To Catch a Thief
During his long and illustrious career Alfred Hitchcock was frequently lauded as the undisputed master of suspense. His films have become the gold standard for how to create a movie that will keep the audience on the very edge of their seats. There is not a movie buff around that hasn’t been shocked, surprised or out right frightened by a Hitchcock film. Most people have a favorite movie among the many that the Master has given to the public. It is impossible to take a serious class in cinema without at least a few Hitchcock films on the syllabus. What a lot of people may not realize is Mr. Hitchcock mastered more film genres than just mystery and suspense. He had a wry sense of humor that ranged from very dark to light hearted and whimsical. We all remember movies like ‘Psycho’ and ‘Rear Window’ but Mr. Hitchcock’s legacy extends to just about every genre possible. The classic under consideration here is 1955’s ‘To Catch a Thief’. It is a blended genre movie with elements of crime thriller, romance and mystery seamlessly combined for one of the most enjoyable films of the time. This was a film made when movie stars are something special; set above the common throng by their baring and composure. There was an essence surrounding these people that made them a job to watch on the big silver screen. For the Hitchcock historians out there this film is special for reasons other than the extraordinary writing, acting and, of course, direction. It was the first of five films by Mr. Hitchcock to employ the widescreen process of VistaVision. This type of filming afforded a higher definition but with out the anamorphic requirements of some competing formats like Cinemascope. This is also the last film made by Grace Kelly. After this movie she would marry and become the beloved princess of Monaco. This is also the only film by Mr. Hitchcock whose distribution rights are still owned my Paramount studios. Most of his catalogue is owned by Universal but Paramount has kept a firm grip on this one. This leads us to why the movie is being released to DVD. Paramount’s one hundredth anniversary is coming up in 2012. To celebrate this landmark achievement the studio has been releasing some of their best films on a special centennial edition DVD. Each of the films chosen to be included in this series has been diligently restore to achieve the same quality as that first print from the master film stock. If you care about the art of cinema instead of just watching a flick this series and this film is for you. The Centennial collection is necessary to the possession of a complete film library.
The story was form the novel of the same name by David Dodge and brought to the screen by John Michael Hayes. He had worked with Mr. Hitchcock in his previous film. ‘Rear Window’ and would also provide the screenplay for the next Hitchcock opus, ‘The Trouble with Harry’. He would later go on to write the script for one of some of the most controversial films of their day including ‘Peyton Place’, ‘The Carpetbaggers’ and Butterfield Eight’. This was a man who pushed the limits imposed by the restrictions placed on Hollywood at that time. He was able to go close to the edge of the boundaries of the film industry’s code of decency and often found many of his scripts considered objectionable. When you look at what is permitted in movies today few realize that they owe a great debt to men like Hayes. The screenplay here was something the likes of which we have not seen in many years. It is set in the beautiful Côte d'Azur in the south of France. This was a romantic location that was perfect for the excitement and romance that the film provides. The story is about a debonair retired jewel thief, John Robie( Cary Grant), who is suspected of return to his nefarious trade. He is also romantically interested in the beautiful Francie (Grace Kelly) who was the daughter of a very wealthy man, Jessie Stevens (Jessie Royce Landis). Stevens just happen to own some fabulous gems that would appeal to the jewel thief persona of Robbie known as ‘The Cat’. The script is full of witty urbane humor mixed with great mystery that will keep the audience fully engage through the movie.
This film has been called one of Hitchcock’s lesser works but it is every bit one of his masterpieces. When this film was made Hollywood had a strict code of conduct that controlled what could be seen on the screen. It was implemented by the studio to avoid government censorship but it was every bit as effective. In this movie Mr. Hitchcock demonstrated one of his best known traits; he loved to defy authority. If he was told he could not do something he would work to find a way around that prohibition. Much of this is discussed on one of the featurettes contained in the Centennial DVD. The code prohibited anything remotely sexual. There were bans on showing a woman in a ‘French Bathing suit’, better known now as a bikini. Hitchcock found a way around this by having Grace Kelly in a modest one piece swimsuit but sensuously rubbing sun tan lotion on herself. One of the most famous scenes in films occurred in this movie. Kelly and Grant were kissing on a sofa in front of the window. The shot was inter cut with fireworks going off in the sky behind them. Unless you are in a coma you know what this means; they had sex. There was no skin shown, nothing overtly sexual actually seen by the audience but Hitchcock got the message across loud and clear. After this fireworks began a common ploy for this type of situation. The dialogue is packed with double entendres; both verbal and visual that keep the movie daring and risqué. Of course by today ‘s anything goes standards this is extremely tame but back then people thought this was daring.
The cinematography for this film won an Academy Award for Robert Burks and he richly deserved it. The coast of France provides such sheer beauty that even after all these years still draws the audience in to the exotic location. This was when movies had a touch of class that is all but lost now. This is helped by the lush and lavish costumes by one of the leading ladies of the film fashion world, Edith Head. No one can hold a candle to the way that Grace Kelly could wear a gown. She was the pinnacle of style and naturally considered one of the most elegant leading ladies every to appear in the films.
This installment of Paramount’s Centennial collection is excellent. The colors are vibrant with a picture perfect color palette. The audio was retained in the original two channel mix but like the video has undergone some cleanup to restore its edge. All of this series of Paramount classics comes with some of the best extra material possible. If you have a love and respect for film this is a must have.