' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: To Catch a Thief (1955)

Friday, January 29, 2021

Friday's Old Fashioned: To Catch a Thief (1955)

The backdrop for the opening credits of Alfred Hitchcock’s “To Catch a Thief” is a travel agency, with vintage posters advertising scenic getaways and a miniature Eiffel Tower on display in the window. When the credits finish, the camera presses in on one of the posters, as if we, the audience, are in need of a vacation. Granted, Hitch then cuts to a close-up of a woman screaming, victimized by a jewel thief, and a brief montage of other victims and scrambling police. But not long after, when the suspected cat burglar flees police, or seems to, Hitch films the chase from an aerial shot more invested, frankly, in the surrounding scenery more than the chase itself. Sometimes the camera loses sight of the car altogether! Who cares?! Look at the pristine blue sea! The crime and the cat burglar, in other words, are themselves the MacGuffin as much as anything else, and that travel agency window is as evocative of what’s to come as the window in Jeff Jeffries’s Chelsea apartment, in tune to the nature of cinema’s voyeurism, though in a less suspenseful way than insouciant. Relax, man.

About that burglary. The French authorities immediately suspect John Robie (Cary Grant), a long retired but still notorious thief whose work in the French Resistance has apparently not cleansed all his sins. The character’s seclusion rhymes with the real-life Grant, who had retired, ostensibly, but was convinced to take on the project anyway by Hitchcock, promising the scenic filming locations and work with a co-star as smashing as Grace Kelly as their own reward. Indeed, just as Grant took on the project so does Robie re-enter the game, in a manner of speaking, protesting his innocence and setting out to prove it by catching the current cat burglar in the act. This allows Hitchcock to intertwine a couple of his favorite themes, The Innocent Man and The Double. The latter emerges in the form of Danielle Foussard (Brigitte Auber), daughter of the wine steward at the restaurant where all of Robie’s ex-cohorts work. Tasked with ferrying Robie to Cannes by speedboat to evade police, she is costumed like a mirror of Robie with a scarf and a similar striped shirt. She is such an obvious double, in fact, that it essentially gives away the game.

Then again, everything in a Hitchcock joint is deliberate and the obviousness of the double only underlines how it’s not really the point in the first place. No, “To Catch a Thief” might be as close as Hitchcock ever got to the greatest of all cinematic escapist fantasies, “To Have and Have Not”, which had no other point than watching Bogey and Bacall watch each other. In this case, though, we are watching Cary Grant and Grace Kelly meet. Perhaps a discerning viewer might wonder why it takes them so long to meet then. Ah, but Hitch was the Master of Suspense for a reason, titillating us by prolonging the payoff, taking the roundabout way to get there, with Robie spirited to Cannes by water to evade police detection, swimming right up to the beach and then laying down amidst so many sunbathers only to be recognized in about 1.7 seconds, a sly commentary on Grant himself.

And if a moment like this purposely illuminates his star power, then acting opposite Grace Kelly only brightens it. She is Frances “Francie”, Stevens, daughter of an wealthy American Jessie (Jessie Royce Landis), in Cannes and a possible next mark for the next robbery. So, posing as an Oregon timber baron, Robie effortlessly charms his way into their circle. Despite the lurking criminal, the real game of cat and mouse is between Robie and Francie. If at first he hardly pays her mind and she hardly pays him mind, when he walks her back to her room, she leans right in and plants one on his lips, declaring both provocative intent and that she sees right through him. Why the ensuing day, in the film’s finest sequence, during a cliff-side drive, upon realizing they are being tailed, she floors it, roaring around hairpin turns with nothing but joie de vivre splayed across her face, a car chase less about the pursuers than seeing if the passenger is up for the ride. Sure, there is the later fireworks scene, as funny in its own way as the coital fireworks in “The Naked Gun”, but the real sex scene is right here, on the road, with the close-ups of Grant’s hands on his legs, folding and re-folding, as if trying to tamp down his, ah, excitement in the lower extremities. And when she breaks out the picnic basket with the roast chicken and asks if he wants, ahem, a leg or a breast, well, it’s not as good as “Anybody got a match?” but it’ll do.

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