Sunday, 18 May 2014

To Catch a Thief

A beautiful if underwhelming film, Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief marked the director’s third and final picture starring Grace Kelly. Joining the actress is another actor in his third Hitchcock movie, Carey Grant. Grant plays John Robie, a once jewel thief turned French Resistance fighter who now retired, tends to his vineyards high above the Côte d'Azur. When a series of robberies which display Robie’s hallmarks are committed, the police come looking for the man known as ‘The Cat’ and in order to clear his name, he gets hold of a list of potential targets in the hope of out witting and out manoeuvring the real thief. First on the list are Mrs. Stevens (Jessie Royce Landis) and her daughter Francie (Kelly).

To Catch a Thief lacks some of the dramatic tension and edge of the seat thrills of Hitchcock’s finest films but what it lacks in tautness, it makes up for in other ways. Hitchcock cleverly gets passed the Hays/Breen censors with some fantastic sexual innuendo and half hidden imagery. The romantic side of the plot is much more developed than the dramatic side and Hitch wows his audience with sexual fireworks (literally) and a John Michael Hays script which while leaving little to the imagination, somehow feels clean and moral. Coupled with the spectacular beauty on display, this is a movie which is worth investing time in.

Hitchcock’s first movie to be shot in widescreen VistaVision, the locations and characters pop off the screen with vibrancy after close to sixty years. Although it would be difficult to make the French Rivera of the mid 1950s look unattractive, Hitchcock and cinematographer Robert Burks made me yearn to be in that place, at that time and with those people. The hilltop villages, wide blue sea, white sandy beaches and steep colourful vineyards look spectacular and an early example of helicam tops off a simply stunning movie. Burks incidentally won a well deserved Oscar for his efforts. Alongside the picturesque backdrop you have two of the most beautiful actors to ever grace the screen standing front and centre. Drenched in exquisite dresses and suits, Kelly and Grant look incredible in the leads. This movie actually made me angry. Angry because it’s not 1955, I’m not in the South of France, I’m not wearing a handsome suit and I don’t have Grace Kelly on my arm.

In comparison to the visuals, the plot is rather mundane. The script sets up an expected conclusion in which the real jewel thief is never truly in doubt. The meandering ride towards the conclusion has some nice moments but most of these come by the way of the electric chemistry fizzing and sparking between the two leads. Helped along by Hitchcock’s wicked, censor busting tricks, the real story is the romance. The thievery plays second fiddle. The highlight of the movie for me was a scene in which Hitchcock insinuates sex while keeping everyone fully dressed. With fireworks in the background and a room bathed in green light, Hitch cuts quickly between the embracing actors and the firework display, a visual metaphor for an orgasmic sensation. The director was a master of getting around the censors scissors but this is one of his finest moments in that regard.

The actors themselves are generally unspectacular but at the same time they’re more than serviceable. Grace Kelly comes across as a little wooden and icy but she’s Grace Kelly. I couldn’t see anyone else in the role. Carey Grant appears to have fun with the role but occasionally has the look of a man enjoying himself on the Rivera rather that acting in a movie. What the leads do have is mesmerising charisma and an undoubted chemistry which propels the film through their less steady moments. Joining them is John Williams who plays the stereotypical stiff upper lipped Brit with aplomb and a sprightly Brigitte Auber who performs well and adds a frisson of tension to both the romance and drama. Jessie Royce Landis wafts in and out of the picture from time to time but doesn’t really register.

In the end, To Catch a Thief comes out as a second rate Hitchcock picture with first rate moments. It’s remarkably attractive and assuredly made but a lacklustre plot detracts from the witty and saucy dialogue. I’ll certainly watch it again but only for the visual impression it made on me.

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