Usually relegated to the status of “Hitchcock light” To Catch a Thief is undoubtedly the master’s most pleasurable work. Its opening scene: a travel agency window featuring a poster that reads “If you love life, you’ll love France”, followed by leisurely snapshots of the French Riviera, establishes the delicious mood that will follow… If only for a minute, for soon the lush vistas are interrupted by a high pitched scream, a reminder that not even paradise could escape from the darkness of the Hitchcockian mind.
The darkness in this case doesn’t come near the necrophiliac Oedipus of Psycho or Vertigo, or the intricate conspiracies of North by Northwest and The 39 Steps, it concentrates instead on our inability to let go of everything when on vacation, how we always remember to pack our neuroses before we leave our homes. Hitchcock himself was on a “working vacation” when he decided to make this film, he figured that if he was going to France he might as well shoot his adaptation of David Dodge’s novel, proving the previous point.
The thief in question perpetuates a series of robberies along the Riviera, sending policemen to the villa of John Robie “The Cat” (Cary Grant) a retired jewel burglar, whose style resembles the recent crimes. In order to prove his innocence, Robie flees and hides with his old friends from the French Resistance who suggest he prove his innocence by finding the real thief. Robie enlists an insurance salesman (a charming John Williams) who helps him come up with a list of the thief’s potential victims. The first victims listed are Jessie Stevens (Jessie Royce Landis) and her daughter Francie (Grace Kelly), two American tourists who Robie tries to befriend. Jessie falls head over heels for him, telling her daughter she’d make a pass at him if only she were younger but offers to “buy him” for her. Francie however seems immune to his charms, until she realizes who he really is.
This begins a clever game of seduction as Robie’s plan is sidetracked by Francie’s aggressive approach. She seems to be sexually thrilled by his criminal past and the title thief becomes Hitchcock’s most unique MacGuffin, given that halfway through the movie we have stopped caring whether they catch him or not. The true essence of the movie lies in the delicious chemistry between Grant and Kelly, and the infinitely clever ways through which Hitchcock expresses their sexual desire. To Catch a Thief might deal with some of the master’s regular subjects but it feels more like a summer fling kind of movie; a travelogue where he replaces heavier themes for delicious innuendo.
At the time of its production, To Catch a Thief was considered to be quite raunchy and censors, as usual, gave Hitchcock a hard time. The movie then becomes a joyous exercise in symbol encoding with almost everything seeming to become a double entendre. With his accustomed humorous touch, Hitchcock overloads the film with metaphors for threesomes, ejaculation, multiple orgasms and hints of “unusual” sexual practices, to the point that the film feels absolutely polymorphously perverse. Audience members will instantly understand what’s going on, yet censors could do nothing to prevent Hitchcock from representing sexual climax through fireworks.
The film’s editing and cinematography are key aspects for this purpose, particularly because of the way in which they engage the ample views of VistaVision in a movie that doesn’t seem to be epic. They allowed Grant and especially Kelly to occupy portions of the screen that were usually saved for elaborate setpieces. Both actors become truly larger than life and embody the notion that sexual cravings can overcome most other desires. Kelly has never looked this radiant (this was her last film with Hitchcock) and rarely did she release such a playful side. Dressed ingeniously by the brilliant Edith Head, Kelly channels femmes fatale and Lolitas alike, infusing her character with a charming childlike wonder that resides in the body of an eager woman. When Francie asks Robie whether he wants “a leg or a breast” you’ll find yourself salivating with him.
Paramount has done an impeccable work with the high definition transfer of To Catch a Thief. Hitchcock movies are rarely thought of as beautiful on a purely visual level but this one might just be the exception. The director’s love for France can be sensed by the loving way in which he captured its beaches, countryside and luxuries. The colors are breathtaking and the color process is so painstakingly detailed that you want to reach out and touch the characters.
Of course, some “dated” elements have remained and the sequences with rear projections prove to be too “obvious” in a totally harmless way (This is the film that features Kelly driving recklessly on the road where she would lose her life years later). Some might be put off by the day-for-night scenes which give the image a greenish look, bear in mind however that the film has remained as loyal to its source as it could, explaining this surreal tint.
The Blu-ray is loaded with bonus features, most of which have been imported from the various DVD releases of the film. Among the highlights are “A Night with the Hitchcocks”, a hilarious chat between Dr. Drew Casper and Hitchcock’s daughter and granddaughter. “Unaccpetable Under the Code”, a short documentary that reveals all the tricks Hitch had to pull off to bypass censors and “Edith Head: The Paramount Years”, a featurette that focuses on the legendary designer’s influence in the movies. There’s also an interactive travelogue through the movie’s locations that manages to make you want to pack your bags and leave. Overall the Blu-ray’s quality is a more than timely reminder that we need the rest of the master’s catalogue in high definition.