September 27, 2012
To Catch a Thief – U.S., 1955
Alfred Hitchcock’s 1955 film To Catch a Thief has everything it needs to soar – an intriguing premise, a thrilling opening scene, a talented lead actor. It begins with such fire that many viewers are likely to be lulled into the erroneous belief that that unfolds will be more akin to a James Bond adventure than a romantic melodrama like An Affair to Remember. Therefore, as the film unfolds, they are likely to either be ecstatic or disappointed that what actually occurs on screen is anything but a fast-paced, cat-and-mouse caper. The film stars Cary Grant as John Robie, a former cat burgler who was apparently so good at his craft that he has been able to live off his plunders for the past fifteen years without working. A rash of complicated jewelry thefts are committed, and suspicion naturally falls upon Robie. He decides the only way to clear his name is to find the real thief himself.
To accomplish this task, he enlists the help of an insurance broker named H.H. Hughson (John Williams II), who has almost as much to lose if the thefts continue as Robie does. Hughson has compiled a list of the thief’s potential targets, wealthy women who refuse to keep their jewelry safely locked away. How exactly the thief has this information is never explained. Perhaps it comes down to a series of lucky guesses. Robie’s goal is to somehow ingratiate himself with the people on the list in the hopes of catching the thief in the act and clearing his name. I suppose there isn’t much else that Robie can do, but considering he could be facing an extremely long prison term if he doesn’t find the thief, I expected him to do a bit more than he does. His investigative techniques primarily involve him walking out on balconies and looking around, in addition to sticking his head out windows and scanning the tops of buildings. In his defense, there are no clues for him to follow, and because the thief only strikes at night, Robie has hours to kill in between his brief attempts to apprehend the thief.
So what’s a film that is unable to move forward to do with its remaining sixty minutes? Why, introduce a love story, of course. As luck would have it, the owner of some rather valuable jewels just happens to have a rather captivating daughter with a ton of time on her hands. And it doesn’t hurt at all that the young woman’s mother seems intent on pushing her daughter into Robie’s arms, regardless of the fact that the man is twice her age. The daughter, Frances Stevens, is played by Grace Kelly, who was twenty-six when the film was made. Grant, here appearing in his sixtieth feature-length film, was fifty-one, and the difference in their ages shows, so much so that I found myself wondering if the film wouldn’t have been better off matching Robie with Frances’s mother, Jessie Stevens (Jesse Royce Landis).
The screenplay for To Catch a Thief was written by John Michael Hayes based on the novel by David Dodge. Hayes worked with Hitchcock four times, penning the screenplays for such classics as Rear Window, The Trouble with Harry, and The Man Who Knew Too Much. Here, he is tasked with creating a believable romance between a character that has something to hide and a young woman who suspects he is more than he is letting on. Hayes’s script cackles with clever dialogue and eyebrow-raising double entendres, and his words are delivered with the appropriate flair by Grant and Kelly. We should expect no less. However, something seems off. It is as if these are the wrong lines for these characters, as if they were intended to impress the audience and make them wow at their cleverness, instead of being realistic. In addition, their courtship seems forced. It begins with an awkward kiss and proceeds in a similarly peculiar fashion. And then, it suddenly changes on a dime. Why? Because every heroine in a movie such as this one must have a moment of doubt. It’s just part of the genre.
I realize I’m going against the grain on this one. The film currently has a 7.5 rating on IMDB and a 97% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Many comments extol it for its stellar cast, its romantic storyline, and its suspenseful ending. In truth, I appreciated the beginning of the film greatly, and I was particularly moved by John Robie’s interesting back story. I’m sure that would have made a terrific film on its own. However, once the film shifts its focus from the crime to the romance, it loses the momentum that it worked so hard and effectively to build, and it never really gets it back. I could be wrong, but for me, there’s much less here than meets the eye. (on DVD and Blu-ray)
2 and a half stars