'To Catch a Thief' just might be the most beautiful film Alfred Hitchcock ever made. Bursting with such eye-popping elements as French Riviera locales, ultra-chic Edith Head couture, and, of course, the stunningly svelte future princess of Monaco, Grace Kelly herself, this slick mixture of mystery and romance oozes glamour at every turn. Yet beauty, oftentimes, is only skin deep, and unfortunately there are plenty of moments when that cliché suits 'To Catch a Thief' to a T. As light and airy as a soufflé, Hitchcock's frothy confection breezes merrily along, but its smart dialogue and delicious sexual tension between Kelly and her debonair co-star, Cary Grant, can't completely compensate for a slight story that sometimes sputters and ends up more travelogue than thriller.
Which isn't necessarily a bad thing. Shot in glorious Technicolor and VistaVision, 'To Catch a Thief' is the apex of style and personification of cinematic chic. Never before had a Hollywood movie showcased a European locale with such authenticity, and by thrusting us into the rarefied world of the ultra-rich, Hitchcock succeeds in presenting the ultimate escapist fantasy. Just drinking in all the sights is an unparalleled joy, especially in the splendor of high definition. Yet beneath all the lavish trimmings - sparkling diamonds, designer gowns, picturesque villas, dramatic vistas, and impeccable physical specimens - lies a surprisingly cynical tale that depicts all humans, on some level, as frauds. Duplicitous by nature, we prowl the earth like cat burglars, stealing what happiness we can whatever way we can, and hope we never get caught.
When the Riviera elite fall victim to a wave of jewel heists, all signs point toward ex-con John Robie (Grant), a hero of the French Resistance Army in World War II and former gem swiper extraordinaire, as the stealthy culprit. The long retired Robie, once known as The Cat, proclaims his innocence, but the French police remain unconvinced and mount a large-scale manhunt in the hope of capturing him. To evade the net, Robie knows he must track down the real thief himself and enlists the aid of insurance agent H.H. Hughson (John Williams), who divulges the identities of the wealthiest tourists on the Riviera - prime targets for the greedy thief. Topping the list are Americans Jessie Stevens (Jessie Royce Landis) and her daughter Francie (Kelly), a cool blonde with a passionate soul and thirst for adventure. Just like the Titanic's Molly Brown, the Stevens are nouveau riche, and the no-nonsense Jessie especially is still rough around the edges. Robie hopes to lure the burglar to Jessie and Francie, but soon finds himself in a game of cat and mouse with the ravishing Francie, who aggressively pursues him. As the mating dance intensifies, each tries to crack the other's impenetrable veneer and find the true person lurking beneath it.
Though on its surface, 'To Catch a Thief' might appear to be a mystery-thriller, in actuality it's more of a romantic chess game. Sure, we root for Grant to catch his thief and clear his name, but the story really revolves around Francie trying to catch a thief of her own. That thief, of course, is Robie, who, as her mother astutely points out, just might be the catch of her life.
Hitchcock, in typically adroit fashion, manipulates all the film's disparate elements into a cohesive whole, juggling romance, sex, humor, thrills, intrigue, and social commentary. We also have the "wrong man" theme that was a favorite of Hitchcock's, the requisite icy blonde, and a playful air permeating the proceedings. One could characterize 'To Catch a Thief' as "Hitchcock Lite," but it's obvious just as much care went into the production of this easygoing romp as the director's more serious and suspenseful exercises.
Yet tension, as in any Hitchcock film, still predominates, but here it's largely romantic tension that fuels the story. And who better than Hitchcock to push the envelope with a host of double entendres and steamy scenes to raise eyebrows and pulse rates. Francie's initial come-on in a hotel doorway is incendiary enough, but Hitchcock tops it with a cleverly edited love scene intercut with massively expoloding fireworks. Like the speeding train plunging into a dark tunnel at the conclusion of 'North by Northwest,' it's sexual imagery at its most delicious and audacious...at least in the 1950s.
And who better to play the sparring lovers than Grant and Kelly in their only screen appearance together. Both exude a modern air that helps keep the film relevant and accessible, and it's impossible to imagine anyone else in their roles. Grant (who, by the way, would have made a fantastic James Bond) came out of a semi-retirement to play Robie, and we're eternally grateful. His suave demeanor, endless charm, and no-nonsense attitude fit the character like a glove, and despite the 25-year age difference, he and Kelly make a smashing couple.
While her palpable beauty and allure are undeniable, Kelly never has been one of my favorite actresses, due to her limited talent. (I know she won an Oscar for 'The Country Girl,' but let's face it, she didn't deserve it; Judy Garland did for her bravura performance in 'A Star Is Born,' but don't get me started on that!) Hitchcock, however, was able to bring out her best, exposing complexities her stunning looks often hid. Here, Kelly is at her zenith, striking just the right pose, and making us rue the fact that she met her future husband, Prince Rainier of Monaco, while shooting this film, and thus couldn't make more pictures with Hitchcock, such as 'The Man Who Knew Too Much,' 'Vertigo,' and 'Marnie.' Though watching her speed her roadster along the treacherous Moyenne Corniche is spookily unsettling (Kelly would meet her untimely end on that very same stretch of pavement 27 years later after allegedly suffering a stroke while driving), the image of her hair blowing in the breeze, a carefree smile across her lips, and a mischievous twinkle in her lively eyes is both iconic and unforgettable.
'To Catch a Thief' will never rank among my favorite Hitchcock movies, but that doesn't mean I don't appreciate it. Its seductive élan, light touch, dazzling setting, and attractive personalities make this delightful pursuit a noteworthy entry in the director's film canon, and a popular choice among fans, especially those who eschew his darker works. Rarely do I like films in which style supersedes substance, but when it comes to Alfred Hitchcock, I make an exception.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'To Catch a Thief' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case inside a sleeve. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and default audio is Dolby TrueHD 2.0 stereo. Upon insertion of the disc, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no promos or previews precede it.
As I wrote above, 'To Catch a Thief' is arguably Alfred Hitchcock's most beautiful film, and thankfully Paramount has honored it with a suitably sumptuous transfer. The 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 effort explodes with perfectly pitched contrast and lush, deeply saturated hues that wring every ounce of splendor out of the spectacular Riviera setting. Rarely does a film of this vintage feel so contemporary and immerse the viewer so completely in the location, but this transfer all but transports us to the Cote d'Azur. Even the rear projection work that Hitchcock, much to my chagrin, was so fond of employing, blends seamlessly into the film's fabric. I was especially concerned about the car chase sequence along the Moyenne Corniche, which previously has appeared rather fake-looking. Sure, we still recognize the processing here, but it doesn't seem nearly as jarring as it has in the past.
Grain is visible but not pronounced, so it never diminishes the picture's razor sharp clarity, and only a few faint speckles could be detected on the pristine source material. (Occasional shots here and there exude a bit of softness and excess grain, but their brevity makes their impact negligible.) The flowers in the market burst with vibrant, varied color, while the texture of the stone work on many buildings is strikingly rendered. Vistas sport amazing levels of detail, as do the fireworks, and background elements in interior scenes are always easily discernible. Black levels are rich and inky, and shadow delineation, especially during the climactic rooftop pursuit, is first-rate, with only a couple of instances of crush creeping in. Whites also are solid, and patterns, such as Grant's fine black-and-white striped shirt, which he wears throughout the film's early scenes, resist shimmering.
Close-ups of the two glamorous stars are wonderfully crisp, highlighting Kelly's cool beauty and Grant's sun-kissed ruggedness. Fleshtones are spot-on, too, ranging from the pasty white complexions of Jessie Royce Landis and John Williams to Kelly's light tan and Grant's deep bronze. And the tricky tinted shadows that add a splash of exotic color to a couple of nocturnal sequences enhance the image without diluting it.
From a technical standpoint, the transfer is also clean. Any digital doctoring escapes notice, and no imperfections, such as noise or banding, muck up the works. Without a doubt, this is the best 'To Catch a Thief' has ever looked on home video, and it's hard to imagine a better effort down the line. Somewhere, Hitchcock is smiling.
A Dolby TrueHD 2.0 stereo track provides good quality sound that complements the gorgeous imagery well. Any surface noise or hiss has been carefully erased, leaving clean audio that shines in both noisy and quiet scenes. A bit of separation expands the sound field somewhat and provides a more realistic timbre to the track, with distinct atmospherics and effects nicely accenting the primary aural activity. Dialogue is always well prioritized and easy to understand, and Lyn Murray's spritely music score enjoys solid fidelity and a pleasing depth of tone.
A wide dynamic scale features bright highs and some weighty lows that lend the audio welcome presence, but a few instances of distortion, usually involving auotmobile engines, disrupt the flow somewhat. And unfortunately, the dubbing job on Charles Vanel, a French actor who could not speak a word of English, even with the aid of phonetical cue cards, is shoddy at best.
No one will be picking up 'To Catch a Thief' for its audio, but Paramount has done the best it can with the elements available, and the results serve this 57-year-old film well.
A slew of previously released supplements have been ported over to this Blu-ray release, providing a comprehensive portrait of this classic production.
Who needs substance? 'To Catch a Thief' brims with eye-candy, and its slight story possesses just enough meat to support the suggestive repartee, cat-and-mouse shenanigans, breathtaking French Riviera locations, and combustible chemistry between its two attractive leads. Thrills come at a premium in this Hitchcock classic, but there's enough elegance, charm, humor, and smoldering sexuality to make this light confection as seductive as its female star. Paramount has dressed up this stylish film with a spectacular video transfer that will wow fans and newbies alike, solid audio, and plenty of absorbing supplements. This may be Hitchcock light, but it's a captivating confection that shows off the Master's subtle gifts - as well as Cary Grant and Grace Kelly - to supreme advantage. Highly recommended.