Despite being heralded as a master of suspense, Hitchcock was sometimes prone to dabbling in blandness. Mark Fraser looks back at one of his movies where he seemed to be resting on his laurels.
It’s arguable that the reverence held for Alfred Hitchcock by both audiences and critics sometimes helps blot out the undeniable fact that the late American director was responsible for some fairly lame cinema. Certainly this was the case by the end of his career when, in his farewell film Family Plot (1976), his usual playful approach to narrative and bag of stylistic tricks – tools he utilised so well in the past – were beginning to show signs of aging.
Over the course of some 60 years Hitchcock managed to direct almost as many movies, including a number of Hollywood’s best known and most entertaining films. These included Spellbound (1945) and Notorious (1946) in the 1940s to Dial M for Murder, Rope and Rear Window (all 1954), Vertigo (1958) and North By Northwest (1959) during the following decade, followed by Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963) in the first half of the 1960s. Somewhere in the middle of all of this was 1955’s To Catch a Thief, a pseudo crime caper starring Cary Grant, Grace Kelly, Charles Vanel and Brigitte Auber that won Best Cinematography Oscar™ for regular Hitchcock cameraman Robert Burks.
Set in the French Riviera, the film concerns itself with American-born John Robie (Grant), a former jewel thief, grape grower, part time playboy and erstwhile hero of the French Resistance who attempts to clear his name when a new spate of copy cat burglaries take place in his neighbourhood. In the process he becomes involved with well-to-do socialite Francie Stevens (Kelly), who is in town with her widowed mother Jessie (Jessie Royce Landis) and their expensive jewelry collection – a batch of stones which, Robie correctly assumes, will be targeted by the thief he is looking to catch. With the help of Francie and Jessie and English insurer HH Hughson (John Wilson), Robie ends up taking part in a masquerade ball switcheroo that not only helps him corner his new nemesis, but exposes a greater (albeit modest) crime syndicate working against him.
Although mildly entertaining and reasonably paced, To Catch a Thief contains some extraordinary moments of mundane cinematic simplicity – something that is not helped by a fairly ordinary and unconvincing assumption-driven plot. Perhaps only a director of Hitchcock’s stature would have had the audacity to run the film’s opening credits over a single shot of a travel agency window advertising a poster of the French Riviera rather than showing a montage of the location itself. Sure it’s economical, crudely effective and arguably a sign of the times. But it’s also a gimmick – one more suited to television than a movie shot in VistaVision (apparently it was the first of five features in which the director used this wide-screen format).
The first 15 or so minutes of the film also suffer from the same kind of shortcutting blandness. During the opening robberies, for instance, no details or clues are provided. Rather, the director relies on a couple of shots of a black cat prowling across a roof in the still of night to make his point. This kind of tired symbolism not only fails to establish a sense of mystery in the exposition, but is repeated later in the film when Robie and Francie are about to get it on in their hotel suite, Hitchcock’s camera lingering on some exploding night time fireworks that can be seen across the bay from their window.
Another shortcut Hitchcock takes early in the film is his reliance on the super wide shot (possibly from the air or a nearby mountain) when a couple of police cars race up to Robie’s villa to bring him in for questioning after the latest robbery. Complete with wailing sirens and screeching tyres, the camera lazily watches, from a great distance, as these tiny specs of vehicles make their way through the riviera cliffscape.
Then – just to make it all a bit duller – the director continues with this technique as Robie executes his getaway, this sequence finally concluding when the fugitive climbs onto a bus, only to be seated next to the director himself in another of his famous cameos. (Hitchcock later uses his famous back screen projection during a tame car chase involving Robie, Francie and the police – a somewhat unintentionally prescient moment given Kelly died in a car crash in Monaco during 1982.) If this kind of visual sluggishness can be viewed as detrimental to the narrative, it’s also fair to say that John Michael Hayes’ screenplay, as adapted from a 1952 novel by David Dodge, certainly doesn’t help proceedings.
Robie – judging from his reasonably opulent bachelor lifestyle (he looks like a semi-retired hobby farmer who dresses like a European playboy, lives in a comfortable villa with sweeping views and even has a maid who cooks for him) – seems to be existing off the proceeds of his stolen booty, yet is somehow indignant that he should be regarded as a key suspect in the latest crime spree.
Furthermore, as played by a laconic Grant, he doesn’t seem to have a trouble in the world, easily jumping from perilous situation to perilous situation at exactly the right moment while making endless wisecracks that even a good-natured Ronald Reagan character from a previous era would have been proud of.
Finally there is the age difference between Grant and Kelly. Sure this tanned leading man still cuts a dashing figure in his fifties, but there’s no denying he looks old enough to be Francie’s father. If anything, he is better suited for her mother.
At the end of the day, To Catch a Thief is just a bit too lightweight to be considered one of Hitchcock’s better works. Even as a romantic thriller it doesn’t fit into the canon of films which ultimately gave him the reputation of being a master of suspense.
Written by Mark Fraser.
Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock
Written by: John Michael Hayes
Starring: Cary Grant, Grace Kelly, Jessie Royce Landis, John Williams, Charles Vanel, Brigitte Auber
Released: 1955 / Genre: Crime/Romance / Country: USA / IMDB