4/07/2009

DVD Review: To Catch a Thief (1955) -- The Paramount Centennial Collection 2-Disc Set


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Similar to the Paramount Centennial Collection release of Stanley Donen’s visually arresting Funny Face in a dynamite example of the studio’s 1950s highly-expensive but amazingly vivid Vistavision process —  Paramount’s sixth offering in the collection serves up what is arguably Alfred Hitchcock’s most gorgeous work—To Catch a Thief.



And intriguingly while both films take place in France and therefore make the most of the VistaVision technology—  To Catch a Thief (which earned a Best Cinematography Oscar), much like Funny Face is best appreciated on a purely aesthetic level as opposed to a cinematic one. As dizzyingly romantic as a first kiss with the right person and as intoxicating as French Bordeaux, Thief is made all the lovelier by its two legendary leads, Cary Grant and Grace Kelly.



Like Funny Face, we are dealing with another May/December romance with the fifty year old Grant and twenty-five year old Kelly but unlike the awkward coupling of Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire in Face the one in Thief is the purest visual definition of Hepburn and William Holden’s lackluster post-Sabrina reunion — Paris When it Sizzles.



Except that in Hitch’s film, nobody bursts out into song or wears white socks with black shoes and he replaces the Cinderella tale which blended philosophy and fashion photography with his quintessential and recurring plight of the falsely accused wrong man and moved the action to the French Riviera.

Hitchcock — much like Hepburn did with Face's Astaire—had to lure his star out of retirement as Cary Grant had decided once again to call it quits (following some amazing turns for the director, most notably in Notorious).  

Eventually, however the Master of Suspense got his way in screenwriter John Michael Hayes’ adaptation of David Dodge's novel about a retired jewel thief who (fittingly for Grant) finds himself forced back into action when another cat burglar moves in on his territory and uses our hero’s old modus operandi.



As John Robie, Grant manages to infuse what even Alfred Hitchcock confessed to Francois Truffaut in Hitchcock/Truffaut was “a lightweight story” (223) with his trademark sophisticated wit. Having atoned for his days spent ridding spoiled rich women of their pricey jewels by becoming a hero of the French Resistance, Robie grudgingly realizes he must clear his name by fingering the real culprit that's been framing his old alter ego “The Cat” by trying to stay one step ahead of the crook.



And fortunately for us, he puts his old tricks to new use when he zeroes in on the woman who would most likely become the next victim of the thief—the bold, sassy and embarrassingly wealthy Ms. Jesse Stevens (Jessie Royce Landis)-- who in typical Hitchcock fashion we realize boasts the most priceless jewel of all in the form of her gorgeous daughter, Frances (Grace Kelly).



While Grant easily slides into the role of Hitchcock's perpetually innocent man, Kelly — who had worked with the director previously on the films Dial M for Murder and the masterful Rear Window — was the epitome of Hitchcock's cool blonde.

Seemingly icy on the outside but just as bold and sassy as her mother once you get her alone, it's the stuff of great seductive cinema to watch the regal Grace Kelly put the moves on Grant in a way that shows the classic icon (then fifty years old despite his scripted thirty-five year old character) completely thrown off balance by the overwhelmingly dynamic flirtations come-ons of the insatiable, lustful Kelly.



Furthermore, she’s the one to kiss him first before he knows what’s hit him and proceeds to chase him in a hot and very atypical (for the 1950s) display of gender reversal as the male becomes the pursued instead of the pursuer that begins in Hitchcock’s thinly disguised cinematic analogy of their consummated orgasmic lovemaking in the famous fireworks sequence (Peter Bogdanovich’s Who the Devil Made It?; 524).



Despite this, some of Alfred Hitchcock's comments about female sexuality and especially American female sexuality of the time are still quite upsetting and degrading to women around the globe (and for proof I’d urge you to check out not only Hitchcock/Truffaut but Peter Bogdanovich’s Who the Devil Made It? as well). Nonetheless, the one thing he excelled in both terms of creativity and—as Grant’s Robie calls “efficiency” was in working around America’s film censorship code to make his covert, understated, and metaphorically laced films even sexier than most “hot and heavy” Hollywood films that leave absolutely nothing to the imagination.

As Hitchcock told Truffaut, “Sex on the screen should be suspenseful, I feel. If sex is too blatant or obvious, there's no suspense,” which is a valuable lesson that young directors could still learn from today… of course, before he continued onto confess,” You know why I favor sophisticated blondes in my films? We’re after the drawing-room type, the real ladies, who become whores once they’re in the bedroom,” (224).

While admittedly most female and a good number of males will both simultaneously chuckle and roll their eyes with the realization that he was ultimately “all talk,” in that department, Hitchcock knew how to make sex accessible to both genders by arguing again pretty stereotypically, “that it's generally the woman who has the final say on which picture a couple is going to see. In fact, it's generally the woman who will decide, later on, whether it was a good or a bad picture.

"On condition that it's not displayed by a person of their own sex, women will not object to vulgarity on the screen,” Hitchcock continues, informing Truffaut of the way he’d tried, “to build up Grace Kelly, in each picture between Dial M...[and Rear Window so then ultimately in] To Catch we made her role a more interesting one,” (226).

Again, sharing that the fashionable yet forgettable Thief was made “in a rather nostalgic mood,” Hitchcock couldn't pass up the opportunity to work in a “final note [which] is pretty grim,” (Truffaut, 226) by seasoning the inevitable final clinch and talk of a happily every after marriage with his typically subversive sense of humor in regards to holy matrimony.

In a side note, Peter Bogdanovich intriguingly notes in comparison of Thief with Ernst Lubitsch’s jewel thief plotted romantic comedy Trouble in Paradise by discussing the similitude between the two including “how well” Hitchcock had learned from the Lubitsch touch despite the fact that each film “is distinctly the work of the man who signed it."

Moreover, Bogdanovich continues that although (as similarly I feel that) To Catch a Thief is beautiful, nostalgic fun indeed, it’s a minor film in his oeuvre and one that desperately lacked Lubitsch’s “far superior script,” (33) despite some of the brilliant double entendres and quick jests layered throughout by Hayes who put his radio background to excellent use.



Still of interest for Hitch's most ardent fans, Thief looks better than ever in yet another superlative offering from the Centennial Collection that makes each scene set in the Riviera practically sparkle like every grain of sand even in DVD form (and especially when played on an upconvert or Blu-ray player). Additionally, this edition is filled with extras that should be of interest to fans of Hitch and his stars.

Moreover, the bonus material includes the featurettes served up in Paramount’s most recent 2007 special edition along with the feature length commentary with Hitchcock Film Historian Dr. Drew Casper, an intimate look at the personal side of Hitch in USC Film School’s annual “A Night with the Hitchcocks,” a great piece about Film Censorship in America, galleries, an Interactive Travelogue, and more.



It is especially noteworthy for bringing Grant back out into the limelight for yet another comeback (in addition to a fine future collaboration with Hitch in the far more revered North By Northwest) and as one of the final films of Ms. Kelly before she became Princess Grace (and thus wasn’t available to star in Marnie as Hitch had originally conceived).

However, the film is made far more eerie and bittersweet given her fast car-chase sequence and her tragic ending in real life. Therefore, in the end, To Catch a Thief is perhaps best appreciated for the star power of its incandescent leads rather than as a comparable work of Hitchcock’s as his ultimate VistaVision masterpiece Vertigo would eventually follow and embody the man at the peak of his filmmaking powers.



Despite this, some doubted the onscreen chemistry of Grant and Kelly—which ultimately postponed the film’s release. However, as it was recorded in Evenings With Cary Grant (co-written with Nancy Nelson), he quickly “came to realize,” that the woman to whom he would become a “devoted friend” was “much more than a pretty face,” noting that although he appreciated all of his leading ladies, it was Ms. Grace Kelly whom he called was “the most memorable and honest actress” with whom he’d ever worked, citing her “serenity and calmness” (184).



And one viewing of To Catch a Thief is enough to make you realize that it’s precisely that “serenity and calmness” that adds the surprising fire-power to the scenes where she proves that in addition to being an intelligent and pretty face, she wasn’t above going after the man she wanted, even if she did think he was a jewel thief.