Note: In the following joint Blu-ray review, Yunda Eddie Feng and Dean Winkelspecht join John in providing their opinions of the film, with John also writing up the Video, Audio, Extras, and Parting Thoughts.
The Film According to John:
For a guy like Hitchcock who specialized, he wasn’t bad. Maybe that says something for specialization.
Alfred Hitchcock made mystery movies. That was his job, and he did it as well or better than anybody before or since. Yet for a guy who dealt primarily with a single genre, he was also remarkably diverse during his fifty-odd-year career in movies. After making a name for himself in English films, Hitch’s first Hollywood production, “Rebecca” (1940), earned eleven Oscar nominations, winning two (Best Picture and Best Cinematography). He went on in the 1940’s and 50’s to acquire the title “Master of Suspense,” which people may overstate but with which one can hardly find any serious question. In the mid Fifties, he hosted his own television series, and the world came to know him for his wry and sardonic introductions. By the late Fifties he made “North By Northwest” (1959), whose tongue-in-cheek wit and urbane style would influence the first James Bond films a few years later. Then there was “Psycho” (1960), which would influence every slasher flick made since.
What was it that made Hitchcock’s films so popular? Certainly, the mystery and suspense, the top stars, and the devious plots. But just as important was probably the director’s wit. The fact is, most of Hitchcock’s best films were also pretty funny. “Psycho” scared a lot of people, but its dark humor made them smile, too. In any event, this is all leading up to the film under discussion here, “To Catch a Thief,” 1955, starring Cary Grant and Grace Kelly. It came at a time when Hitch was on another roll. Think of it: “Strangers on a Train” (1951), “Dial M for Murder” (1954), “Rear Window” (1954), “The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), “The Wrong Man” (1956), “Vertigo” (1958), “North By Northwest” (1959), “Psycho” (1960), and “The Birds” (1963), all within a span of little more than a decade and all of them thought of today as classics. Hitchcock would go on to make five more films before his death in 1980, and they, too, have their ardent admirers.
So, where does “To Catch a Thief” fit into the scheme of things? Well, it’s not one of Hitchcock’s best pictures, that’s for sure. It’s not particularly suspenseful, it’s not at all scary or pulse pounding, and even the mystery is pretty easy to figure out. It’s lightweight Hitchcock, yet it’s glamorous and sophisticated enough to entertain us long after we’ve forgotten that it’s not really a quintessential Hitchcock movie.
Part of its allure is the two stars, of course. Who wouldn’t be entertained by Cary Grant and Grace Kelly, a pair of the most attractive performers who ever dignified the screen. I mean, how could anyone be more charming than Cary Grant or more beautiful than Grace Kelly? Yet Paramount execs worried about their age difference, Grant being about twice as old as Kelly. Apparently, the studio had forgotten about Bogart and Bergman (“Casablanca”) and Bogart and Bacall (“To Have and Have Not”) a few years before. Nor did it make any difference to movie audiences when Audrey Hepburn romanced much older men on screen, actors like Humphrey Bogart (“Sabrina”), Fred Astaire (“Funny Face”), Gary Cooper (“Love in the Afternoon”), Rex Harrison (“My Fair Lady”), and, yes, Cary Grant (“Charade”). Anyway, Grant and Kelly get away with the age difference, first, because Grant still looked younger than his fifty-one years; second, because the script mentions at one point that Grant’s character is younger than the actor; and, third and most important, because audiences just didn’t care. When we have characters as appealing as these are, age is not an issue.
But we mustn’t forget the other star of the film: the French Riviera. Hitchcock generally eschewed location work, preferring to shoot his movies in a studio where he could control things like lighting, sound, and weather. Yet he found himself lured off the lot to shoot some of his most popular films at least partly on location, including this one and others like “North By Northwest,” “Vertigo,” and “The Birds.” There is no denying the location shooting in “To Catch a Thief” is gorgeous (he shot about half of it on the French Riviera and half of it in the studio), helping to make the movie one of the biggest box-office draws of the Fifties (and the biggest moneymaker for Hitchcock up until that time).
Anyway, the plot is pretty straightforward. Grant plays John Robie, a retired (and presumably reformed) cat burglar and French Resistance fighter now living peacefully in a storybook hillside villa overlooking the Riviera, tending his gardens. Until a series of jewel robberies bearing his mark lead the French police to suspect “The Cat” might have come out of retirement. He says he didn’t do it, naturally, but he’s sure the police won’t believe him, so he determines to find the real thief himself. “Set a thief to catch a thief,” as the English proverb goes. It is one of Hitchcock’s favorite “wrong man” themes. He used it famously in “The 39 Steps,” “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” “North By Northwest,” and “The Wrong Man,” among others, and it works here as well.
Grace Kelly comes into the story when Robie is trying to figure out who the real burglar is, and he meets Kelly’s character, Francie Stevens, and her mother (Jessie Royce Landis), a rich widower, vacationing on the Riviera. Grant and Kelly’s characters don’t fall in love instantly, however, and Francie seems more interested in helping Robie solve the crimes than in romancing him. Needless to say, things change as the plot progresses.
As I’ve said, “To Catch a Thief” is not a typical Hitchcock suspense movie, nor is it much of a mystery. It is, however, an amusing interplay among various characters, most obviously Grant’s relationship with Kelly’s character, but also his relationship with Francie’s mother, with a stuffy Lloyds of London insurance man (John Williams), and with a young woman and old friend (Brigitte Auber). And, my, is the picture ever beautiful to look at.
Thank Robert Burks and his Oscar-winning cinematography of the French Riviera plus the film’s original music by Lyn Murray (reminiscent of Bernard Herrmann’s scores for “Vertigo,” “North By Northwest,” and “Psycho”), and you get a movie as easy on the eye as it is on the ear.
Incidentally, Hitchcock usually implied a lot more than he showed, even in movies like “Psycho.” Owing to his innate good taste and to comply with the censorship rules of the day, in “To Catch a Thief” he simply suggests most of the action and sex. For example, when Grant and Kelly make love, instead of fading to black, Hitch cuts to fireworks going on outside their window. Now, that may seem like a hopeless cliché, and it was a cliché in Hitchcock’s time as well, but he was always a playful fellow and undoubtedly meant it to be as amusing as it comes off.
Also, I’ve mentioned how other Hitchcock movies have influenced future films, and this one is no exception. It influenced the original Peter Sellers “Pink Panther” a few years later; it influenced the Robert Wagner TV series “It Takes a Thief” a little later; and like “North By Northwest” it influenced the first Bond films. One look at Grant in a tuxedo standing at a gambling table in a Cannes casino, and you’ll understand why the Bond producers wanted him as 007.
Trivia note: Look for Hitchcock’s cameo about ten minutes into the story. Grant is sitting next to him on a bus, turns to him, and then gives the audience a knowing look.
John’s film rating: 6/10
The Film According to Eddie:
Even while on cruise control, Alfred Hitchcock usually could direct a movie with better results than the vast majority of filmmakers on their best days. However, cruise control remains cruise control, and if a filmgoer’s first Hitchcock experience is “To Catch a Thief”, he/she may be left wondering about all the fuss concerning the “master of suspense.” “To Catch a Thief” offers slick entertainment, but ultimately, it yields little that satisfies.
In the movie (based on a novel by David Dodge), a rash of jewel thefts in and around Cannes in southern France leads the police to think that “The Cat,” John Robie (Cary Grant), has taken to his roof-climbing ways again. However, Robie hasn’t stolen anything in fifteen years, so he allies himself with an insurance agent in order to catch the real thief. Robie also decides to use the American heiress Frances Stevens (Grace Kelly) as bait. Robie and Stevens fall in love, but even she thinks that he’s the burglar.
The film’s title refers to both Robie’s quest to catch the real thief as well as to Stevens’s seduction of Robie. However, despite the parallel plots unfolding simultaneously, you might be surprised to find that there’s little that happens in “To Catch a Thief” that could sustain a feature-length narrative. Robie never seems to be actually trying to catch the new “cat”, nor is there any sense of urgency in the pacing. The last act, which takes place at an elaborate costume ball, takes much too long to unfold. The denouement is both obvious and arbitrary.
“To Catch a Thief” also suffers from never maintaining a consistent point-of-view. Sometimes, we see the story from Robie’s perspective. As the film progresses, the audience is shoehorned into Stevens’s understanding of events. Just when we have become accustomed to seeing things from one limited angle, the movie lifts us to the position of third person omniscient observers. Since the kind of information that the viewer receives from the movie is inconsistent in feel, I got the sense that Hitchcock was cheating in order to keep the audience guessing about the outcome. The thing is, without a consistent mood, how could the director have expected to remain intimate with his audience?
The best way to enjoy “To Catch a Thief” may be to focus on little touches such as shots of a black cat skittering across tiled rooftops, Grace Kelly’s gorgeous costumes (designed by the legendary Edith Head), and the French-ness of the production. There are numerous passages with characters speaking only French, and the movie does not supply subtitles (either burned onto the print or via the DVD’s subtitle stream)–a gesture to the days when sophisticated people were conversant in that elegant language. There are the usual Hitchcockian touches, from a cameo by the director to the “an innocent man being wronged” theme, from height fetishes to food fetishes, from stunning ice queens to stunning settings. I think of “To Catch a Thief” as Hitchcock’s “Hook.”
“To Catch a Thief” also reminded me of the 1999 remake of “The Thomas Crown Affair.” Basically, the audience gets to watch a bunch of bored rich people trying to add some spice to their lives. However, “Thomas Crown” played like a romp between characters who weren’t afraid to get dirty. “To Catch a Thief” features oblique angles that prevented me from fully enjoying either the story or the characters. It isn’t a convoluted or complex movie–just a slight one that tries to use (admittedly skillful) tricks to create a sense of accomplishment. A couple of witty exchanges between Cary Grant and Grace Kelly will elicit smiles, and the gorgeous cinematography and dresses will dazzle your eyes. In the end, though, even the film’s charms don’t make it a must-see.
Eddie’s film rating: 6/10
The Film According to Dean:
Cary Grant. Grace Kelly. Alfred Hitchcock. Three legendary names in Hollywood and they joined together for the 1955 Alfred Hitchcock film “To Catch A Thief.” The film is noteworthy for bringing Cary Grant out of a two year, self-imposed retirement that resulted after a number of unsuccessful films at the box office including “Dream Wife,” “Monkey Business” and “Room for One More.” Grant would star in a number of successful films after “To Catch a Thief” including “Charade,” “An Affair to Remember” and would eventually star in another legendary Alfred Hitchcock film, “North by Northwest” after previously appearing in “Suspicion” and “Notorious.” Grace Kelly had previously appeared in “Dial M for Murder” and “Rear Window” for Alfred Hitchcock, but this marked their first time working together.
“To Catch a Thief” stars Cary Grant as John Robie, a retired master jewel thief known as “The Cat” for his acrobatic abilities and talents in leaving not a trace of a clue post heist. Robie had earned his freedom after serving in the French Resistance, but finds himself the principal suspect after a rash of recent jewel heists leave the police puzzled and the methods and manner in which the thefts are handled are reminiscent to the talents of Robie. Robie realizes that the only way he can clear his name is to apprehend the copy “Cat” and bring the new jewel thief to justice. His travels take him to the French Riviera, where he meets the lovely young lady Francie Stevens (Grace Kelly) and her rich mother Jessie Stevens (Jessie Royce Landis) after obtaining the Stevens’ name from a list provided by an insurance agent, H.H. Hughson (John Williams). Robie is aided by former compatriots of the French Revolution and also the daughter of his friend Foussard (Jean Martinelli), Danielle (Brigitte Auber).
Although nearly twice the age of Grace Kelly in real life, Francie becomes the primary love interest of Robie when he tries to set a trap for the new cat burglar when the thief tries to steal the jewels from Mrs. Stevens. Robie is the first man to not fall completely and madly in love with the pampered Francie, and she surprises him when she learns that he is not the man he claims to be, but the masterful burglar John Robie. Francie is not the only girl wanting to be the wife of Robie, the young girl Danielle dreams of moving to Southern climates with Robie and becoming his wife, but Robie has not interest in the young girl that is the daughter of his friend. This does not stop jealousy from taking hold of both Francie and Danielle. Eventually, Robie finds himself at the scene of the crime when the new burglar attempts to lift the jewels from somebody on the list provided by H.H. Hughson, and he is surprised at the identity of the thief.
“To Catch a Thief” is a rare “Whodunit” film by director Alfred Hitchcock. The director had typically kept away from this subgenre of crime thriller, as he had preferred to have a more suspenseful story and not resort to surprises to thrill his audience. The film contains many trademark moments by the auteur and features his trademark cameo appearance, numerous beautiful wide angle shots and a number of MacGuffins. In the case of “To Catch a Thief,” the MacGuffin is the true identity of the thief, which is not revealed until the closing moments of the film, although I had correctly guessed the identity after just about halfway through the film.
This is a classic film and in typical Hitchcock fashion, the plot is involved and the story is captivating. The director did right in talking Cary Grant out of retirement, as Grant would give forth a very good performance and later reward Hitchcock by starring in one of the director’s absolute best films, “North by Northwest.” Grace Kelly is a lovely lady and held her own against the veteran leading man. Their chemistry on screen was good, although I didn’t feel her age of 26 matched up with Grant’s 51. Nearly double her age, it was believable that a young lady would swoon over the elder John Robie, but a girl as gorgeous as Francie would certainly have no troubles finding a suitable man that was at least a decade or two younger than the film’s primary star. Cary Grant was still a very handsome leading man, there is no denying that fact, but Grace Kelly was simply a stunner and looked younger than her actual age.
Although I was able to correctly deduce who the real criminal was, this did not take away from my enjoyment of the film. I’m sure there are people out there who will find the ending to still be surprising, but in the past fifty years, there has been so many “Whodunits” created that we are all well-trained in how to identify who the real villain is. Hitchcock still builds suspense until the final moments when Robie and the new “Cat” come face-to-face on a tiled rooftop, both under gunfire from the local police.
The style and attitude of “To Catch a Thief” easily make up for its predictability, as any Hitchcock film was a stylish tour de force, and this film is no exception. “To Catch a Thief” is another solid entry for anybody’s film library and another great Alfred Hitchcock film.
Dean’s film rating: 8/10
The dual-layer BD50, MPEG-4/AVC transfer is, like the DVD that preceded it, a combination of the excellent, the ordinary, and the annoying. On the excellent side, we get a well-preserved, Technicolor, 1.85:1 ratio (1.78:1 actually) VistaVision image in bright, vivid, vibrant colors and strong black levels, with a modicum of natural film grain to give the picture a realistic texture. On the ordinary side, we get fairly average definition. And on the annoying side, Grant’s striped sweater practically explodes with glittering, rippling moiré effects for the first thirty minutes of the movie. Still, the colors are often so glorious, I doubt that too many viewers will object to any of the PQ’s shortcomings.
For its age, the audio is a lot better than I had expected. The lossless Dolby TrueHD 2.0 is rather good in terms of its mid and upper frequency response, with clear, clean highs and a natural, well-balanced midrange. Bass suffers, true, but there isn’t much need of a low end in any case. There is little-to-no surround activity, except that which your particular sound setup provides, but there is a comfortable, if limited, front-channel stereo spread.
For the Blu-ray edition, Paramount carry over all of the extras they included on their two-disc Centennial Collection DVD set. These include eighteen scene selections; English, French, Portuguese, and Spanish spoken languages and subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired. In addition, we get an audio commentary by film historian Dr. Drew Casper. All of us have probably heard Dr. Casper’s commentaries before; they are always well informed, insightful, and scholarly. If they sound a bit like a film-school lecture, we might excuse the good professor as he does, after all, teach classes in Hitchcock at USC. I found his comments quite enjoyable.
Next is a series of short featurettes. The first is “A Night With the Hitchcocks,” twenty-three minutes with the director’s daughter and granddaughter taking questions from USC Hitchcock film-school students. Next is “Unacceptable Under the Code: Film Censorship in Hollywood,” eleven minutes on censorship in Tinseltown and how Hitchcock worked around the restrictions imposed upon him by the various production codes. After that is “Writing and Casting To Catch a Thief,” nine minutes on screenwriter John Michael Hayes’s script, based on the novel by David Dodge, and some of the censorship issues that swirled around it. Then, there’s “The Making of To Catch a Thief,” sixteen minutes of behind-the-scenes reminiscences by Hitchcock’s daughter, granddaughter, the film’s production manager, and others. Following that is “Behind the Gates: Cary Grant and Grace Kelly,” six minutes of mini biographies on the two stars specifically. And next is “Alfred Hitchcock and To Catch a Thief: An Appreciation,” seven minutes of comments on the film and the director again by Hitch’s daughter and granddaughter.
The featurettes wind down with “Edith Head: The Paramount Years,” thirteen minutes on the most-famous costume designer in Hollywood history; followed by an interactive travelogue: “If You Love To Catch a Thief, You’ll Love This” that allows you to click on various locations on a map and bring up scenes from the movie; a theatrical trailer; and separate stills galleries on the movie, the publicity, the production, even visitors to the sets. The disc comes housed in a flimsy BD Eco-case, further enclosed in an elegant, light-cardboard slipcover.
Surprisingly, I liked “To Catch a Thief” more on disc than I did when I first saw it in a theater because about all I remembered of it from my first viewing many years ago were the shots of the French Riviera. These later go-rounds, I could better appreciate the characters and the stars. This may not be one of Hitchcock’s best suspense capers, but it’s surely one of his most glamorous films. Stylish, graceful, refined, and subtly humorous, “To Catch a Thief” is a pleasure on many counts, not the least of which is the appeal of its two stars.