Friday, August 19, 2005

To Catch a Thief (Hitchcock, 1955)

The greatest pleasures to be had from Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief -- his 1955 romantic comedy posing as a suspense thriller –- are purely aesthetic. From the Oscar-award winning cinematography showcasing the gorgeous French Riviera, to the always beautiful art direction, to the fantastic costumes by Edna Mo ... errr ... Edith Head, To Catch a Thief is without a shadow of a doubt, a perfect advertisement for the luxury of Southern France. A director famous for bringing horrific murder gleefully into the mainstream, Hitchcock here shows that he is equally adept at filming images of great beauty. Perhaps the most captivating vision of all though in To Catch a Thief belongs to the unparalleled beauty of Grace Kelly. Perhaps ‘unparalleled’ is a little strong. Isabelle Adjani and Catherine Deneuve spring to mind. But I know this much: it may be possible (though surely rare) to be as beautiful as Grace Kelly; however, it is not in fact possible to be more beautiful than Grace Kelly. Just three years after breaking out in High Noon, Kelly is already in the twilight of her ultra-brief film career. This is the fourth Grace Kelly film I have seen, and, in my opinion, it is easily the strongest performance I have seen from her so far. Until now, I had considered her a great beauty, but a rather awkward actor. Now, seeing her trade verbal barbs, witticisms and flirtations with Cary Grant, it seems clear that she greatly improved in a short amount of time and was well on her way to being a legitimately skilled performer.

This may seem a strange way to begin the review. Surely I should be telling you about how Cary Grant plays an ex-jewel thief who has gone straight but becomes the prime suspect when a rash of similar thefts break out in Nice or Monte Carlo or Saint Tropez or one of those places and how he must work vigilantly to find out who is actually responsible before the authorities catch up with him and how he teams up with Kelly’s character because her mother is probably a very likely target but then the two of them start realizing they’re attracted to each other even though Grant claims to be a logger from Oregon (my home state) and my goodness, Grace Kelly puts out a lot quicker than I ever would have suspected ... blah, blah, blah. But we all know that Hitchcock is the man who popularized the term ‘Macguffin’ and he really doesn’t care a whole lot about that stuff, so why should you? There’s a plot. It’s serviceable. For a thriller, it’s not particularly thrilling, but hey, it gets the job done. That’s really not what the film is about though. It’s not about the identity of the thief or whether Grant’s character is arrested or not. No. This is a film about the chemistry between two of screen history’s most charismatic performers. It’s a film about watching them work together, play off of each other and us enjoying being in the presence of two people that are Movie Stars in the best sense of the phrase.

So, OK, the film is ostensibly about jewel thieves and all that. Yadda yadda yadda. But really the film is about enjoying these two Movie Stars. But wait! I believe that there is yet a third level to this film that is the key to why it is worth watching. That level plays out as follows: Given the fact that we are making a Hollywood film in 1955 and we are subject to a code restricting content, how much innuendo and insinuation can we include and get away with it? How vividly can we paint the picture in the minds of our audience of Cary Grant and Grace Kelly screwing like rabbits without breaking decorum? This level of the film is playfully hinted at early on when Grant expresses mild embarrassment in deciding which part of the chicken would be best to eat, but it launches into hyperdrive in a delightful seduction scene played out in front of bursting fireworks. Now, the fireworks are an obvious metaphor – a little too obvious for my tastes, but the rest of this scene is just masterful. At this point, Kelly’s character does not know whether or not Grant’s character is indeed the man behind the recent series of thefts. But there they are together, using her mother as bait, hoping to catch the real thief. In this scene, Kelly wears a large, valuable jeweled necklace around her perfect, gorgeous throat, knowing full well that Grant’s character has a history of thievery. This is not just tempting the alcoholic by opening a beer. This is the equivalent of pouring a vodka shot into the small of your back. She is begging to be touched. Begging to be stripped of her valuables and much, much more. And it is here that, despite the intrusive fireworks, Hitchcock unleashes the shot that I will remember the film by: Kelly, standing so that a shadow blocks out her face and the rest of her body illuminated from the neck down, jewels around her neck. It’s a deliciously wicked moment. Hitchcock highlights the two things Grant’s character might possibly want to make off with – her jewels and her body. And significantly, at this moment ... we hardly notice the jewels.



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