Skip to main content

I have a feeling that tonight you're going to see one of the Riviera's most fascinating sights.

To Catch a Thief
(1955)

As lightweight and breezily enjoyable as Hitchcock's third collaboration with Cary Grant is, it is maybe a little bit too pleased with itself. With all the ingredients for success present, there’s a sense of not needing to try very hard to win the viewer over.

John Michael Hayes' script is rife with innuendo-laced (censor-baiting) dialogue, which means the cast simply have to show up in the Riviera (or on the sound stage) and deliver their lines. The flipside of this is that it doesn’t get credit where it’s due for making it all seem so effortless. But, really, Grant could play this in his sleep. Witness his leisurely conversation over lunch with insurance investigator Hughson (John Williams).

Hughson: The pastries are light as air.
John Robie: Germaine has very sensitive hands and an exceedingly light touch. She strangled a German general – without a sound.

Following hot on the heels of Rear Window (contender for the best of the auteur’s films) and with back-to-back male stars and back-to-back Grace Kelly, this is as close as the director would come to a “sure thing” period in his career. By all accounts, Thief was a decent-sized hit, but his slightly mercurial tastes meant it was never certain what he would turn to next (The Trouble with Harry would follow). The talent on board is all that weighs down a film that so slight it could blow away at any moment.

Thus, we are presented with mild intrigue but little real suspense. Consequently, Hitchcock amuses rather than tests himself (although, the extensive location shooting was something of a departure, and he makes use of helicopter shots; needless to say, he wasn't present). The film certainly looks gorgeous (Robert Burke’s cinematography won an Oscar). It was only on the language side that there were problems to overcome. Notably, Charles Vanel (as Bertani) was dubbed as he did not speak English.

Grant plays retired cat burglar John Robie, falsely accused of being back in the game, and makes a more convincing fist of it than Sean Connery would four decades later in Entrapment. There’s clearly a desire to make Robie a fine and upstanding former criminal; not only is he repentant but he served with the resistance during the War. And still he can’t catch a break! 

The former Archibald Leach was a fifty when this was released, and considering retirement (it took him another decade). The script pegged Robie at 35. As healthy as he looks, his tan is slightly scary; everyone else appears bleached in comparison. Grace Kelly did retire a couple of years after making Thief (only a quarter of a century Grant's junior). She and Grant have a playful chemistry, although it’s difficult to believe that Grant wouldn’t come across as easy going opposite anyone. If all this interest in age seems excessive, the studio didn’t think so. The film was in the can in ’54 but delayed by Paramount execs fretting over the gap between them.

The "thriller" plot is really just there to top and tail Kelly’s (Frances Stevens’) conquest of the reluctant older man, which she does with relish (“Do you want a leg or a breast?” she asks him as they picnic). Her first scene is subdued, very much the demur ice queen. But when Grant escorts her to her door she reveals herself, moving to kiss him. Later, Hitch takes delight in cutting from Robie and Frances embracing on a sofa to a succession of exploding fireworks. Post-Airplane! such scenes can never be seen as less than ridiculous, but it’s not as if Hitchcock wasn’t smirking as he gave full rein to the naughty schoolboy within.

Regarding Kelly, I have to be honest; I was more taken with Brigitte Auber's Danielle (the daughter of one of Robie's old associates). She's so much more playful and, well, fun than Kelly. (Auber’s interplay with Grant is marvelously feisty; told she is only a girl compared to Kelly, she asks Robie “Why buy an old car if you can get a new one cheaper? It will run better and last longer”). Since I’m stuck on the cast’s ages I’ll mention two more; Auber was a couple of years older than Kelly. And then there’s the older lady.

Jessie Royce Landis steals every scene as Kelly's mother (no wonder Hitchcock invited her back for North By Northwest, this time as Grant's mother – there are eight years between them). A motif of the director’s, destruction towards eggs, is present twice here. One occasion repeats the particularly violent act of stubbing a cigarette out in a fried egg, last seen in Rebecca. The mother-in-law final gag (she will come and live with the happy couple) seems very familiar, but achieved the desired aim of avoiding making the ending too blissful. 





Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Mondo bizarro. No offence man, but you’re in way over your head.

The X-Files 8.7: Via Negativa I wasn’t as down on the last couple of seasons of The X-Files as most seemed to be. For me, the mythology arc walked off a cliff somewhere around the first movie, with only the occasional glimmer of something worthwhile after that. So the fact that the show was tripping over itself with super soldiers and Mulder’s abduction/his and Scully’s baby (although we all now know it wasn’t, sheesh ), anything to stretch itself beyond breaking point in the vain hope viewers would carry on dangling, didn’t really make much odds. Of course, it finally snapped with the wretched main arc when the show returned, although the writing was truly on the wall with Season 9 finale The Truth . For the most part, though, I found 8 and 9 more watchable than, say 5 or 7. They came up with their fair share of engaging standalones, one of which I remembered to be Via Negativa .

Schnell, you stinkers! Come on, raus!

Private’s Progress (1956) (SPOILERS) Truth be told, there’s good reason sequel I’m Alright Jack reaps the raves – it is, after all, razor sharp and entirely focussed in its satire – but Private’s Progress is no slouch either. In some respects, it makes for an easy bedfellow with such wartime larks as Norman Wisdom’s The Square Peg (one of the slapstick funny man’s better vehicles). But it’s also, typically of the Boulting Brothers’ unsentimental disposition, utterly remorseless in rebuffing any notions of romantic wartime heroism, nobility and fighting the good fight. Everyone in the British Army is entirely cynical, or terrified, or an idiot.

Isn’t it true, it’s easier to be a holy man on the top of a mountain?

The Razor’s Edge (1984) (SPOILERS) I’d hadn’t so much a hankering as an idle interest in finally getting round to seeing Bill Murray’s passion project. Partly because it seemed like such an odd fit. And partly because passion isn’t something you tend to associate with any Murray movie project, involving as it usually does laidback deadpan. Murray, at nigh-on peak fame – only cemented by the movie he agreed to make to make this movie – embarks on a serious-acting-chops dramatic project, an adaptation of W Somerset Maugham’s story of one man’s journey of spiritual self-discovery. It should at least be interesting, shouldn’t it? A real curio? Alas, not. The Razor’s Edge is desperately turgid.

It’s not as if she were a… maniac, a raving thing.

Psycho (1960) (SPOILERS) One of cinema’s most feted and most studied texts, and for good reason. Even if the worthier and more literate psycho movie of that year is Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom . One effectively ended a prolific director’s career and the other made its maker more in demand than ever, even if he too would discover he had peaked with his populist fear flick. Pretty much all the criticism and praise of Psycho is entirely valid. It remains a marvellously effective low-budget shocker, one peppered with superb performances and masterful staging. It’s also fairly rudimentary in tone, character and psychology. But those negative elements remain irrelevant to its overall power.

You have done well to keep so much hair, when so many’s after it.

Jeremiah Johnson (1972) (SPOILERS) Hitherto, I was most familiar with Jeremiah Johnson in the form of a popular animated gif of beardy Robert Redford smiling and nodding in slow zoom close up (a moment that is every bit as cheesy in the film as it is in the gif). For whatever reason, I hadn’t mustered the enthusiasm to check out the 1970s’ The Revenant until now (well, beard-wise, at any rate). It’s easy to distinguish the different personalities at work in the movie. The John Milius one – the (mythic) man against the mythic landscape; the likeably accentuated, semi-poetic dialogue – versus the more naturalistic approach favoured by director Sydney Pollack and star Redford. The fusion of the two makes for a very watchable, if undeniably languorous picture. It was evidently an influence on Dances with Wolves in some respects, although that Best Picture Oscar winner is at greater pains to summon a more sensitive portrayal of Native Americans (and thus, perversely, at times a more patr

My Doggett would have called that crazy.

The X-Files 9.4: 4-D I get the impression no one much liked Agent Monica Reyes (Annabeth Gish), but I felt, for all the sub-Counsellor Troi, empath twiddling that dogged her characterisation, she was a mostly positive addition to the series’ last two years (of its main run). Undoubtedly, pairing her with Doggett, in anticipation of Gillian Anderson exiting just as David Duchovny had – you rewatch these seasons and you wonder where her head was at in hanging on – made for aggressively facile gender-swapped conflict positions on any given assignment. And generally, I’d have been more interested in seeing how two individuals sympathetic to the cause – her and Mulder – might have got on. Nevertheless, in an episode like 4-D you get her character, and Doggett’s, at probably their best mutual showing.

You’re a disgrace, sir... Weren’t you at Harrow?

Our Man in Marrakesh aka Bang! Bang! You’re Dead (1966) (SPOILERS) I hadn’t seen this one in more than three decades, and I had in mind that it was a decent spy spoof, well populated with a selection of stalwart British character actors in supporting roles. Well, I had the last bit right. I wasn’t aware this came from the stable of producer Harry Alan Towers, less still of his pedigree, or lack thereof, as a sort of British Roger Corman (he tried his hand at Star Wars with The Shape of Things to Come and Conan the Barbarian with Gor , for example). More legitimately, if you wish to call it that, he was responsible for the Christopher Lee Fu Manchu flicks. Our Man in Marrakesh – riffing overtly on Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana in title – seems to have in mind the then popular spy genre and its burgeoning spoofs, but it’s unsure which it is; too lightweight to work as a thriller and too light on laughs to elicit a chuckle.

The best thing in the world for the inside of a man or a woman is the outside of a horse.

Marnie (1964) (SPOILERS) Hitch in a creative ditch. If you’ve read my Vertigo review, you’ll know I admired rather than really liked the picture many fete as his greatest work. Marnie is, in many ways, a redux, in the way De Palma kept repeating himself in the early 80s only significantly less delirious and… well, compelling. While Marnie succeeds in commanding the attention fitfully, it’s usually for the wrong reasons. And Hitch, digging his heels in as he strives to fashion a star against public disinterest – he failed to persuade Grace Kelly out of retirement for Marnie Rutland – comes entirely adrift with his leads.

I tell you, it saw me! The hanged man’s asphyx saw me!

The Asphyx (1972) (SPOILERS) There was such a welter of British horror from the mid 60s to mid 70s, even leaving aside the Hammers and Amicuses, that it’s easy to lose track of them in the shuffle. This one, the sole directorial effort of Peter Newbrook (a cameraman for David Lean, then a cinematographer), has a strong premise and a decent cast, but it stumbles somewhat when it comes to taking that premise any place interesting. On the plus side, it largely eschews the grue. On the minus, directing clearly wasn’t Newbrook’s forte, and even aided by industry stalwart cinematographer Freddie Young (also a go-to for Lean), The Aspyhx is stylistically rather flat.

I don't like the way Teddy Roosevelt is looking at me.

North by Northwest (1959) (SPOILERS) North by Northwest gets a lot of attention as a progenitor of the Bond formula, but that’s giving it far too little credit. Really, it’s the first modern blockbuster, paving the way for hundreds of slipshod, loosely plotted action movies built around set pieces rather than expertly devised narratives. That it delivers, and delivers so effortlessly, is a testament to Hitchcock, to writer Ernest Lehmann, and to a cast who make the entire implausible exercise such a delight.