'To Catch a Thief' and 'The Trouble With Harry'
To Catch a Thief
I was really excited about this expedition. Cary Grant, Grace Kelly and a host of French thespians on a course charted by Alfred Hitchcock in the Riviera. The food, the fun, the sun; the romance and the excitement; comedy, drama, mystery and, of course, murder. There would be dreamy encounters on the beach and late night dinners concluding with fireworks; chases by boat and by car; and a rooftop tussle on an old chateau to cap it all off. And all of this centered on a series of high society jewel thefts. It had such promise.
A nighttime tête-à-tête with Grant and Kelly looking out across the Riviera is the romantic climax of the movie. Up to this point Grant’s John Robie has been more interested in Kelly’s necklaces than her necklines. As the two trade barbs and double entendres over glasses of wine and a backdrop of exploding fireworks, things finally begin to spark. Kelly’s Frances Stevens takes the initiative to get what she wants, teasing Robie with her diamonds, the one thing she knows he wants. In the moment, Robie succumbs to being seduced and the scene ends with some nice pyrotechnics.
Unfortunately the fireworks don’t last. One scene does not a great romance make. Up to this point the interaction between Grant and Kelly has seemed forced. Grant’s Robie is a former jewel thief and member of the French Resistance. Despite giving up his night job years ago, he is accused in a recent series of high profile robberies. They just happen to fit his M.O. Unfortunately, Grant doesn’t quite fit the role. He initially evades the police in a number of promising suspense sequences, and then attempts to clear his name by catching the real thief. That’s when he meets Francie, a potential victim of burglary. And, unfortunately, that is when the movie comes to a halt. Grant is just too old to be a believable love interest for Grace Kelly; he’s twice her age (she was 25 at the time), is retired (though it is from being a criminal), has an orange glow reminiscent of Florida snowbirds, and just really doesn’t come across as all that charming. He’s supposed to be disinterested in her at first and eventually
come around; but other than the fireworks scene, the romance lacks the passion that is supposed to hold these two together through dire circumstance. The script and dialogue deserve some of the blame, but Grant was more impassioned as the snarky bachelor a few years later in North by Northwest. Now that Roger Thornhill, he could win the ladies; John “The Cat” Robie? He’s a bit too laissez faire. Just what does Grace Kelly see in him?
From the moment they first meet, the film switches gears to focus on Robie and his relationship with Francie. Because the love story is shoehorned in, the thief portion of the plot dies down and the film loses all sense of direction. Robie just seems to saunter around, tossing a quip here and there, having Kelly’s blonde heiress (complete with overbearing mother) tag along for the ride. She shows some gusto with a scheme towards the end involving an elaborate ball scene (complete with gorgeous costume designs by Edith Head), but by then our course has nearly lost all direction and the climactic roof-top scene is merely a perfunctory wrap-up.
To Catch A Thief has become the blueprint for the Hollywood action-romance. Cast some big names, throw in some seemingly witty dialogue and a couple of action sequences in exotic locales, and watch the money roll in. It lacks those memorable Hitchcockian suspense pieces, those intimate moments where we are driven close to a character and worry about their fate. There is little danger here, little to raise it above what we’ve come to accept as standard Hollywood popcorn fare. It’s a nice diversion: a weekend trip. The home videos of the post-war Riviera are nice to look at, but just like the postcard of the Eiffel Tower that opens the film, they don’t give a true estimate of the powers of the artists at work.
The Trouble With Harry
“Comedy” is not a word one associates with the Master of Suspense, though many of his movies contain a wicked (and quite warped) sense of humor. But in 1955, Hitchcock went straight for the funny bone with the dark exploration of an “inconvenient corpse” that won’t stay buried, and just barely missed. The “trouble” in the title is the ‘who, what, when, where, why, and how’ of the body’s sudden appearance. Turns out, it’s the estranged husband of the decidedly ditzy Jennifer Rogers (Shirley MacLaine) and she’s not all that upset about his death. Along with Captain Albert Wiles (Edmund Gwenn) and local spinster Miss Ivy Gravely (Mildred Natwick), the suspect pool is set.
Enter Sam Marlowe (John Forsythe), a free spirited artist whose attraction to Jennifer leads to involvement in the hiding of the stiff. As the quartet tries to avoid the prying eyes of Deputy Sheriff Calvin Wiggs (Royal Dano), Harry is interned and dug up, over and over again, his inappropriate reappearances driving everyone to distraction. Unlike other films in the Hitchcock canon which take the whodunit dimension of the story and spin it into something unnerving or unsettling, Harry is played mostly for laughs; oddball, eccentric giggles, but giggles just the same.
Sure, the subject matter was seen as somewhat scandalous at the time. You were dealing with a single mother (Jennifer has a son, played by future Leave it to Beaver star Jerry Mathers), a proto-bohemian artist type, the apparent repeated desecration of a corpse, and the decision to try and hide the crime—if one was indeed committed—from authorities. It is said that Hitchcock hoped that The Trouble with Harry would prove that English humor could translate across the pond. Unfortunately, his brand of wit was less Monty Python and more stiff-collar Victorian drawing room. One could easily see Edward Gorey, famous post-modern Gothic cartoonist, coming up with this idea. The Master of Suspense follows such merry macabre ideals to a fault.
It’s interesting to realize that, along with Shadow of a Doubt, Hitchcock often considered The Trouble with Harry to be one of his favorite films. Like Lifeboat, Rope, and other cinematic experiments, it does represent a departure for the man known for his visually stunning set-piece and calculated, clockwork dread. Even more unusual was the decision on the part of the director to take Harry—along with four other films including Rear Window and Vertigo—and buy them back from the studio, using the kept canon as a legacy for his daughter, Patricia. After its release, it was not seen again until a home video version came out sometime in the mid-‘80s.
With its bright New England fall setting and its desire to snicker at some unsavory concepts, The Trouble with Harry is an intriguing anomaly, an attempt by an already established genius to broaden his creative comfort zone. While not 100% successful, it definitely maintains Hitchcock’s reputation as an auteur willing to do almost anything in service of his amazing muse.
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