Friday 27 November 2009

To Catch a Thief (1955)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Stars: Cary Grant and Grace Kelly
TCM's star of the month for November 2009 is Grace Kelly, in celebration of what would have been her 80th birthday on 12th November.
If you're going to make a Technicolor bauble, a description Alfred Hitchcock used to describe at least one of his own films, it can hardly hurt to set it somewhere like Cannes. The French Riviera, or more accurately its large collection of rich ladies with expensive jewellery, is being assailed by a cat burglar. The modus operandi used is entirely recognisable, because it's that of a renowned local thief, John Robie, more commonly known simply as the Cat. He's played delightfully by Cary Grant, with a very light touch indeed, an approach that we're let in on early with one of the best of Hitchcock's many cameos. Grant been persuaded out of retirement to take the part, which proved one of the most successful of his career and so thankfully ensured much more of it.

Robie is still in the area but he's long retired, having given up his life as a professional thief during the war. He and his colleagues had been locked up but inadvertently freed by German bombs, at which point they promptly signed up in the Resistance and became heroes. Six years of effort got them proper paroles and they're all living clean under a permanent eye of suspicion, which suspicion prompts much of our story. As the most successful and distinctive cat burglar in the business as well as a prominent local character, Robie is suspect one on a list of one and so as the title suggests, the only way he can prove his innocence is to catch the new Cat himself. Strangely the London insurance agency that is losing plenty of payout money through these thefts has precisely the same idea.

I remember not being as impressed with To Catch a Thief as I'd expected, the first time I saw it, not because it's a bad film but because it's surrounded in Hitchcock's filmography by some of the greatest movies of his career, which this isn't. The decade from 1951-1960 includes some of the greatest thrillers of all time, from Strangers on a Train to Psycho via Dial M for Murder, Rear Window and Vertigo, all made by Hitch. In anyone else's career this would be a good film, but in this company it's a letdown. Watching again after five years I did find it a little better than I remembered but not by much. The film is hindered by the same inconsistent rear projection shots that plague most classic Hitchcock movies, switching from real shots of the leads on location to studio work backed by rear projection shots of the very same places, but the story drags a little in places which is certainly uncharacteristic of Hitch. It's still more believable than North By Northwest though.
Most apparent to me this time round is just how good Grace Kelly is as Frances Stevens, the daughter of a wealthy woman who sets herself up as a target by refusing to keep her highly valuable jewellery in the hotel safe. In 2004 I'd seen a couple of her films but now I've seen all but one, The Bridges at Toko-Ri, which is sitting on my DVR ready to go. She had a versatile career wrapped up in a mere eleven films, more than a quarter of that number taken up by a triptych of Hitchcock movies. This is the least of the three but it's blessed by a gem of a performance from Kelly, pun very much intended. She's utterly alive here, especially when full of herself at working out that Conrad Burns, Oregon lumber tycoon, is really John Robie, undercover jewel thief.

She's as right for her role as Grant was for his, even though there was a serious difference in their ages: had Grant been only a single year older he would have been double her age. He was 51 but playing 35. She was a mere 26. What makes the sparkling romance scenes between them work so well is that she always carried herself perfectly, having the innocence of 26 but the presence of 40. There's no hint of the subtle creepiness that so often pervaded classic romance films where the male lead was wildly older than his screen love interest. Kelly's poise also prompted her to be cast in roles that shower her films with inadvertent ironies, given who she'd soon become: Princess Grace of Monaco. When Frannie and John visit a villa for rent she points out that it's something for royalty not common people like herself. She even gets an irony in for Cary Grant: when she rumbles his identity, she explains that he's just not American enough to carry it off.

The leads are ably supported here, most obviously by Jessie Royce Landis as Jessie Stevens, Frannie's mother. Landis was a perennial scene stealer who obviously hit it off with the stars of this film. A year later she'd follow up with a second role as Grace Kelly's mother, this time in The Swan. Three years after that she'd play Cary Grant's mother in Hitchcock's North By Northwest. As Jessie Stevens she's precisely the sort of no-nonsense wealthy woman who shuns convention that is such a joy to watch on screen and would be such a glorious person to know in real life. John Williams is enjoyable as the very English insurance agent, H H Hughson, but he was far better the year earlier arresting Kelly in Dial M for Murder. French actress Brigitte Auber is superb as the daughter of one of the Cat's old accomplices, but Charles Vanel is less successful as her boss, the restauranteur Bertani, already in his fifth decade as an actor with three more still to come.

Really what shines here is the tone. It's a lighter and much more playful piece than many of Hitch's films of the era, a period when he played around with such approaches. He got intricate and involved with his thrillers but lightened up here and let loose entirely for The Trouble With Harry. He got as personal as he ever got with Vertigo. He switched back to black and white for The Wrong Man and Psycho but revelled in colour for Vertigo and North By Northwest. He was almost stagebound for Dial M for Murder and famously restricted his set for Rear Window, but bathed this film in the countryside of the French Riviera and found his way back to iconic landmarks in North By Northwest. What's so amazing about Hitch is that even with all these differences, these films all shine very brightly indeed. What must it have been like to be a moviegoer in the fifties watching these as they came out? The anticipation must have been palpable after every film, because if he's just pulled off yet another classic, what's he's going to do next? Without IMDb the magazines must have sold plenty.

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