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TNR Film Classics: ‘To Catch a Thief’

Paramount Pictures

To Catch a Thief is supposed to be a mystery having to do with the exertions Cary Grant must make as a famous jewel thief who has retired and is unjustly suspected of having resumed his vocation. The real mystery is how the product of Hitchcock’s direction, given such care, toil and intelligence, could be so poor. Jessie Royce Landis gives a remarkable performance as the heroine’s mother, and Danielle Lamar is more than remarkable, when the script permits her to be. As the incomparably sophisticated teen age rival of Grace Kelly for Cary Grant’s heart, Miss Lamar delivers several remarks with a leer which suggests Mona Lisa elucidating Freud’s theory of her enigmatic smile to Kraft-Ebing. In fact, all the actors are excellent, except Cary Grant. He wears a pained grin almost throughout the film and the sneakers or tennis shoes he wears are the only remnant of his usual aplomb. For although he is being pursued by Miss Kelly, Miss Lamar, the police and a set of hardened criminals he seems to be disturbed by something else, it is impossible to say just what, unless the clue is buried in the moment when he steps into a bus and finds himself seated next to Hitchcock himself (the director resembles, in this new version of his Old Master signature, both Humpty Dumpty and Buddha), and looks at him in a most peculiar way which, since it may mean anything, may very well mean: let’s go back to America, get a new script and start all over again.

These remarks are misleading if they suggest that the film is anything but a dud. Nevertheless it is a significant dud, and Grace Kelly’s role has the virtue of making clearer the quality which excited so much attention in previous roles—her sexual allure; and this in turn has a significance in relation to Hitchcock’s career in America.

Miss Kelly’s screen image is that of purity, chastity and modesty. She looks “aristocratic,” which is of course not an American word and perhaps for that reason an American obsession. And it is not too much to suppose that one of the flashes of Hitchcock’s original genius in To Catch a Thief is the contrast between her aristocratic look and her actual status as noveau riche, a contrast which Jessie Royce Landis as her mother continually makes explicit. The image of “class” is sustained just long enough to give the maximum effect to that moment when Miss Kelly suddenly, abruptly and yet with naturalness and a sly, faint smile takes the sexual initiative and keeps it without in the least diminishing the impression of lady-like respectability.

It was remarked that in Mogambo Miss Kelly had restored the wife as a sexual being, and her performance as a meek housewife in that film certainly left Ava Gardner looking quite old-fashioned and uninteresting. But this, like most of the expressions of admiration excited by Miss Kelly, is inadequate because it suggests that the cause of the excitement is merely her image upon the screen. The image is necessary, of course, but it would be ineffective without the most supple powers of an actress, the extreme imagination and intelligence which an absolute mastery of the illusion of spontaneity requires.

There is a good deal more to say, since Miss Kelly has a particular and fabulous significance which is not limited to the screen but illuminates the suburbs and thus American life in general; but here I must restrict myself to the bearing which her emergence as a star has upon Hitchcock’s career as a director in relation to Hollywood. At one point in To Catch A Thief Miss Kelly tells Cary Grant that his impersonation of an American is wholly unconvincing; he is, she says, as bogus as the Americans encountered in British mystery films. This remark, unimportant in itself, is hilarious and sad when related to Hitchcock as the director of the film and the director of such masterpieces among British mystery films as The Thirty-Nine Steps and The Lady Vanishes. Hitchcock obviously knows that something is wrong and has been wrong since he came to America some 15 years ago. His awareness was evident in his remark last spring that the trouble with film melodrama at present is that all the spies have to be Communists. Some of his American films have certainly been good enough and most of them have been marked to one or another degree by the originality of his style. But he has never come closer than self-imitation to the sustained brilliance and invention of his best English films, which not only made him famous but have exercised an overwhelming influence upon the making of English films in general. Like a great realistic novelist, Hitchcock depended upon a milieu which he knew with the utmost intimacy. But this explanation can hardly be the whole story, for then it would only be necessary for Hitchcock to make films with an English background in America, as, in fact, he did, in Rebecca. Too many other gifted directors and actors have lost their magic or dissipated it in Hollywood.

To say that Hollywood is responsible for anyone’s partial failure would be a far too familiar accusation and one which resembles the tendency to attribute the outbreak of a particular war to the sinfulness of human nature. But in To Catch A Thief, Grace Kelly’s performance, and that of Jessie Royce Landis as well, provides concrete evidence of the ways in which Hollywood may be guilty and Hitchcock innocent. For just as Colette was responsible for Audrey Hepburn’s start, so Hitchcock either discovered Grace Kelly or directed her far better than anyone else has. The emergence of both new stars, both genuine actresses, is a triumph of personality which would not have occurred if Hollywood’s conception of what the public wants always prevailed, as it certainly does most of the time.

The real trouble is that Hollywood thinks that it knows what the public wants, which is inseparable from the view that you can fool all the people all the time and if you don’t, the reason is that you yourself are a fool. This view is also implicit in the practice of the Svengalis of Madison Avenue, but they at least have the excuse, peculiar though it is, that they must persuade the public that it wants and needs what it neither needs nor wants, or something far more difficult, that one shaving cream is better than another, which is a falsehood.

Hollywood, by contrast, exists in relation to a genuine need of the public which it attempts to gratify by mere repetition or mere novelty. A successful film is imitated until it is an unbearable stereotype. And the slow panic caused by the competition of TV leads to one novelty after another. First the mechanical exploitation of depth made the public slightly cockeyed while the size of the screen grew until no further increase could occur without razing most of the motion picture houses in America. The latest bid for popularity is what may be termed tourism, as if the real rival were not TV, but the inexpensive cost of a subscription to the National Geographic Magazine.

The implications of Miss Kelly’s success are various. But at least one implication is that Hollywood’s surprise at her success shows that it does not know what the public wants. And Hitchcock very well may know. And now that Stephen, the Metro – Goldwyn – Mayer lion, has just died in Dublin, perhaps his roar, ars gratia artis, ought to be reinterpreted. The phrase means, as every Latinist knows, Art for the sake of the Almighty Dollar, or vox populi box office. But perhaps it also means that, when you judge all things by the gate, you bore others as you bore yourself. What the public may want (and what Hitchcock can give) is vividness and vitality of personality, genuineness of experience, a renewal of the excitement of curiosity and wonder.