To Catch a Thief (Blu-ray Review)19 Mar, 2012 By: Mike Clark
Stars Cary Grant, Grace Kelly, Jessie Royce Landis.
Even with Alfred Hitchcock behind the camera with longtime right-hand Robert Burks, it’s doubtful that his famed French Riviera jewel-heist confection would engender the same affection it still does today — or have the home entertainment shelf-life it has had — if the stars had been, say, Jack Elam and Shelley Winters. Often times, casting is indeed the thing — though, this said, Hitch’s summer-and-fall-of-’55 box office smash has become somewhat undervalued in the director’s canon, though it would take a real noodge to out-and-out dislike it.
I love Thief — and always have since first seeing it in its 1964 theatrical re-issue in a double bill with Vertigo (imagine that duo on your multiplex marquee along with the latest Jennifer Garner). And no: Thief isn’t Vertigo. Or Rear Window or Notorious or even the also light North by Northwest because, as many have noted, the oft-termed master of suspense doesn’t offer much suspense here. As far as this goes, it’s tough to disagree, though I think this is a case of some giving a light shrug to something for not being “A” when it is trying to be “B.” Judged purely as a romantic comedy that throws in a few suspenseful elements against magnificent scenic values, I think Thief rates humongously high on the all-time scale of hetero male/female cinema, particularly since a tanned Cary Grant and a tanned Grace Kelly are the greatest looking pairing in the history of movies (I will brook no nonsense that claims otherwise).
Or to put the A-vs.-B consideration another way: if you look at The Trouble With Harry from the same year (which was not a hit at the time; it actually played arthouses), Thief may be a little wanting for anyone expecting a “Hitchcock movie.” But if you judge Harry against all the black comedies ever made (especially those in the sub-category “macabre”), it ranks near the top. Or if you judge it against all the movies ever made about autumn, I’d say it might be No. 1 (or perhaps second to Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows — also from 1955).
Like Harry and three additional Hitchcock’s through 1959, Technicolor Thief was shot in VistaVision — a process that, visually speaking, is as good as movies ever got. I had some happy things a couple weeks ago to say on general VistaVision principles about Olive Films’ new release of The Buccaneer — but the truth is, no one pulled any muscles getting that heavily flawed but cosmetically imposing VV historical epic ready for release, and it could have looked better. But before this Thief DVD-to-Blu-Ray upgrade, Paramount — which generally disses its studio heritage more than any other studio-related home entertainment distributor would dream of doing — went back to the original elements the way it did for, to name two, the standard DVDs of Funny Face and (on a Martin & Lewis box set) Artists and Models. So when you take a gander at those Cary-Grace tans, or a bright, screen-filling floral array in one scene of merchant mayhem or the splashy costume ball at the climax, this is just about as vivacious as escapist entertainment gets. By the way, Thief imports the original DVD extras (better than what you usually get on Paramount titles) as well.
The movie’s hook — will retired thief John Robie be able to prove his innocence in a new wave of heists to get the police off his back? — is just that: a hook. It’s far more interesting to wonder if Grant/Robie will able to unfreeze Kelly’s “Franny” (who, in all ways, has a tight fanny) — and then to speculate, once she famously reveals the lava under her façade, what it will be like for them when her good-sport but very strong-willed mother (the great Jessie Royce Landis, who played Grant’s mother in North by Northwest) makes them a social threesome. Hitchcock is categorically unable to photograph a scene uninterestingly: Note the angle placement on the femme casino gambler who becomes the victim of an embarrassing Grant stunt. Along with 1969’s Topaz, the movie also has the funniest single Hitchcock screen appearance, though for years it got cropped out on TV showings because NBC and others pandered to the outhouse demographic (artistically speaking) by broadcasting panned-and-scanned atrocities.
Some historical notes. Thief was the only color VistaVision movie to win the Oscar for cinematography (the only black-and-white winner, also in 1955, was for James Wong Howe’s inky splendors in The Rose Tattoo, a more critically acclaimed film at the time than Thief, but time marches on). It was also the only Hitchcock ‘50s Paramount for which the studio maintained control. The rights to Rear Window, The Trouble with Harry, The Man Who Knew Too Much and Vertigo passed to Hitchcock himself, who did not store them well, resulting in severe negative deterioration.
And in terms of timing, Thief went into general release in September 1955 (where it got held over an extra week — and as a single feature — in my hometown’s classiest 2800-seater). In a juxtaposition that was shrewdly and possibly intentionally in synch, this was just before the Oct 2, 1955 TV premiere of CBS’s hugely successful “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” which launched with a Ralph Meeker-Vera Miles episode called “Revenge” — DVD-available and one of the creepiest and under-your-skin TV films Hitch ever directed. That he could work both sides of the tonal tracks at virtually the same time only makes it clearer than ever that in the 1950s, Hitchcock could almost do no wrong.