To Catch a Thief

  • Title:  To Catch a Thief
  • Director:  Alfred Hitchcock
  • Date:  1955
  • Studio:  Paramount
  • Genre:  Action, Romance, Suspense
  • Cast:  Cary Grant, Grace Kelly, Jessie Royce Landis, John Williams, Brigitte Auber
  • Format:  Technicolor, Widescreen
  • DVD Format:  R1, NTSC

“I stole once, a long time ago, I went to jail.” – John Robie (Cary Grant)
“I know. The Germans bombed the prison and you all escaped, joined the Underground, and became heroes.” – Danielle
“I joined because I wanted to make-up for some of the things I’d done. I’ve never stolen since.” – Robie

“You’re here in Europe to buy a husband, huh?” – Robie
“The man I want doesn’t have a price.” – Frances Stevens (Grace Kelly)
“Well, that eliminates me.” – Robie

“John, Why bother?” – Frances
“It’s sort of a hobby of mine, the truth.” – Robie

A series of daring jewel robberies rocks France, specifically the resort communities of the French Rivieria. The police immediately suspect John Robie, a retired jewel thief once known as The Cat. Robie decides the only way he will be able to prove his innocence is to catch the thief himself.

Robie meets HH Hughson, an insurance broker from Lloyd’s of London. His company has insured many of the stolen jewels, so he has a vested interest in finding the jewels so his company doesn’t have to pay the claims. Robie convinces him to give him a list of potential targets. Hughson is a bit dubious, but agrees.

Robie then meets up with Jessie Stevens and her daughter Frances (Francie). Mrs. Stevens is widowed and extremely rich after oil was discovered on her husband’s small Texas ranch. She’s also loud, uncultured, rude, and obnoxious. Her daughter, Frances, has benefited from her mother’s money, having attended a European “finishing school”, and traveled the world. Frances is a bit spoiled, and very bored with her life of travel and suitors after her money. Robie and Frances immediately have an attraction.

Meanwhile, Robie had first gone to the restaurant of his friends from the French Underground movement, but they are convinced he’s guilty and has gone back to his jewel-stealing ways. The only person from his previous life who thinks he’s either innocent, or it doesn’t matter if he’s guilty, is Danielle – the wine steward’s daughter, who flirts shamelessly with Robie – despite being young enough to be his daughter.

The story is told somewhat episodically, against the backdrop of seaside France. The tale alternates between the romantic encounters between John and Frances (swimming at the beach, a wild car ride ending in a romantic picnic, even the tour of a villa) and Danielle’s flirting with John, and John’s attempts to find the thief.

Robie also receives threatening notes at his hotel – which tell him to lay off his search. He misses one robbery entirely, because he is concentrating on the Stevens. He then goes to investigate a villa he’s been staking out for several nights, despite getting a second note that tells him to stay away. He finds the wine steward, dead. The police report to the newspapers, this is The Cat. But Robie goes to the police and points out the steward had a wooden leg, it would have been impossible for him to climb on rooftops. The steward is also Danielle’s father – and when he shows up at the funeral, Danielle accuses him of murder.

Robie then decides to set a trap of his own. He knows that an upcoming costume ball will be a perfect opportunity for The Cat to strike. He goes to the ball with Mrs. Stevens and Frances, and the police attend as well. He and Hughson switch places, and while Hughson dances the night away with Frances, Robie waits for The Cat. His gambit pays off and he catches the real thief – Danielle.

To Catch a Thief  is a lavish production, very colorful and big (the film as a 1:85:1 ratio, despite being shot on 35mm film). Cary Grant is in fine form, and Grace Kelly is brilliant as Frances. But the film has always felt very slow to me. Still, if you’ve never seen it – it is a must-see, a classic film of romantic suspense.

Recommendation:  See it!
Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars
Next Film:  Tomorrow Never Dies

North by Northwest – photoset – Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint

Apparently the only role that will satisfy you is when I play dead.

North By Northwest (1959)

Suspicion

  • Title:  Suspicion
  • Director:  Alfred Hitchcock
  • Studio:  RKO Radio Pictures
  • Date:  1941
  • Genre:  Mystery, Film Noir, Drama
  • Cast:  Cary Grant, Joan Fontaine, Leo G. Carroll, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Nigel Bruce
  • Format:  B/W, Standard
  • DVD Format:  R1, NTSC

 

“I’m honest because with you I think it’s the best way to get results.” — Johnnie
 
“Monkey-face, I’ve been broke all my life!” — Johnnie
Suspicion starts like any light romantic comedy.  Johnnie (Cary Grant) meets Lina on a train and tries to pick her up, but she’s unimpressed.  They run into each other again at a fox hunt.  He talks her for a walk on a Sunday, and makes a date for later that afternoon.  Lina announces this to her parents, but he breaks their date for that afternoon, and for a week, Lina is miserable because she hasn’t seen him in so long.  However, he returns just in time for the hunt ball.  Very soon after, Lina sneaks out of  her parents house and the two are married at the registry office.  The two go on a whirl-wind European honeymoon, then return to a new house – where Lina discovers that Johnnie has no money.
Suddenly, instead of a light romance, the film resembles Gaslight.  Over and over, Lina picks up on her husband acting weirdly, or suspiciously.  But she has no proof, no idea what’s really going on, and every time Johnnie’s money troubles seem to catch up with him, he suddenly comes up with the money he needs (such as a £2000 pound windfall that Johnnie claims he got from the track).  Lina notices her husband is fascinated with detective and murder stories… but at first thinks nothing of  it.  But when Johnnie’s dear friend, Beaky, dies under mysterious circumstances, Lina goes to their mutual friend Isobel, a mystery writer.  Isobel talks about her recent mystery, where a man causes another man to walk over a weakened foot bridge and fall to his death.  Isobel says that morally it’s murder if the first man knew the bridge was weak.  She then casually says “It’s the same with Johnnie’s friend, Beaky.”  Beaky had died after drinking a large amount of brandy in a drinking contest – despite his allergy to brandy.  Lina freaks at this, because she knows that Johnnie knows about Beaky’s allergy, and that Beaky would sometimes still drink brandy even though it caused him to have fits, and trouble breathing.  Later, Isobel, her husband, Lina, Johnny, and a strange blond woman dressed as a man have a dinner party.  Johnnie’s dinner conversation though not only focuses on murder but on untraceable poisons.  Lina’s so freaked she won’t let him into her bedroom that night.
Things finally come to a head when Lina decides to go home to spend a few days with her mother.  Johnnie insists on driving her.  On a winding road, Lina thinks he’s trying to kill her, but he pulls her back into the car, then yells at her.  When they talk, Lina comes to the conclusion that Johnnie was considering suicide as a way out of his money problems, and for her to get his insurance money to settle his debts for once and for all.  Lina throws herself  into his arms, and they drive back towards their house.
In Gaslight, Ingrid Bergman gradually comes to realize that her husband is a criminal who only married her to have access to the empty house next to hers, where he thinks there’s a treasure.  The husband manipulates his wife, trying to make her think she’s going insane – and she’s only saved at the last minute by a kind policeman.
Suspicion is much more unsettling.  Cary Grant is very menacing – and switches from his “happy go lucky”, “everything is fine” personality to someone who is truly scary like lightening.  He clearly seems to not only not want to work, but to only have a talent for losing money – and he routinely borrows money to pay off his most insistent debtors.  Yet, at the same time, Joan Fontaine’s Lina, seems almost paranoid.  We see her getting little pieces of evidence that her husband’s up to no good, such as when she goes to visit him at his office, and learns from his employer and a family friend (played brilliantly by Leo G. Carroll) that Johnnie was fired weeks ago after £2000 went missing from the business.  But each time she finds something out, he has an explanation and she forgives him and realizes that she loves him.
What makes the film brilliant is that because of Grant’s superb acting, and the way he flips back-and-forth between menace and light-hearted kindness, one is never sure of his motives.  Does he want to kill his wife for her money?  It doesn’t appear so, he never actually does anything to her.  Yet, at the same time, he’s almost slimy in the way that he always has an answer for everything.  At times, Lina seems very alone, but at others she has no problem going out – she visits Isobel with no problems, and sees other friends who seem jealous of  her relationship with Johnnie.  Suspicion is a masterful, and short (only 99 minutes) film with no concrete endings.  I highly recommend it.
Recommendation:  See it!
Rating:  5 of  5 Stars
Next Film:  Swing Time

The Philadelphia Story

  • Title:  The Philadelphia Story
  • Director:  George Cukor
  • Date:  1940
  • Studio:  MGM
  • Genre:  Romance, Comedy
  • Cast:  Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, James Stewart
  • Format:  Black and White, Standard
  • DVD Format:  R1, NTSC

The film opens with Katherine Hepburn throwing out Cary Grant.  Two years later, newspaper headlines announce the upcoming wedding of Tracy Lord (Hepburn) to a man named “George”.  Tracy is a spoiled, self-centered, upper crust, old money, Philadelphia socialite.  She’s recently estranged from her father, because he’s recently had an affair with a New York dancer.

Grant, an alcoholic playboy, returns to Philadelphia from two years abroad, because he wants to re-kindle his relationship with her, and stop her wedding.  However, he’s not completely obvious about what he wants.

Stewart’s a newspaperman, a reporter, who dreams of being a real writer, and has written one book of short stories.  But he’s currently working at a gossip magazine, and is paired with a female photographer. He’s bribed to cover Tracy’s wedding.

Grant and Stewart arrive at Tracy’s — however, the pacing of the film is slow, much slower than is needed for the type of “screwball” romantic comedy that Cukor is trying to build.  I think the film may have been better off in the hands of Howard Hawks.  Or, for a melancholy feel, Billy Wilder.  But in Cukor’s hands, it clunks along.

There are some very funny, witty, clever lines of  dialogue — but there’s also scenes that make one wince, such as Grant insulting Hepburn until she cries — and he’s supposed to be in Philadelphia to woo her back?

Hepburn, meanwhile, starts off as a nearly liberated woman, wearing silky pantsuits, and telling her mother and younger sister, that she dis-invited her father from the wedding because of his affair.

Meanwhile, Hepburn ends up having an illuminating conversation, not to mention a few kisses with James Stewart, while she’s drunk.  The next day, her wedding day, she can’t remember exactly what she did.  At first, evidence suggests she slept with Stewart, which ticks off her fiance’, George.  However, Stewart clears the air by explaining nothing happened.  George forgives Hepburn — but, to her credit, she doesn’t forgive him for jumping to conclusions about her and she cancels the wedding.  Then, as she’s announcing this to the guests — Grant, who’s feeding her lines to make the embarrassing situation more graceful, proposes.  She accepts, and the wedding goes on — with Hepburn marrying Grant.  It’s also suggested that Stewart’s female photographer should marry him, so at least Stewart isn’t left in the cold.

The problem with the film — well, it’s almost like a updated “Taming of  the Shrew“.  Yes, Tracy Lord is a spoiled, pampered woman who has difficulty expressing her emotions, and thus seems to be an ice queen.  She compared to a “goddess” several times in the film, and never favorably.  However, her abilities at horseback riding, swimming, and sailing suggest she’s a true “outdoorsy” woman — and a woman who doesn’t need a man, she needs to be allowed to do her own thing, probably in a career.  I also felt she had much better on-screen chemistry with Stewart’s character, a nearly penniless writer, than Grant’s — who’s also a spoiled playboy.  Tracy and Dexter (Grant) had split before because they grew bored with each other, and her coldness drove Dexter to drink (his drying out is a sub-plot of  the film), but there’s no reason to believe they won’t tire of each other again.  Stewart, meanwhile, is an “every man” sort, as always, but his honesty would keep Tracy on her toes, and she probably wouldn’t get bored of  him.  And, should she start to take advantage of him — he’d call her on it.  I could also see Stewart prodding her into opening some type of writing or artsy-related business, such as a publishing house, art gallery, or artist’s colony.  Not that Tracy’s an artist, but she does have a head for business, and she seems genuinely interested in Stewart’s book, not just flattering him.

There are a couple of misses in the film as well – Tracy’s ill-fated second husband-to-be really should have been played by Ralph Bellamy– we know she’s not going to marry him, the romantic triangle is between Hepburn, Grant and Stewart, so why not cast the guy who never gets the girl?  Howard Hawks would have been a better directing choice — and would have ramped-up the pacing of  the film.  The scenes with fast dialogue are some of  the best, but at 112 minutes the film runs a little long, and drags in places.  Hawks could have speeded up the dialogue and the plot (such as in his wonderful His Girl Friday).  And, as much as I like Grant – I don’t think the film works with the plot of Tracy Lord going back to her first husband.  On the one hand it makes her look like an on-screen Elizabeth Taylor, and on the other it seems terribly old-fashioned, almost as if to suggest a woman can’t really be divorced.

Recommendation:  Worth seeing, but at times slow.
Rating:  3 out of  5 Stars
Next Film:  The Princess Bride

Notorious

  • Title:  Notorious
  • Director:  Alfred Hitchcock
  • Date:  1946
  • Studio:  RKO
  • Genre:  Drama, Film Noir
  • Cast:  Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, Claude Rains
  • Format:  Standard, Black and White
  • DVD format:  R1, NTSC, (Criterion Collection, single disc)

“Waving the flag with one hand and picking pockets with the other, that’s your patriotism.”  — Alicia

“I’ve always been scared of women, but I get over it.” — Devlin

In Hitchcock’s Notorious, Ingrid Bergman plays Alicia, whose father’s been tried for treason, found guilty and jailed.  We later learned that he “died in his cell”, which is only marginally better than “shot while trying to escape”.  Bergman is indifferent to her father’s death, knowing he was a traitor (or as he put it in a recorded conversation – loyal to Germany and his own pocket) – but seems apolitical.  She is, however, a hopeless alcoholic, even driving drunk.  She meets Devlin at one of her parties, and quickly discovers he’s an American agent.  He brings her to his bosses to use as an agent.  Reluctantly, she agrees and the two fly off to Rio.  It’s interesting to note that Alicia’s friends had also wanted her to take a vacation, but suggested Cuba!!!  Anyway, once in Rio, Alicia and Devlin discover what the job is that Devlin’s un-named agency wants her to do.  She’s to become romantically involved with Claude Rains’ character, a man she knew as a young girl, and someone who seems to be supporting some shady scientists, though to what end is unknown – that is what Alicia is to find out.  Devlin isn’t happy about Alicia’s assignment, because the two have fallen for each other. Alicia, however, agrees.  She quickly forms an attachment to Rains — and even marries him.  Devlin, meanwhle, becomes her handler – but gets more and more angry to see the woman he loves with another man.

Despite it’s fantastic cast – Notorious is a very, very slow moving film.  Yes, the tension does build up, especially when Rains’ mother discovers Alicia is an agent and begins to poison her coffee, but the pacing is so slow as to be irritating instead of suspenseful.  I actually found Rains to be the most fun – it’s nice to see him in a juicy “bad guy” role as opposed the to lighter characters he normally plays.  Bergman is excellent as the newly minted tough-as-nail agent, but her easy submission into taking the poisoned coffee (and not realizing there might be a reason she feels so sick) undercuts her strong woman personna.  Grant, of course, rescues her at the end, but the film still has a strange ending (they leave the house, but we don’t know, for sure, if Grant got to her in time for the poisoning to be reversed).  All in all – I think Notorious is a good example of a film that would work better as a TV series.  I’d have loved to see a pair of secret agents – one male, one female, who gradually fall for each other – and eventually marry.  It could be especially interesting if the woman still must “honeytrap” other spies as part of her job.  A TV series, however, could gradually work the relationship of  “Alicia” and “Devlin” — making it more realistic, as well as dealing with the difficulties of a couple in such a dangerous profession.

But, getting back to the film, Grant is fantastic in Notorious – giving a subtle performance, and projecting a core of steel and violence.  I loved that.

Overall, though Notorious has it’s good points and an excellent cast, it’s like a novel by a great writer who needs an editor and without one writes books which are overly long.  The film really needed to be tightened up, the pacing improved, and the ending needs to be more concrete and less confusing.  Still, I would recommend it.

Recommendation:  See it.
Rating:  3.5 out of 5 Stars
Next Film:  The Philadelphia Story