Week 18: To Catch a Thief (1955), Entertainment, and September 11

Disclaimer: This essay discusses spoilers for To Catch a Thief. If you want to avoid spoilers, watch the movie first!

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Is this Hitchcock’s most beautiful movie? Hmm…Vertigo (1958) might have to take that honor, but damned if To Catch a Thief (1955) isn’t close. Despite Hitchcock grappling for the first time with Paramount’s unwieldy widescreen VistaVision process, To Catch a Thief remains a beautiful piece of work. Gorgeous scenery, gorgeous lighting, and goddamned gorgeous people. What better recipe for entertainment?

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Seriously, what’s not to like?

Which is not to say that To Catch a Thief is one of Hitchcock’s best; if I had to rank it, it wouldn’t even make the top ten*. Yet it is one of his most consistently entertaining pictures; from start to finish, the cast, script, cinematography, and setting are all in glorious accord to deliver a lightweight yet delightful film.

The film starts with the French Riviera, an area that the Hitchcocks knew well. After acquiring the rights to the book, they were eager to set the film in the social scene, hotels (their hotel of choice, the Carlton, is featured prominently), and villas they knew so well. As the only driver in the family, Alma Reville mapped out the film’s remarkable chase scenes along the coastline entirely from memory, pinpointing scenic locations with remarkable accuracy. The final result is one of Hitchcock’s best uses of location shooting. The Riviera is a fully realized character in the film, from Cary Grant’s villa perched over a vineyard, to the ex-French-Resistance-fighters’ seaside restaurant, to the beach and lobby of the Carlton hotel.

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One of the many locations Alma knew from memory.

Certainly Hitchcock was eager to make a film on location at one of his favorite vacation spots, but there’s more to it than that. In the 1950s, movie studios were losing audiences to television, and trying to come up ways to keep people in theaters. 3-D! Roadshow screenings of prestige films with programs & intermissions! Widescreen! And the travelogue film where instead of staying confined to a studio lot, directors took their cameras across the globe to show audiences rare scenes in glorious color! So much better than those tiny black and white TV screens! Hitchcock was happy to oblige with a travelogue picture, even staging the film’s opening credits in the window of a travel service advertising flights to France. The message couldn’t be any clearer: watching this film is just like taking a trip to France…with Cary Grant & Grace Kelly of course!

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Kelly on set with legendary costume designer Edith Head

For even more important than the location were the stars. Hitchcock had already worked with Kelly in Dial M for Murder and Rear Window (both 1954) and correctly recognized that she was an ideal actress for him; cold yet alluring, capable of light comedy and heavy drama, and truly stunning especially when dressed by Paramount’s legendary costume designer Edith Head. Head’s work for Kelly in To Catch a Thief is nothing short of breathtaking, as the designer was given almost entirely free reign to create some of the most memorable costumes of her storied career. Sadly, Kelly would act in only two more films,The Swan and High Society (both 1956), before marrying Prince Rainier of Monaco. Hitchcock would try multiple times to tempt her into starring in another film, often piquing her interest, but never succeeding in wooing her back.

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Grace Kelly green (I’ll come back to this lighting later)

Cary Grant was another matter. The notoriously prickly Grant had ostensibly retired after 1953’s Dream Wife, upset at the state of Hollywood. Yet Hitchcock knew that no one else could play John Robie the cat burglar with the same panache. Few actors could embody the character’s roguish dishonesty while still remaining totally likable. And as a young boy Grant had toured with an acrobatic vaudeville troupe, which gave him effortless grace and balance, perfect qualities for a cat burglar.

Grant combined the effortlessly fluid movement of Gene Kelly with the charisma of Clark Gable and the dry British refinement of David Niven. For my money, he’s the ultimate Hollywood movie star, the perfect example of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Grace Kelly is a charming, talented, beautiful actress, but Grant is something else entirely. Cary Grant is Hollywood magic personified.

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Christ just try and resist this guy.

The film’s great cleverness is that it’s an inversion of Hitchcock’s most beloved trope, the Wrong Man scenario, where an innocent man is drawn into a web of intrigue through some kind of mistake. Here, retired cat burglar John Robie is suspected of committing a new wave of thefts. Since no one believes him, he sets out to catch the thief himself. Yet his plans run awry when he meets Grace Kelly, the daughter of a rich widow (played to perfection by Jessie Royce Landis, who would play Grant’s mother in North by Northwest). Kelly figures out Grant’s real identity and is drawn to the excitement of his thievery. There are thrilling drives along the coast, moonlight roof walks, double-crosses, costume balls, and shenanigans aplenty.

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Hitchcock directing Grant and Kelly in front of the Hotel Carlton

To Catch a Thief is a trifle, a featherweight concoction as light as the quiche lorraine that Grant’s cook prepares for lunch. So what? This is Hitchcock the grand entertainer at his finest. If the film is just a flimsy excuse for him to stay at his favorite hotel and eat at his favorite restaurants, at least it looks like it was enjoyable for the whole cast & crew.

And let’s be honest; it’s worth defending pure entertainment. While some of Hitchcock’s films deal with weightier issues, almost all of them remain pure escapism, pure thrills, pure moviemaking fun.  At times, that’s more valuable than the weightiest political documentary. At times, entertainment is all we have.

***

I was living in New York City on September 11, 2001. Specifically, I lived in Park Slope, Brooklyn. I woke up a little late that morning and jumped in the shower. I lived on 7th street near Fifth avenue. I didn’t hear anything while I was getting ready. On my way to work, I dropped some clothes off at the dry-cleaner. The radio was spouting some confusion and I couldn’t make sense of it. No one seemed concerned, and I went on my way. I was running late, so instead of walking I jumped on the subway.

It was hot waiting for the train. It feels like there’s nowhere worse than a New York city subway platform when it’s hot, humid, and you’re waiting for a train. Finally it arrived. I only had two stops to go, but the subway stopped between Pacific Street and Atlantic Ave. For a long time. There were murmurs through the car about some kind of accident.

Finally the train pulled into Atlantic Ave, the conductor declaring that it was the end of the line. All trains stopped. We all ran upstairs into the light and into chaos.

We couldn’t see the towers but we could see the smoke. By this time both planes had hit. Everywhere people were talking to each other and not listening. No clear answers. I half walked, half ran in to work at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

A TV was set up in one of the meeting rooms. I didn’t see the Towers fall in real time, but we knew what was happening. I saw the replays and I saw the shocked looks on everyone’s faces. That look of hope that maybe it was some colossal accident, replaced by the undeniable realization that someone had done this on purpose.

We sat there watching, full of fear and also a desire to do something. Anything. To somehow force some sense of control onto this nightmare. A TV report said that local hospitals and blood banks were requesting donors for the expected heavy casualties (Sadly, this turned out to be mostly unnecessary as most people either escaped with minor injuries or didn’t escape at all). Myself and an intern whose name I’ll never remember went running through the streets to the nearby Brooklyn Hospital, where a line already stretched around the corner. They couldn’t take us, so we ran to the nearest Red Cross Blood Donor Center in downtown Brooklyn. The same result there; already overwhelmed with people wanting to help. Our fevered, dream-like run through the city was all for nothing.

The day staggered on. We were lucky in Brooklyn; we had power and utilities and felt reasonably secure. But it was a day filled with strange images. The bridges full of people walking home from Manhattan, some women barefoot because their high-heeled work shoes hurt too much after miles of walking. Arguments about race and religion at work. The obvious decision to close our movie theater and performing arts center…but for how long? And walking home, smelling the dirty acrid smoke of the fire and, I swear to you, watching singed office papers drifting through the air all the way out in Park Slope.

It was horrible.

But at some point, I had to go home. My roommate at the time had a small dog and she was stuck in upper Manhattan, not able to get downtown and across the bridges. I got hold of her through my work email (the best way to communicate as phones were a nightmare), and told her I’d go home to walk and stay with her dog.

I walked home through a surreal scene, where a gorgeous sunset backlit nightmarish terror. People were delicate & kind as some businesses were open and others were closed. I walked the dog through a landscape where everything was familiar and strange at the same time. I got food from that most dependable of New York institutions, the restaurants that will persist long after the apocalypse, the corner Chinese place. And I went home. The power was on but my phone & modem were spotty. I didn’t have cable. I tried watching some news but the transmitters for most locals stations were located on top of the World Trade Centers, now buried under tons of rubble. One channel broadcast faintly from the Empire State Building, but I grew tired of the fading signal and the endless repetition of the same frightened news and no answers.

I wasn’t tired. But my friends were in other boroughs and I was too scared to go out by myself. What could I do? I went to my VHS collection and picked out a movie. I tried to pick something entertaining, something engrossing, something that would take me out of my head for a moment.

I picked Rear Window.

And damned if it didn’t work. For one hour and fifty two minutes it took me away. Took me away from problems I couldn’t solve and couldn’t manage. It helped me forget and gave me two hours of entertainment. It didn’t fix any problems but it kept my anxious mind from racing in circles and devolving into paranoia and fear. It helped me sleep and gave me some kind of peace of mind.

This is the power of entertainment. There’s a reason that film attendance was at its highest ever in the 1930s during the height of the depression. People need to get away from themselves sometimes. I’m not saying we should ignore our problems or each other, nor am I saying that filmmaking and TV is “the opiate of the masses” (god what a dreary expression). But dammit you can’t always live in pain and misery. At some point life has to go on. You have to figure out a way to get through the day alive and feeling good enough to go to bed and then get up again. Alfred Hitchcock helped me do that on September 11, 2001. Pure entertainment isn’t something to be looked down on; sometimes it’s the most powerful thing we have.

Hitchcock may have talked about feeling like he was typecast as a filmmaker later in life, but he clearly relished his job of thrilling audiences. And that’s what he delivers in To Catch a Thief. This is the work of a confident craftsman at the top of his game, perhaps taking a break after the dual technical challenges of Dial M for Murder and Rear Window.

Yet even on holiday, Hitchcock found ways to be brilliant, especially with the film’s use of color. Much of the film would take place at night with Grant prowling around outside in  the dark. In the days when color film stock required enormous amounts of lighting, scenes shot at nightime were traditionally shot during the day with a heavy blue filter, hence the expression “Day for night.” Hitchcock didn’t want to use the tired old blue filter for these day for night scenes. Instead he gave these shots a spectral green tint that highlights the cartoonish elements of the film, while also giving it a simple yet stylized look.

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Green Day for Night? Why not?!

The green tint really pays off in the famous “fireworks scene,” where Grant and Kelly trade innuendoes while a preposterous fireworks display goes off behind them. (Sidenote: I’ve seen this film in theaters and heard derisive laughter at this sequence, as though Hitchcock was too clueless to get it. No. Hitchcock was, I guarantee you, laughing all the way through that scene from its inception, writing, filming, and editing. Laughing at how far he could push a cheap visual innuendo, and loving every minute of his own absurdity.) For most of the scene half of the room is bathed in that glorious green glow from “outside.” It’s pure fantasy, a convention of cinematography so out-of-place that is feels avant-garde. It’s also a dry run for maybe the most visually stunning scene in any Hitchcock scene, the reveal in Vertigo (1958).

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Incredible, expressionistic lighting for the fireworks scene in “To Catch a Thief”
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Equally impressionistic use of color in “Vertigo,” three years later.

An artist can only make so many masterpieces; the great mark of Hitchcock’s genius isn’t just how great his best films are, but how good most of his lesser works are. To Catch a Thief isn’t truly great, but it’s great entertainment. This was a tough week for me but for two hours I got to get outside of my head and enjoy this quiche of a film. And sometimes, that’s enough.

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To Catch a Thief is streaming on Netflix right now! It’s available to rent on iTunes or Amazon, or is available from your friendly local library.

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