Saturday, January 1, 2011

Break out the champagne (the '55 Hitchcock)...

Sometime just after Labor Day it began to seem that 2010 suddenly accelerated and was careening headlong toward Halloween…Thanksgiving…Christmas.  Each holiday quickly came and went and, what seems like moments later, 2011 is here.

In my life, 2010 was a year highlighted by reconnecting with old friends and making new ones…so today I celebrate the old year along with the new.

Traditionally, of course, champagne is the drink du jour at New Year’s, and so champagne it shall be now. A bottle of ‘96 Dom Pérignon Rosé would be great, but I’m in the mood for something really special…an old favorite… Hitchcock’s distinctive ’55 vintage from the Cote d'Azur. To Catch a Thief (1955), or “Hitchcock champagne,” boasts a rare combination of elegance and flair. Light-bodied with a smooth finish that lingers, it remains unmatched, though it has been imitated far and wide for decades.

A jaunty score sets the tone as the opening credits roll over a shot of an international travel service with a poster in its window, “If you like life, you’ll love France.” The tinkling keys of a grand piano hint at continental sophistication and adventure long before the first scream bemoaning stolen jewelry issues from a Riviera hotel balcony.

John Robie's Sainte-Jeannet villa
Quickly enough the action takes off with a colorful cruise through the Cote d'Azur as the French police speed to the village of Sainte-Jeannet and the hillside villa of retired jewel thief and prime suspect, John Robie (Cary Grant). The film has just begun and cinematographer Robert Burks has already heralded Hitchcock's first film in VistaVision/Technicolor.

Alfred Hitchcock and Robert Burks had initially worked together five years earlier, following the director's return to the U.S. after making two films in England. Hitchcock was beginning production on Strangers on a Train for Warner Bros. and the studio cinematographer assigned to the project was 40-year-old Robert Burks. This would be the beginning of a fabled partnership.

Cinematographer Robert Burks
Burks began his career in the Warner Bros. special effects lab at 19 when Hal Wallis, who liked shadows and high contrast from his cinematographers, was in charge of production. Burks, who apprenticed under James Wong Howe, worked his way up, becoming a DP and then a cinematographer by 1948.

The early influence of German expressionism on Hitchcock corresponded nicely with the influences Burks absorbed at Warner Bros. and the two collaborated on twelve films from 1951 – 1964, every picture Hitchcock made during that period except Psycho. Like Burks, Hitchcock had detailed knowledge of special effects and tended to devise scenes featuring complex imagery. One of the most memorable scenes in all of Hitchcock came in Strangers on a Train, the scene in which Robert Walker’s strangulation of Laura Elliott is reflected in the lens of a pair of fallen glasses.

Robert Burks was Oscar-nominated for Strangers and again for Rear Window. With To Catch a Thief, he won the Academy Award for Best Color Cinematography. From 1955 – 1958, Burks shot five Hitchcock films in VistaVision/Technicolor; four of the five were for Paramount Pictures.

Hitchcock on the set with VistaVision camera

Paramount had been the only major studio to balk at the widescreen CinemaScope system when it came into use in 1953, and set out to develop a process of its own. The studio worked with Eastman Kodak and came up with VistaVision, a method that delivered a higher resolution, widescreen version of 35 mm. The VistaVision process printed down large format negatives to standard 35 mm, creating a finer-grained print and improved image. The use of Technicolor's dye transfer process was key to VistaVision image quality.

For his first VistaVision/Technicolor excursion, Hitchcock contrived a stylish romantic thriller fueled by dazzling starpower.

Cary Grant and Grace Kelly
Robert Osborne remarked, when he introduced TCM's most recent screening of To Catch a Thief, that it had “the best asset any film could have...Cary Grant.” Good point. This was the third of Cary Grant’s four Hitchcock pictures and it came nearly ten years after their last collaboration, Notorious (1946), one of the best films in either man’s illustrious filmography. In the interim, Hitchcock’s career had gone into and dramatically come out of a slump. During the same period, Grant had continued to make popular films, but had increasingly moved away from the kind of part he had trademarked – the dapper, self-effacing man of the world. Following Dream Wife (1953), Grant retired, dissatisfied with the films he was being offered. But then he was approached by Alfred Hitchcock who had a project in mind with the requisite amount of elegance and comedy to attract him. With To Catch a Thief Cary Grant returned to type; John Robie, “The Cat,” is a dashing charmer, “a man of obvious good taste” very few could or would want to resist. Grant seldom departed from type for the remainder of his career.
Cary Grant and Grace Kelly
To Catch a Thief was the third and final film Grace Kelly made with Hitchcock, who would have worked with her for the rest of his career had she not left movies at the height of her stardom to marry Prince Rainier. Hitchcock’s breathtaking onscreen vision of Kelly brings to mind Josef von Sternberg’s cinematic exaltation of Marlene Dietrich 20 years earlier. Kelly was a beautiful woman but among the handful of films she made, her image as a screen goddess achieved perfection only in her films with Hitchcock. In To Catch a Thief she plays a spoiled rich girl, the ultimate "snow covered volcano" and "Hitchcock blonde."

Jessie Royce Landis
The pairing of Grant and Kelly is irresistible. The two are perfect for the roles of debonair thief/innocent man and haughty/hot debutante, and they literally generate fireworks together.

In her first Hitchcock outing, Jessie Royce Landis portrayed Kelly’s jovial, down-to-earth, bourbon-sipping mother. Hitchcock liked to include colorful women as supporting characters in his films, ranging from the silly (Florence Bates in Rebecca, Patricia Collinge in Shadow of a Doubt) to the clever and wisecracking (Thelma Ritter in Rear Window,  Barbara bel Geddes in Vertigo). Royce Landis portrayed two of the most appealing of the latter type in this film and North by Northwest.

Actor John Williams appeared in his third Hitchcock film with To Catch a Thief, this time as an insurance agent helping Robie track down the real jewel thief. His H.H. Hughson is a fine foil for Grant’s Robie. Their early scenes provide Hitchcock the opportunity to have some fun with a favorite theme, the ambiguity of guilt and innocence...Robie tells Hughson flatly that though he “only stole from those who wouldn’t go hungry,” he “kept everything myself.” Chiding Hughson for stealing hotel sundries and cheating on his expense account, Robie comments, “I was an out and out thief…like you.” Robie emphasizes his point with the throwaway line, “I wish I’d known someone in the insurance racket when I went into the burglary business.”

Cary Grant, John Williams, Georgette Anys
Hitchcock toys with guilt and innocence again when Robie refers to the sensitive hands and gentle touch of his cook and housekeeper, Germaine, who bakes a quiche as "light as air" and who, during the war, “strangled a German general once…without a sound.” 

Some have dismissed To Catch a Thief for its lack of weight, however, it is a strong reflection of Hitchcock’s meticulous craftsmanship, lightly touches on some of the director’s pet themes, and is a solid film of its genre.  Hitchcock delivered exactly what he intended, an exciting, lighthearted, romantic thriller. All elements click into place…from the John Michael Hayes screenplay to Robert Burks's VistaVision/ Technicolor photography, Lyn Murray’s score, Edith Head’s eyeball-popping costumes, two scintillating stars and the Cote d’Azur setting.

To Catch a Thief was successful and influential, and many later films bear its earmarks... most prominently Stanley Donen’s Charade, as well as his Arabesque, William Wyler's How to Steal a Million, Blake Edwards's The Pink Panther and countless romantic romps ever since.


  1. great supportive argument for a so-so movie..I agree 100% with the plusses...CARY GRANT...PHOTOGRAPHY...CRAFTMANSHIP..this will definitely move up my "hitch list"...just don't expect me to relike the remake of THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH!!!

  2. If Burks apprenticed under the great James Wong Howe, it's no wonder he was so good. I like To Catch A Thief, but I have to admit it is not one of my favorite Hitchcock. However, it is a beautiful and sophisticated movie with a great cast. Actually, there is only one Hitchcock movie that I really never liked, The Trouble With Harry. Just not my style, I guess.

    Wonderful article, Eve, well-written and well-researched, as always!

  3. Such a coincidence that we both blogged about 'To Catch a Thief' almost at the same time! I chose it almost as an excuse to write about VistaVision and the advent of wide-screen to movies but your post is full of really interesting information.

  4. Doc, I'm just happy if I assisted in moving "TCaT" up your "Hitch list"...I will say, though, that if you are a fan of comedic romantic thrillers, "TCaT" is more than so-so...
    And Becky, you and I are on the same page re: "Harry"...have never been able to get into it...
    I would add that "TCaT" suffers in the shadow of the many masterpieces Hitchcock created...How does a glossy (though perfectly made) romcom have a chance in comparison to "Vertigo," "Strangers on a Train," "Psycho," "Shadow of a Doubt," "Notorious," "Rear Window"...and that's just the top of the list...
    Juan, I'm actually happy we blogged on "TCaT" at the same time - I'd wanted to say more about VistaVision, but time and space wouldn't allow...I think our blogs work together nicely...

  5. Eve, Awesome review!! I loved the snappy dialog in this film, with all the sexual innuendos. For me... it was interesting that Grant (with his accent) could really never be mistaken for an American, even though he usually played one. I think fans of Hitchcock, Kelly or Grant will want to check out this film.

    Like Becky, not much of a fan of the film, The Trouble With Harry.

  6. Eve, TO CATCH A THIEF ranks among my favorite Hitchcock films. If one looks deep enough, some of the familiar Hitch themes are there (e.g., the wrongly accused man). But, for the most part, it comes across as Hitchcock in the mood to have some fun--and that joy comes across on the screen. Really, my only beef (and it's a very minor one) is that the lack of suspects makes the real culprit obvious from the outset. Still, that didn't negate the sheer sense of fun, including the amusing double entendres during the Cary-Grace picnic scene.

  7. Eve,
    A wonderful detailed review. I totally agree with your take on Grace Kelly. A beautiful woman who never looked better than in the three films she made for Hitchcock. I recently took another look at DIAL M FOR MURDER and Hitch films her with such reverence, and Grant is arguably the perfect Hitchcock actor, charming, debonair and dark. It is a gorgeous looking film in both its look and its stars.

  8. of my favorite lines, Grace Kelly to Cary Grant - she is teasing him (a supposed lumber baron) about his converation with Danielle: "I'll be you told her all your trees were Sequoias"...

    And Rick...errr, Cafe...I don't think one necessarily picks Danielle out as the thief the first time around, but I wonder if, as with so many MacGuffiny things, it mattered anyway...I do think Hitchcock was up to glamorous fun with this one...he has said that he made the ending a bit "grim" (Kelly's last line about "Mother will love it here...") to darken it up a bit...

    Glad you liked the post John...I think in their final outing together, Hitchcock presented Grace Kelly more beautifully than she had ever been filmed, absolutely ravishing.

  9. I am so interested in the craftsmanship that you detail so well in your account of this movie. Thanks very much for posting background info about cinematographer Robert Burks and your appreciative account of character actors John Williams and Jessie Royce Landis's colorful mother. This has never been my favorite Hitchcock, but your astute observations of such seamless professionalism has made me want to see it again. Thanks

  10.'s so rewarding to know that my interest in the details behind a film is shared...TCaT isn't my favorite Hitchcock either, but I do like it and enjoyed digging into a bit of its backstory and putting a spotlight on some of the talented folks (beyond Hitchcock, Grant and Kelly) that helped make it the success - and trendsetter - that it was. Thanks for your comment - & encouragement...