Tuesday, September 13, 2011

To Catch A Thief

 In the huge catalogue of the genius that was Alfred Hitchcock, 1955's To Catch A Thief  is generally ranked within the top 10 films he made. I tend to think that is where it belongs. But for me To Catch a Thief has not dated as well as some of Hitch's other great films of the era. Compare it to 1954's Rear Window, which is regarded as one of his very best ( by many to BE his best ). It has dated visually as all films will but the plot and pacing haven't. And this is where To Catch a Thief has fallen behind so markedly.

 It is based on a 1952 novel of the same name by David Dodge. Surprisingly, unlike so many of Hitch's adaptions, the film is fairly faithful to the novel. The only real change is the end in how the identity of the real cat burglar is revealed. What makes this film unusual is that it is a romantic thriller, hence was a marked change in style from Hitch. He generally stayed away from comedy, and for me this is probably why the film has dated as palpably as it has. Comedy more than any other genre does not date well at all.

 But in saying that it doesn't mean the film isn't worth watching. The term 'dated' does not equate to a lack of quality. As a film, ( and especially as a Hitchcock film ), it still has its own resonances. It is full of the master's touches if you want to see them. I think as a romantic thriller the romantic angle is as strong as ever, but like the comedy the thriller, cum suspense angle, have fallen away over the years. I mean I figured out the identity of the cat burglar very early on in the piece. It was a bit too obvious, and for once Hitch didn't veil it enough as he had in past films.

 I figured it out when Robie met Danielle out on the diving platform. When Frances swam out and joined them the repartee of the three gave it away there and then. In 1955 it would not have been so obvious. But as the years have advanced and many, many films have been made with a hidden identity or twist, a film like this will show it age. For me Psycho is still Hitch's best for innuendo and for giving it away if the viewer is clever enough to pick it up. I of course refer to the scene where Norman Bates and Marion Crane are talking in the small parlour behind the office. We see some of Bates' taxidermy and throughout the scene Bates drops enough hints of what is really what. For me that is Hitch at his very, very best, in giving the astute viewer the answer if they look and listen hard enough.

 To Catch a Thief  is an earlier example of this and is very much a Hitchcock trait. The other Hitch trait is less obvious. Remember that right throughout most of his career Hitch worked under the absurd censorship laws of the times. They put serious brakes on what he could put into his films and what he couldn't. I mean even by the time of Psycho a flushing toilet was considered immoral! Hitch had serious problems getting it accepted as he did other scenes, but that is for another time.

 In To Catch a Thief  Hitch cunningly slipped in a sexual innuendo that the censors couldn't argue with, whilst being all so obvious. The film has two very famous sexual innuendo scenes. Both are great examples of great film making, and the sheer genius of Hitch in getting around the laws of the times. They may appear dated to us today, but any genuine cinema buff will appreciate just how great they were, and still are. Sit back and enjoy two great pieces of historical cinema!

The most prophetic scene ever filmed?
 Firstly the scene where Frances takes Robie for a ride in her car ( which is more famous for another era, but I will get to that ). When the pair pull over to have a picnic lunch Frances asks Robie, quite innocently of course, it he'd 'like a leg or a breast', as she waves around a piece of chicken!! The connotation is crystal clear, yet by just adding adding in a piece of chicken meat the censors could do nothing about it! It is a superb example of how Hitch beat the censors, and had fun doing it.

Leg or a breast?? Both Grace, both!!!!
 The other scene is of course the famous, or infamous, fireworks display. This scene really did raise the ire of the censors. Here again Hitch displays his genius, because what he did was to film an even more outrageous scene that he knew wouldn't be accepted. But the cunning thing was that he knew the censors wouldn't accept it and concentrate on having it cut out. By doing so it deflected their attention from the fireworks scene which is the one Hitch actually wanted kept in. He was to do this repeatedly throughout his career. Psycho's toilet flush is another that was overlooked, in having a scene Hitch didn't want, cut out, and the one he did want, left in. The genius of Alfred Hitchcock isn't just what we now see on the screen believe me.

 Of course the fireworks scene is as sexually explicit as a film maker could be in 1955. It leaves the viewer in no doubt as to the fact that Robie and Francine are engaging in some horizontal refreshment. The use of fireworks in any medium is now synonymous with a sex scene, for which we now take for granted. But in 1955 this was considered absolutely shocking even though it was nothing more than good natured eroticism.

 But whilst the film is a superb piece of film making it has now achieved immortality for a completely different reason. Grace Kelly must surely be the most stunning female to have ever graced ( hahahaha a pun! ) the silver screen. Her career only spanned 12 films, with one Oscar win. But even within that short time frame she came to be regarded as one of the greatest actresses ever. To Catch a Thief was her last film for Hitch before becoming Princess Grace of Monaco in 1956. Hitch of course tried to get her out of retirement for 1964's Marnie, but the people of Monaco expressed disapproval, and she was never to appear in another film again.

 Of course the film is prophetic because the very road she, as Frances Stevens, races along, with a scared John Robie, was the very road she was killed on as Princess Grace in 1982. For years and years I knew this about the film and nothing else. Like many the death of Kelly and the film link has over shadowed the rest of the film. It is obvious as to why, but funnily enough, and thankfully, I didn't watch it out of morbid fascination. I really didn't think of the death link until several days after watching it. But no matter what, it is always going to prove impossible to watch the scene, without thinking what an incredible twist of fate it proved to be.

 But enough of that sad fact! The plot revolves around a retired jewel thief, John Robie, formally known as 'The Cat'. After a series of thefts that resemble his style the police suspect he is up to his old tricks. Robie escapes as they attempt to arrest him. He is determined the only way to clear his name is to catch the thief himself. On the way he meets rich American socialite Frances Stevens, who is bored and offers to help Robie. Through ups and downs the real thief is caught. It turns out to be Danielle, daughter of Bertani, a criminal who served with Robie in the French Resistance.

 The film opens with another very typical Hitchcock shot. Obviously the film centres around the idea of a 'cat burgalr '. Hence the opening shots are of a black cat on a rooftop!! Very, very Hitchcockian, that is both related to the pemise, and tounge in cheek at the same time. This again shows the genius of Hitch. He put so much into his films that were both visibly obvious and little things that weren't. Only the astute viewer was able to pick them up.

 The film was nominated for three Oscars, Best Cinematography ( won ), Best Art Direction, and Best Costume Design. Again in To Catch a Thief the incomparable Edith head was at her best. The cinematic world just hasn't seen the likes of her before or since have they?! Even though the visual effects have dated, as they will, this is still a wonderful film visually. It was the first time Hitch used Widescreen VistaVision, and like all films of the era,  has that wonderful colouring that only Technicolour could provide. The other thing here to be aware of is the age gap between Grant and Kelly. He was 50 and Kelly 25! Again this is a result of the absurd laws of the times. For some reason, which I have forgotten, female leads had to act with a male actor much older than them.

A great shot of Grace and Hitch on location.
 But fortunately the chemistry between Grant and Kelly is there for all to see. For me the age difference is irrelevant but it must be looked at through the arcaneness of the times. Audrey Hepburn faced the same thing in her early career playing alongside Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday, and Humphrey Bogart and William Holden in Sabrina. Both at the time both looked almost like her grandfather/s!!

  All films date in one way or another. To Catch a Thief is no exception, even though made by Alfred Hitchcock. For me it is certainly one of his best films, but not in the masterpiece category of Vertigo, Rear Window, or Psycho. The datedness is palpable, both in the pacing and comedy. But as classic 1955 film it still looks fantastic. Grace Kelly alone makes this film worth watching!! Even though with a dated feel I thoroughly enjoyed this film, but I'm a Hitch fan through and through. Even though not usual Hitch fare, any fan will recognise his touch. And for me the history behind the film, and the ways he got around the censors, really make this a great film to watch.

 But ultimately whenever the name To Catch a Thief is mentioned it is 'that' scene that instantly springs to mind. It will forever carry the tag of sadness for the way life mirrored fiction, in the way the lovely Grace Kelly was to met her end. ( She was killed on 14th September 1982, so it 29 years ago as of writing ).

For me it is an 8/10 even though it has a dated flatness to it. I love it all the same.

Click here for a synopsis and more:

Can anyone honestly say she wasn't the most beautiful actress ever?!! Breast or leg indeed!!!!
 I recently read a fine biography on Alfred Hitchcock that is also one of the best biographies I've ever read, fullstop. It is called Alfred Hitchcock : A life in darkness and light, by Patrick McGilligan. At 850+ pages it is certainly not for the faint hearted. But none the less it is a brilliant biography of Hitch, especially in regards to his films. I haven't been able to write a review on it because I just can't do it justice.

 It is meticulous in detail but never dry. It took me near on a month to make my way through it, and as a Hitchcock fan I'm glad I read it. There is just much about film making that Hitch knew and invented it is impossible to go into. But since this is a Hitch film I have just reviewed I'll just write a short piece on his camoes.

 Of course in To Catch a Thief  Hitch is in the scene where Grant's character, John Robie, jumps on a bus to escape the police. He sits down in the rear seat and alongside him is Alfred Hitchcock who Robie looks up and down. This all started from Hitch's early days in British cinema. At times he had to be be added in as an extra. The studios were so short of money, they couldn't afford to keep minor actors/bit part players employed full time. So the studios used actual staff to fill in!

 But the real reason Hitch added in his cameos was because, as a director in Britain, he became frustrated at not being acknowledged enough for his input to a film. Back then a producer got the credit, and the director was seen as a more minor role. Hitch was to change this as his fame grew. When his power grew with it he was able to get his name above a film's title ( as seen in the above picture ). He was adamant that the dirctor was the real go behind a film and he wanted that acknowledged. Of course today the director is far better known that a producer. This is all down to Alfred Hitchcock, and it is one of the many influences that he has had on the film industry. His influence on the industry is immeasurable, and what we see on the screen really is only a fraction of his immense legacy.

 I highly recommend this biography. Not only to Hitchcock fans, but to anyone who wants a look behind the scenes, and learn how films are made. And in the process watch and learn from one of, if not only, true genuis of cinema.

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