Tuesday, March 6, 2012

TO CATCH A THIEF: Blu-ray (Paramount 1955) Paramount Home Video

A seminal masterwork in the romantic/thriller genre and an elegant romp through the moneyed landscapes of Monte Carlo besides, Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief (1955) is a gorgeous affair, oft' mistakenly critiqued as 'lightweight' entertainment from the master of suspense. I wholeheartedly disagree. What seems to throw most critics off is Robert Burk's absorbingly lush cinematography that takes the already elegant playgrounds of the super-rich and transforms them into fantastical backdrops fairly dripping with majestic elegance. However, this plush and pervasive style never negates the taut story elements. John Michael Hayes’ expertly crafted screenplay is perhaps one of the best shooting scripts a Hitchcock movie has ever had. The deliciousness in those prose stems from an acerbic sense of comedy and from the clever way Hayes manages to balance the eeriness of a rash series of jewel heists with the uber chic romance begun by a devilishly handsome rake and his repressed sexual desires for a very stylish and cosmopolitan girl.
Cary Grant and Grace Kelly, two of the most sophisticated and alluring movie stars the world has ever known populate this mythic French Riviera as though they were living monuments to its chic good taste. The ‘who’ of this ‘who done it?’ is hardly at the crux of the narrative. Rather, one is at first lured, then utterly absorbed into the mélange of well-tailored danger by an all pervasive sexual chemistry crackling between these two stars. The ploy thereafter becomes not ‘who’ but  ‘how long’ will it take for Grace Kelly’s Francie Stevens to bait and concur her intercontinental man of mystery, John Robie (Grant) whom she desperately desires yet seems too quick to believe is the wily cat burglar stealing everyone’s jewels.  To Catch A Thief is therefore more than mere style over substance, but a careful balancing act designed to be ogled, yet titillating in all its dramatic accoutrements.
Take just one moment from the film – the oft’ resurrected ‘fireworks’ sequence in which the caustic sparks and explosions raging beyond the window of Francie’s hotel suite are but a prelude to the inflamed eroticism playing out within this darkened room. Hitchcock and Burke frame Francie in a series of ever tightening close ups, gradually redirecting our focus on her spectacular jeweled necklace. At one point Burke even casts a shadow over Grace Kelly’s obvious Patrician beauty, as if to say to the audience, “No, silly. Look here.” Tempting John to take hold of her jewels, and by extension to possess her completely, he instead offers her an astute observation that threatens this seduction. “These are fake.” Francie leans her back against the couch, “But I’m not” she tells him. From here Grant’s John Robie is a hooked fish and destined to remain so despite his best intentions to finagle himself free of Francie and her disarmingly frank mother Jessie (Jessie Royce-Landis) in the final reel.
This lean in and subsequent pas deux embrace was the subject of some consternation for the censors who ordered Hitchcock to shorten the length of this sequence, lest audiences assume the kisses enjoyed a rather obvious prelude to great sex. Hitchcock disagreed, and rather cleverly interpolates close ups of the actual fireworks with the lean in instead. Yet these shots do not diffuse the eroticism of the moment but rather punctuate its sensuality, the exploding bombshells eventually reaching a frenzied display of colors ably assisted by a rising crescendo in Lynn Murray’s immaculate underscore.
To Catch A Thief is so obviously a movie about set pieces that some critics have referred to it as ‘travelogue filmmaking’; again – erroneously so. Each set piece builds in dramatic intensity and with clever dialogue, intriguingly peppered throughout the light romantic comedy. Take the scene at the flower market where Robie, having acquired the participation of anxious insurance investigator, H.H. Huston (John Williams) is thereafter forced to flee detectives already suspecting him of the crimes through its massive, and mind-bogglingly colorful outdoor plaza. We begin this sequence with Huston’s obvious hesitation at letting a former burglar take a peek at his list of clientele who own fabulous jewels ripe for the stealing. Huston informs Robie that he must serve two masters – his wife “Felicity, God bless her” and “the home office”. He must return “worthy of both of them.” Robie toys with Huston in much the same way as a cat might with its captured prey. But only a few moments into their conversation Robie realizes he is the one being hunted. In his failed escape he incurs the wrath of an elderly flower seller after accidentally knocking over her tented display, the old crone struggling to hang onto Robie’s striped pullover, even as he cannot bring himself to strike her in order to make his escape complete.
Later on Francie offers to take John on a drive into the mountains in search of some prime real estate that Robie is supposedly interested in buying. Francie drives her silver sports car at breakneck speed, careening in and out of oncoming traffic, her blonde tresses and coral scarf wickedly trailing behind, all the while tempting Robie to insist that she put on the brakes – both figuratively and literally. To heighten the suspense of their playful exchange, Hitchcock has the pair tailed by two policemen, placing several obstacles ahead; an old woman with a laundry basket, and later, a chicken crossing the road (get the joke?); the latter causing the police to crash into a retention wall and affording Robie and Francie their just escape to a secluded spot for a fashionable picnic lunch. Asked by Francie to choose between “a leg and a breast” for his chicken luncheon, Robie, still masquerading as a lumbering woodsman from Oregon, playfully replies, “You decide.” When Francie prods him about his real identity Robie goadingly responds, “I must remember to occasionally holler ‘timber!’”
To Catch a Thief’s penultimate set piece is undeniably its grotesquely gargantuan masquerade ball in which the identity of the real jewel thief will be revealed. This eye-popping finale features costumes and jewelry of breathtaking luxuriousness, with designer Edith Head outdoing herself on concocting a flamboyant gold lame ball gown for Grace Kelly. But the moment is about much more than clothes. In fact, the clothes are all about deception, as Robie – costumed almost entirely from head to toe in black deliberately reveals himself to Commissaire LePic (Rene Blancard) before exchanging places with Huston, who carries on the charade until the wee hours past midnight, thus throwing everyone off his trail while he takes to the rooftops in search of the real jewel thief.     
If anything, ‘the travelogue’ aspect of the production elevates the unsettling mood and tone of the film; its regal hotels, pristine sandy beaches and nocturnal festivities pitching their devil-may-care gaiety as the perfect counterbalance against Hitchcock's 'wrong man' scenario. To Catch a Thief begins with a round of perilous jewel robberies inside the posh hotel suites of some very ritzy guests. The police suspect that the crimes are being committed by John Robie (Cary Grant) a onetime jewel thief who fought for the resistance in France during the war and was pardoned for his pre-war crimes. Robie lives obscurely in a fashionable villa with his loyal housekeeper Germaine (Georgette Anys) - who once strangled a German officer during the war with her bare hands.
But Robie's perfect world is about to implode. Danielle (Brigitte Auber), the daughter of wine steward Foussard (Jean Martinelli) - one of Robie’s former accomplices during the war years - believes that John has come out of retirement. She goads Robie with prospects of a life together in South America, but to no avail. John is not interested in surrendering his cushy lifestyle for romance. Or is he? We move on to headstrong wealthy girl-about-town Francie Van Allen (Kelly) and her icy cool infatuation with Robie. Francie’s mother, Jessie (Jessie Royce Landis) is a flirtatious matchmaker with her eye on John. Eventually, Francie warms up to the idea too. But the police take Robie in for questioning and even tail him as he and Francie tour lavish estates on the coast. But when Foussard is accidentally murdered during yet another attempted robbery the police conclude that he was their man all along. But was he? Unfortunately, that’s just the moment when John begins to have second thoughts about Foussard’s daughter, Danielle.
Hitchcock's direction never allows our eyes to be lulled into mere appreciation of this lavish escapism, perhaps because the screenplay (and of course the characters themselves) are constantly reminding us that something is remiss in this fabulous realm of the ultra-sophisticated elite. Robert Burk's photography takes locations (the villa, the hotel, the beach club at Cannes) - mesmerizing in and of themselves - and puts each slightly askew. As example: consider that our first intro to the villa (John Robie's hideaway) is accompanied by a deadly silence, and then, the approaching sound of screeching tires and the omnipotent blank stare of a black cat whose claws have dug into the morning paper. This is not the set up for a place to come in, visit and relax (as cozy and isolated as the visuals establish), but the prelude to a harrowing escape that ends rather humorously on a bus, with Robie seated next to Hitchcock (appropriately droll for his cameo).
Like the best of Hitchcock's thrillers, nothing is as it first appears. The master is at his most chic and edgy in this sex fantasy with a double edge twist. If the focus is more on romance than suspense - and it is - this never negates our anticipated tension for thrills - and there are certainly plenty of those throughout To Catch a Thief. Remember that when we are first introduced to the Beach Club at Cannes it's through a low angle shot between a pair of bare male legs planted firmly in the sand, the man (an attendant) looking down on John Robie who has just emerged from a dip in the sea.
Or how about Robie and Francie's luncheon date that takes place on a precariously narrow cliff side overlooking the panoramic Riviera? One slip of the brake and an innocuous meal may turn deadly. Of course, Hitchcock has primed us for this possibility by preceding Robie and Francie's verbal sparring with a disturbing getaway chase that leave the usually cool Robie white knuckled and cringing. (Aside: the original ending of the film had Francie and Robie return to their former picnic spot for an embrace in the front seat of Francie's car. The brake was to have slipped with the car slowly rolling to the edge of the cliff. At the last possible moment, Robie tenderly reaches over and sets the brake once again with the back wheels of the car hanging over the cliff's edge and loosely spinning.)
Later on, when Robie is invited to Francie's room, presumably to view the fireworks, the well-lit interior is plunged into relative darkness, with only moon glow and the fireworks to illuminate our romantic couple. Yet, if Francie truly believes John Robie is responsible for the most recent spate of jewel heists, might she not also fear for her own life by exposing, then luring, this criminal to her bed chamber? After all, what is Robie's freedom worth to him? Like the original marketing campaign for Spellbound - that reads "Will he kiss or kill me?" Hitchcock is ever priming his audience with unsettling subliminal subtexts, even as our eyes are beguiled by the striking set decoration and staging.
Viewed today, To Catch A Thief remains one of the best made thrillers of all time - and not just by the master of suspense. Cary Grant and Grace Kelly have a genuine and undiluted romantic chemistry on the screen. The cloak and dagger is slickly packaged and the film remains an iconic escape from reality, its stars sparkling as bright as the lights of Monte Carlo. Regrettably, To Catch a Thief also proved a bittersweet occasion behind the scenes. Hitch’ worked with his favorite ‘cool’ blonde, Grace Kelly, knowing that it would be for the last time. Grace was trading in Hollywood’s high society for even higher society as Princess Grace of Monaco. Commencing his shoot in the south of France, Hitchcock was challenged by Paramount's insistence on an extensive location shoot (Hitch' hated location work). The studio also demanded of the director that he employ their recently christened widescreen process, VistaVision for this outing.
To Hitchcock’s testament, real locations in France and photographic work done back on soundstages in Hollywood remain seamless even under close scrutiny. The screenplay by John Michael Hayes contains plenty of razor smart repartee and engaging situations to divert our attentions away from the fact that the story's focal point is not the apprehension of a criminal but the cleverness with which Grace Kelly’s scheming socialite will manage to land a husband. In the final analysis, To Catch A Thief is a high watermark in Hitchcock’s peerless canon of classics; one of his best and undeniably one of his most extravagant.
Paramount Home Video's Blu-ray bests its Centennial Collector's Edition DVD, which is saying a lot because that DVD transfer was very solid. But once again, Blu-ray illustrates why there just is NO other way to watch movies at home - period. The 1080p image dazzles with splashy colours, refined flesh tones and a stunning amount of fine detail detected in everything. This is a reference quality disc. Robie's striped pullover that wreaked havoc on the DVD is rock solid on the Blu-ray. The wow factor is here! The Blu-ray takes what was already a frothy amusement and serves up the film's visuals with sparkling clarity. Bravo!
The new 5.1 DTS track extols Lynn Murray's score with subtle nuances. Extras are all direct imports from the aforementioned DVD and include an audio commentary by Drew Casper that replaces the rather meandering and dull one by Peter Bogdanovich on previous editions. All of the featurettes included on Paramount’s Special Edition and Collector’s Edition have been regurgitated in 480i, the best probably being ‘An Evening With The Hichcocks’ that runs approximately 23 min. To Catch A Thief is great entertainment. The Blu-ray gives us an exceptional home video presentation. My God, YES! Buy this one today!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

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