Wednesday, August 05, 2015

To Catch the Style of a Thief

Francie (Grace Kelly): I called the police from your room and told them who you are and everything you've been doing tonight.

Robie (Cary Grant): Everything? The boys must have really enjoyed that at headquarters.

Alfred Hitchcock and Stephen King had a lot in common — primarily the fact that each was/is misunderstood. People like to give labels to others, but King and Hitchcock really defied being pigeonholed. As a result, people who had little, if any, exposure to their work labeled them based on a vague comprehension of that work.

For example, while he is far more talented as a writer than labeling gives him credit for, Stephen King has been known as a master of the horror genre for decades. There is some truth to that, just as there is in most stereotypes, but King's skills really are more diverse. Dismissing him as only a horror writer does him a disservice.

Likewise, Hitchcock has been known for directing scary movies — probably the legacy of 1960's "Psycho," which may be his best known movie among non–devotees of Hitchcock's work. But even if the speaker has more familiarity with Hitchcock's movies than that, the speaker is still likely to think of Hitchcock as the director of scary movies.

I take issue with that. His movies weren't scary. They were electrifying. There is a difference.

Hitchcock himself regarded his movies as thrillers, suspense flicks even, not horror movies. It is true that most of his movies had a certain whodunnit quality to them because someone usually wound up dead at the hands of another; if that happened, the audience either saw it from a distance or after the fact. It wasn't explicit. But there were exceptions. Sometimes no one died at all, and such a movie, "To Catch a Thief," premiered on this day in 1955.

There were certain themes that Hitchcock explored frequently in his movies, one of which was mistaken identity. Those movies are among the most gripping that Hitchcock ever made — and "To Catch a Thief" was one of the best from that particular subset of Hitchcock movies.

It was also made smack dab in the middle of what could — arguably — be regarded as Hitchcock's peak period — the 1950s.

Of course, it starred Cary Grant, which had a lot to do with its success. I do think Grant did star in the best of Hitchcock's mistaken identity movies, but it wasn't "To Catch a Thief." It was "North by Northwest."

But that doesn't take anything away from "To Catch a Thief." It was a stylish movie. With Grant as its star, though, could it possibly be anything other than stylish?

Grant's co–star was the incomparable Grace Kelly. She had a brief career (11 movies in six years), but she made three of those movies with Hitchcock in the director's chair. You could always tell Hitchcock's favorites among the actors with whom he worked, too. They were the ones who were in more than one movie that he directed.

Grant was a favorite of Hitchcock's, too, appearing in four of Hitch's movies. Reportedly, Hitchcock said Grant was "the only actor I ever loved in my whole life." Read into that what one will.

Grant played a retired jewel thief known as "The Cat," who was leading a quiet life tending his vineyards on the French Riviera — nice work if you can get it, right? Out of the blue, burglaries bearing The Cat's signature began happening, and the police naturally suspected Grant's character was involved. He sought a sanctuary of sorts with his old gang from his French Resistance days, but they all suspected him of pulling off the crimes while they were under suspicion.

Grant decided that the way to prove that he was innocent was to catch the actual burglar in the act — and enlisted several people to help him, including Kelly, who still harbored suspicions of her own.

Nevertheless, Kelly became something of a rival for Grant's attention with a young French girl (played by Brigitte Auber), the daughter of one of Grant's old buddies and something of a love interest at one time. Based on her apparent age, one suspected that she may have had a schoolgirl crush on Grant. Right now, I don't recall what, if anything, was said about that. My memory is that it was mostly implied. But there was something there between them — or there had been at one time.

One–sided it may have been, but there was something there.

In a memorable scene in which the two women were introduced to each other while in the waters of the Riviera, Grant (Robie) said to Auber, "Say something nice to her, Danielle."

Auber replied in her distinctive French accent, "She looks a lot older up close."

Kelly remarked, "To a mere child, anything over 20 might seem old."

I've always thought Auber's response was one of the most classic of Hitchcock lines: "A child? Shall we stand in shallower water and discuss that?"

As beautiful as Kelly was, I have a hunch that, if she had accepted that challenge from the 27–year–old Auber (who was more than a year older than Kelly), it would have been a very close contest. Clearly, Auber did not have the figure of a child. Hers was a voluptuous figure compared to Kelly's. But Kelly was regal in her beauty — fitting, considering that she married the prince of Monaco less than a year later.

Many years after that, when Kelly suffered a stroke while driving her car in the hills of Monaco, it was said that her car went out of control along the same stretch of winding mountainside road where her character terrified Grant in "To Catch a Thief." I never found out if there was any truth to that.

Hitchcock, of course, liked having beautiful women in his movies, and he really hit the jackpot in "To Catch a Thief." Not only were the women beautiful, but one of them played a significant role in the story. Auber, it turned out, was the copycat Cat.

Oh, shoot, I've given away the ending, haven't I? Well, it's still an enjoyable movie, one that everyone should see once.

"To Catch a Thief" received Oscar nominations for Best Color Art Direction and Best Color Costume Design — and won for Best Color Cinematography.