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Our reviews of To Catch A Thief (published January 28th, 2003), To Catch a Thief (Blu-ray) (published March 1st, 2012), and To Catch A Thief: Centennial Collection (published March 24th, 2009) are also available.
"You're like an American character in an English movie."—Frances (Grace Kelly) to John Robie (Cary Grant)
Hitchcock goes pomo. Welcome to the costume party. Just hold on to your jewels.
Facts of the Case
The French town of Nice turns out to be not so nice, as rich women discover their jewels have been stolen by a dastardly cat burglar. Naturally, all eyes turn to John "The Cat" Robie (Cary Grant, North By Northwest), notorious but retired thief. Trouble is, he didn't actually do the crime this time. And in the world of Alfred Hitchcock, the innocent man must always hit the road to find the real culprit.
Robie hooks up with Hughson (John Williams, Dial M for Murder), an insurance agent who provides him with a list of rich women with tempting jewelry. Then, it's off to Cannes, where Robie ingratiates himself to the Stevens family—particularly the beautiful Frances (Grace Kelly, Rear Window). Brace yourself for thrills, intrigue, and heaps of sexual innuendo as only Hitchcock can deliver.
When the major films of Alfred Hitchcock are discussed, To Catch a Thief is rarely mentioned among their company. This is usually considered one of those pictures Hitch did for "fun," a shallow entertainment celebrating the beautiful: alluring locations populated by delectable stars prancing in expensive costumes, chasing after glittering jewels. All style and no substance.
Indeed, To Catch a Thief is all about surfaces—and in that, it delves into precisely what is at the heart of Hitchcock's cinema. The opening show of the film is all about simulation: a model ocean liner, a model Eiffel Tower, posters of stunning travel destinations. We leap suddenly to Nice, where a woman screams over the loss of her jewels. But what are jewels really worth? Gemstones have no intrinsic value, no telos that can be calculated by their use or determined end. Still, we place value on them, project our desire for something rare and pretty (even if some of them, diamond for instance, are not as rare as we pretend they are). Indeed, these jewels are only marked as valuable because they are "insured," that is, they are given replacement value by a corporation and its agent.
Enter Cary Grant, wearing an absurd red kerchief, driving an absurd red car as he escapes the Surete (after staging a mock suicide to distract them). He stands out, marks himself as a thing of value in a monochromatic, dully routine world. Robie is a simulation, an "innocent" man who is hardly clean: he is a cat burglar claiming to be innocent. (He effaced his former life by fighting for the Resistance after escaping prison during the war.) But this counterfeit has been counterfeited, as a "new cat" imitates his modus operandi. So, by contrast, Robie must become "real," racing to unmask the plagiarist and prove he is true. Certainly, Grant is perfectly cast for this part: his entire life—from his rough childhood as Archie Leach to blinding stardom as the sexy Cary Grant—is about disguise. "Everybody would love to be Cary Grant," he was supposedly once told. His response: "So would I."
And so, Robie goes undercover in broad daylight, hanging around on the beach in a red swimsuit ("Nobody will recognize me in these," he quips), hiding in a cluster of flowers (red ones, of course). His best friend is the aforementioned insurance agent (John Williams). He slithers his way into the lives of potential-victim Mrs. Stevens (Jesse Royce Landis) and her sexy daughter (Grace Kelly) with a staged discussion of costume jewelry within earshot (a fake talk about fakes, meant to establish his fake identity as "Mr. Burns"). Frances herself is rootless, with no origin: she was born "in a taxi halfway between home and the hospital," or so she tells us while driving in front of a traveling matte.
In a way, To Catch a Thief is really a dress rehearsal for North By Northwest, where the emptiness of the cinematic world emerges fully formed. Both films are a chain of signifiers with no signifieds. Nothing is real at the heart of To Catch a Thief, and the film embraces that purely aesthetic experience with gusto. If you think I am somehow upset about the film's joyous fakery, quite the contrary. Hitchcock and his cast are all having so much fun playing pretend that you cannot help but get carried along. Consider the title itself: To Catch a Thief. This is a story about pursuit, about desire. Desire always seeks to fill a void, an absence. But the object of desire in this film is marked by theft, creating a doubled absence—and thus desire (and this is always the case with desire, according to Freud) directs itself toward illusion. Robie is chasing a thief who doubles his effaced past; Robie is told directly by Frances (during one of their constant flirtations) at one point that he must "capture" a girl, marking her too as the object of desire. (Their flirtations frequently reference how much they lie to one another.)
Grant and Kelly show such impeccable timing here. Their sexual chemistry generates the necessary energy to sustain the film through its thin premise. Ah, what to make of the line where Frances accuses Robie of telling all the girls that all his trees are Sequoias? Or when she offers him "a leg or a breast"—of chicken of course? But Hitchcock plays this all very close to the vest: such conspicuous innuendo could come across as seedy, if you really believed that these people actually have sex. But they are so well coiffed, tightened up in their Edith Head costumes. These are movie stars, playing at being lovers, mooning at one another in front of pre-filmed footage of the French Riviera. You can see a stage light reflecting off Cary Grant's forehead as he moves his face close to Grace Kelly's. Later, Robie notes that Frances' necklace is an imitation. And it all climaxes at a costume party. This is all a wonderful illusion. And Hitchcock knows it.
The film revels in what we might only now call "postmodernity," a clever series of self-referential games. At one point, Robie remarks that his thoughts are "highly censorable," and he already knows Frances' "next line." Frances quips that Robie is like a character in a movie (quoted at the top of this review). In an early scene, characters look directly into the camera to approximate Robie's point of view. Hitchcock even calls greater attention to his cameo (sitting next to Cary Grant on a bus—and even getting a direct look from the star) than in most of his films. We are reminded that we are watching a movie, with actors playing out a mystery story. Hitchcock would run with all this a few years later in his greatest film, Vertigo, where he gleefully deconstructs the great detective (played in this instance by Jimmy Stewart) and reveals his desire for mastery as a psychosis. North By Northwest would throw the detective hero (Cary Grant, again) into a world of empty signifiers and bad disguises—even the villain notes that the hero is an actor who must "overplay your various roles rather severely." And The Birds defeats its detective (Tippi Hedren) entirely, leaving closure for, well, the birds.
To Catch a Thief came out on DVD a few years back with a restored anamorphic print that offered a clean, bright VistaVision glimpse into the glorious world of the bold and beautiful. A new stereo mix has been added. It claims to be "surround," but honestly, a 2.0 remix of a monaural original is not going to have much in the way of surround effects.
There were also four featurettes: three focused on the overall production and one on costume designer Edith Head's career. Little has changed in that regard, and these segments are informative and well-produced. Daughter Pat Hitchcock, granddaughter Mary Stone (who once got her grandfather to help her write a paper on one of his movies for a film course—and got a lousy grade on it!), and the usual slate of film historians drop by to talk about the film's genesis (especially Hitch's arguments with the Breen office over the sexual content), the visual details (costuming, cinematography, and so on), and the film's place in Hitchcock's career. The picture gallery from the previous release is gone from "Collector's Edition," and it has been replaced by a commentary track by Peter Bogdanovich, who knew Hitchcock (and uses every opportunity here to impersonate him), and Laurent Bouzereau. Bouzereau, a Hitchcock biographer and director of the featurettes elsewhere on the disc, leads the conversation and prompts Bogdanovich with questions. The tone is pretty light and spends much of its time just pointing out how pretty everything and everyone is. Bogdanovich describes the film as "a vacation," and both men agree that this is one of Hitchcock's less important pictures, in spite of being so much fun. Overall, there is nothing particularly substantive here—but that is the nature of the film they are watching. There is a considerable focus throughout the commentary on Cary Grant and his ability to handle a role that is a little corruptible, a little slapstick, and very sexy.
In its very shallowness, To Catch a Thief turns out to be a potent commentary on Hitchcock's own filmmaking, the testament of a director so adept at the detective story—the revelation of a secret in the hands of a master observer—that he could strip away all depth and still have the story hold up perfectly well for the audience. The steps here are tentative however: as noted above, Hitchcock will push this commentary further in later films.
This not one of the more essential Hitchcock films that needs to be in your collection. But for what its worth, To Catch a Thief is one of Hitchcock's more purely romantic films, with nothing to apologize for in its validation of the glamorous life. Although, I cannot say that this "Special Collector's Edition" really upgrades the previous release significantly though. A cleaned-up audio track and a pleasant commentary make this a slight improvement. If you like the films of Alfred Hitchcock—or you just want a flat-out romantic adventure to cuddle up with—To Catch a Thief is certainly worth a look.
John Robie and the movie are clearly not guilty. Let's all have a cocktail on the balcony and toast our success.
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