel. This caused the author to note that” all that survived in there end were the title, the names of some of the characters, and the copyright, which is mine.”

While Dodge seemed contented to reap the rewards of being the novelist behind Hitchcock’s film, the same can’t be said of the ultimate writing credit on the film. As usual, Hayes and Hitchcock hammered out the script during daily meeting and writing sessions, but the director contended that the credit for the car chase scenes should go to his wife Alma. Mrs. Hitchcock, once something of a force in her husband’s films, had taken to a more matriarchal life, but upon reading the script, she was inspired by the windy roads of the Cote D’azur. Over a weekend, Alma and her husband hammered out every sequence of the climatic car chase and brought in plans for the finished sequence on Monday. When the film was released, screenwriter Hayes was asked to comment on how he went about writing the chase to which he flippantly replied, “I got car sick writing it.” It was a comment that infuriated the loving husband and may have been the first step toward the schism between the two men.

To Catch a Thief stars Cary Grant as retired cat burglar (and French resistance supporter) John Robie. When a string of robberies starts being committed in his same style, John is forced to give up his quiet life and go on the run. He ultimately only gets away thanks to the teenage daughter of one of his former cohorts, Danielle (Bridgette Auber), making contact with an insurance agent, he complies a list of the most likely targets of the copycat criminal finding the most likely target to be Jessie Stevens and her daughter Francie (Grace Kelly). Robie tries to play it cool but Francie instantly sees through him, and soon a romance ignites between the pair. When the robberies continue, Francie thinks she’s been taken for a ride, and it’s up Robie to catch whoever is masquerading as “The Cat.”

This was Cary Grant’s third picture with Hitchcock, following Notorious and Suspicion, but that didn’t make the star any easier to work with. Grant was a MOVIE STAR (capital letters required) so  if shooting had to stop at 6 every day so that Grant could have dinner at a reasonable hour, for example, it would. Grant was even aware of the director’s irritation telling a co-star “he likes me a lot, but at the same time he detests me.” Hitchcock even confided in his production manager that “On the last day of the picture I intend to tell him off once and for all.” Hitchcock did not follow through with his promise though commenting that he “might have to use him in another picture” which he did in 1959’s North by Northwest. Grant’s performance is both ribald and relaxed, possibly helped by the fact that the star was wearing his own clothes, and he never showed off relaxed cool better. Hitchcock used To Catch a Thief  to lure Cary Grant, who retired from acting when he felt he was being outclassed by “method” actors, back to movies, but it was Grant who showed why he deserved all those capital letters I gave him earlier.

While To Catch a Thief reignited Cary Grant’s career, it would be the beginning of the end for actress Grace Kelly. Hitchcock may have reconsidered his choice of shooting locations if he had known that his favorite cool blonde would meet her future husband, Prince Rainier of Monaco, while shooting this picture. It’s easy to see why the Prince would have fallen for her while watching Hitchcock’s film. While Grace Kelly had the innate ability to look radiant on film, the lens never loved her more than in To Catch a Thief. Her character embodies all the qualities Hitchcock liked in his film heroines, she was subtly sexy, smart, slyly mischievous, and under the surface, a bit bad. Kelly and Grant make for a great pair and their dialog sparkles like they could have been plopped down in a screwball ’30’s comedy. Unlike Grant, Kelly’s wardrobe was handled by fashion maven Edith Head and, of course, dictated by Hitchcock’s vision, from her black and white polka dotted bikini to the shimmering gold dress Kelly wears in the finale. His instructions to Head for the latter, “he wanted her to look like a princess.”

Once again, Hitchcock reunited with the team of cinematographer Robert Burks and Editor George Tomasini, who paired up for a total of eight Hitchcock titles during their careers. To Catch a Thief is stunningly photographed in Vista Vision (though the night scenes were shot through a filter to try and defeat the royal blue of the Technicolored sky), and the entire film looks extremely crisp as if you could feel the breeze coming off the Mediterranean. Tomasini shows off some of his best editing work here especially one scene wherein Kelly gives Grant a surprise kiss. It is expertly shot and edited to the point where that one scene makes clear why Hitchcock felt that “sex on the screen should be suspenseful, I feel. If sex is too blatant and obvious, there’s no suspense.” He went on to describe to Francois Truffaut, “Without the element of surprise, the scenes become meaningless. There’s no possibility to discover sex.” Adding to the gentle allure of the film is the score by Lyn Murray, a composer who only worked with Hitchcock once, but is also known for his score for the seminal noir film The Prowler (1951) as well as his numerous compositions for both film and television.

In his famous interviews with Truffaut, Hitchcock dismissed To Catch a Thief as a “lightweight story”, and who am I to disagree with the Master of Suspense. The story itself is no more than a puff of smoke surrounded by lavish sets, beautiful actors, and one of the most cunningly shot chase sequences this side of Bullitt. (No matter who is responsible for it.) To Catch a Thief is rarely listed among Hitch’s great films, and there is certainly reason enough for that. As much as Grant and Kelly pop onscreen, the slight plot and confectionary love story can’t replace the intrigue of films like North by Northwest, comedy of The Trouble with Harry, or the suspense of Strangers on a Train. However, as a huge Hitchcock fan, I enjoyed seeing To Catch a Thief purely for the fact that it was a transitional film. Even in his fourth decade of directing, Hitchcock was still trying to find what his voice was, and soon it would unleash a string of classics that would go unmatched for years.

Bugg Rating

3 comments:

  1. Firstly, let me say how thrilled I was to wake up to the return of Hitch on the Hump!
    Secondly, I must admit that I have not seen this film. It is one of the glaring omissions in my viewing. It's the only one missing from Hitchcock's 1950's entries.
    Kelly is arguably my favorite of Hitch's blondes and the 50's is my preferred Hitch era. These 2 facts and this post, while not entirely glowing, has sealed it. I must see this and soon.
    Also, even though it isn't (even close to) your highest rated Hitchcock review, your words really sold me. Between Grant and Kelly's chemistry, the car chases, the set pieces and the score, I think this film has what I require to be lulled into happiness.

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  2. Christine,

    First off let me say how thrilled I was that you were thrilled. You were the inspiration for HotH to continue, and I'm glad you enjoyed this first post back. It was written while I was nursing a toothache so I'm glad it made sense at all.

    I'm still missing quite a few titles from the '40's and '50's myself which I will be working on soon. (I shockingly have never seen Rebecca.) Though it only got a three, I think it is still worth a watch. It's just a very light film incomparable in his catalog. I hope you find yourself lulled very soon.

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  3. Great write-up! I think you're right on in calling this a transitional film for Hitch, and I hate that it was the last we saw of Grace. However, it's still a fun and gorgeous flick.

    Also, I've long laughed at this flick because, when I first caught it on TV as a youngster, it was in the middle of the famed fireworks scene with Kelly and Grant. I was transfixed immediately, though it wasn't until I was older and saw it in full that I realized the symbolism behind the fireworks. :)

    And now I'm going to have to go hunt through your past Hitch posts, because there are few things I love as much as his films.

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