Wednesday, April 20, 2022

Cary Grant and Grace Kelly Perfectly Team To Catch a Thief

Offering a prime example of a 1950’s studio-era commercial property featuring a perfect blend of director, stars, location and story, Paramount’s To Catch a Thief affords Alfred Hitchcock and mega-stars Cary Grant and Grace Kelly the chance to showcase their talents via a diverting caper set amid beautiful French Riviera vistas filmed in VistaVision and Technicolor. Although Thief is considered one of Hitchcock’s lighter entertainments, it can also be labeled one of his most irresistible works, with two stars at the height of their abilities giving charismatic performances, which includes an abundance of playful, sexy chemistry. Hitchcock is also aided by a crafty, breezy screenplay by frequent collaborator John Michael Hayes and Robert Burks’ ace, Oscar-winning photography, which allows viewers to get lost in the ample scenic wonders on display, and make them want to plan a trip to say, Monte Carlo as soon as the film concludes. Wisely forgoing tense suspense to utilize his deft cinematic touch in showcasing comic and romantic elements via a more casual whodunit format, Hitchcock and his stars create the type of enjoyable, carefree diversion movies were made for.

Portraying John Robie, a retired cat burglar of 15 years who suddenly finds himself at the top of the suspect list due to a series of new robberies, Cary Grant was lured back to movies after a couple years’ retirement by his persistent director, and effortlessly dominates the film with his matchless charm and skill. Sleek, tan and debonair, Grant makes 50 look very fine, and he is so confident and relaxed one hardly cares if Robie actually committed the crimes as he works with others to find an alternate culprit. Thief finds Grant at a career peak, with the suave, sly Robie a superb match to Grant’s self-assured screen persona; it’s easy to see how in the aftermath of the film’s success he would go on to an eventful final decade in films, rarely missing the mark as one smash hit followed another (these included An Affair to Remember, Houseboat, Operation Petticoat, That Touch of Mink, Charade and his signature late-career role as Roger Thornhill in the follow-up and final teaming with Hitchcock, North By Northwest) as the audiences’ love affair continued unabated with Grant until his for-real screen retirement in 1966 via Walk, Don’t Run.

Reuniting after fruitful associations via Dial M for Murder and Rear Window, Hitchcock once again brings out the best in Grace Kelly’s cool, regal bearing, and she’s possibly even more slyly bemused and alluring than in her iconic role as the adventurous Lisa Fremont in Window. As the headstrong, bold Frances Stevens, a wealthy traveler who initially encounters Robie due to her mother’s expensive jewelry collection, Kelly is in beautiful synch with Grant during their double-entendre exchanges, specifically during the film’s most famous sequences, first at a roadside picnic, and then during the expertly-staged hotel room seduction, with cross-cutting to a blazing fireworks display in case the simultaneous fireworks the star couple is creating leaves any doubt what’s transpiring. In addition, she and Grant look so sensational together it seems perfectly natural guests gawk as one of the screen’s classiest couples walk through the Carlton hotel lobby, instead of cliché and unbelievable. Also, along with Kelly’s great alliance with Hitchcock, To Catch offers another cinematic match made in Heaven, as Kelly once again wears chic Edith Head creations with breathtaking style (Head also gets a chance to illustrate her awesome gifts during the elaborate costume ball at the film’s climax, and received one of her many Oscar nominations for her notable efforts).

In support of the stars, Jessie Royce Landis is intensely likable as the aptly named Jessie, Frances’ straightforward, sage mother, who has plenty to say regarding her daughter’s aloof behavior towards what Jessie views as an ideal mate. Landis’ earthy good humor scores so dynamically that, along with her adeptness in performing banter engagingly with Grant, Hitchcock found it suitable to peg her for an even more iconic role in North By Northwest as Grant’s wryly bemused mother, even though she only predated Grant’s birth by about seven years. John Williams is a welcome urbane presence as the wry insurance agent working with Robie, and he has a great scene with Grant wherein they discuss what constitutes a thief, and how most people fall into the category. Rounding out the principle players, Charles Vanel and Brigitte Auber lend some continental flavor as French allies of Robie, who are both highly intrigued by the robberies and Robie’s role in the crimes.

Upon its release in the summer of 1955, To Catch a Thief provided audiences with the kind of escapism perfectly suited for summertime movie fare. The film continued the trend of popular Grant-Hitchcock and Kelly-Hitchcock pairings, as well as the incredible run of screen successes Kelly had during her brief reign as a top star in the mid-1950’s (with an Oscar on her mantle to boot a few months prior to the release of Thief), taking in $4.5 million in rentals according to Variety, to place among the top 20 box-office hits of the year. Although Thief is seldom mentioned among the Master of Suspense’s chief works, it warrants more valuable consideration, as it takes considerable talent to pull off a refreshing, beguiling comedy-mystery as successfully and Hitchcock and company manage to do here. Possessing first-rate production values and a peerless star-director combo (or two), viewers looking for a palatable, colorful excursion arising in a glamourous locale won’t feel cheated by the substantial charms on display in this stylish Thief.

On a side note, I recently created a video tribute to Grant at YouTube, using clips from over 30 top Grant films. It can be viewed here: Reviewing the films while compiling the clips, it was clear how impressively Grant handled so many diverse roles with conviction and spontaneity, shifting from drama to comedy (whether it be sophisticated, broad or physical) with remarkable dexterity. He also created a wonderful comradery while working with children, whom he appeared to adore, as witnessed by Houseboat, Father Goose and the funny, touching and underrated Room for One More, wherein he co-stars with then-wife Betsy Drake. Unfortunately, Grant’s easy professionalism and lack of pretension left him generally ignored by the Academy, with Grant scoring two nominations (for Penny Serenade and None but the Lonely Heart) before finally being given an overdue and career Oscar in 1970. I think Grant warranted the Oscar for his deeply felt, moving work in Serenade, and I’d also grant Grant at least one other statute for one of his roles during his phenomenal run of classics from 1937-1941, say The Awful Truth.


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