Archive for October, 2010

Week 43: ‘The Wrong Man’ – 1957

October 30, 2010

Following the Technicolor vividness of ‘To Catch a Thief’, ‘Rear Window’ and ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’ and the pastoral beauty of ‘The Trouble with Harry’, at the height of his 1950’s power and freedom – what does the great man decide to do? Make a quiet, rather downbeat drama of a man wronged…in very 40’s style black and white. It would seem at this point of his career if he approached the studios and requested a couple of million to produce a drama in a shoe box featuring two mice and a claw hammer the moolah would be in the cooler immediately. Good for him. And it’s shot 1.85:1 – this and 2.35:1 widescreen always look very elegant in black and white (so familiar is the earlier decades’ 1.33:1 ratio).

‘The Wrong Man’ is the sole movie Alfred Hitchcock made with the great Henry Fonda – Fonda as big a star as Grant or Stewart but perhaps lacking some of the lightness of their touch. Here he plays musician Christopher Emanuel Balestrero (known to most as ‘Manny’)* as the eponymous man – who finds himself the centre of a murder scenario with his family and professional life rapidly sinking down the pan. His wife, Rose  (played by Vera Miles, who will later appear in ‘Psycho’) needs her teeth fixed, he goes to get an advance at the insurance office and is promptly fingered for an armed robbery from the year before. Bum rap, Manny.

The picture hits the ground pretty speedily and plays for its first few minutes virtually as a silent movie, Manny finishing up late at work (the nightclub he performs in becoming more and more sparse as the titles progress) and travelling home. A nice trick shot has the camera following him through his house door – very smoothly done (this is repeated later in the picture). He is then promptly whisked into a world of police stations and suspicion, people staring at him to see if his face matches the armed robber. Manny is suitably naïve and helpful in all this, genuinely helping the cops and setting himself up for his fall.

It’s all well paced and swift with the minimum of fuss and dialogue – the black and white photography of Robert Burks adding to the bleak feel of the whole thing.

The interrogation and booking of Manny is well handled, it takes its time and lets you see the procedures that are gone through – culminating in Manny being locked in a cell. He has a permanently haunted and lost expression through all of this, believing that his honesty and innocence will get him through – whereas the only place it gets him is banged up and accused.

Fonda is great at conveying Manny’s docile personality, the authorities closing in on him ever tighter. As he takes his hat to his cell, a sweat mark is visible on the top of it – maybe even a filmmaker’s accident but, regardless, a neat little touch to suggest that beneath his calmness he is boiling.

As Manny realizes the harsh reality of his situation, Hitchcock pulls out a very bizarre camera move to express his dizziness. As he stands facing camera, eyes shut, the camera starts to spin in a circular motion with ever increasing speed until we fade to black. It’s not only unusual but completely out of whack with the rest of what we have seen in the film. It works well but feels a little like the director wants to get something more interesting into the camerawork than the rather more standard and solid fare up to now. It reminded me of the whip pan filled auction scene in ‘The Skin Game’ in its incongruity.

The procedural stuff continues as Manny is arraigned, cuffed and taken in a black maria to more cells and the mood is bleak and black, he now realizing fully the extent of his troubles. Close ups of handcuffs, shots of shoes and Fonda staring all add to the downward spiral.

It’s very atmospheric and, in its stark – almost documentary – style, dreadful and horrific. Another trick shot pops up as Manny is locked up in the real jail, a fast and effective zoom through the viewing slot in his metal cell door.

Music comes in and the die is cast…but just as he is confronted by the cell bars: hope! He has been bailed and is released to the loving arms of Rose.

Rose’s escalating madness is well handled, it beginning when they discover that a key alibi witness has since died – she cackling maniacally at this news. Her guilt over being the source of the whole problem (her wisdom teeth, not so wise in this case) powers her descent into catatonia and Vera Miles acts it all deftly and subtly, without resorting to too much ham. Their meeting with their pro bono lawyer Frank D. O’Connor (the great Anthony Quayle**) sees Rose staring into space and then Manny and O’Connor start to twig that a sandwich may have been snaffled from her picnic box.

Hitchcock pulls out a classic profile shot of Rose for emphasis as O’Connor looks at her, Bernard Herrmann’s music creeping in to ramp up the sinister.

Hitchcock’s Catholic side is never far away in his pictures, and wrongly accused people are always dominant:

Rose: ‘No matter how innocent you are, or how hard you try – they’ll find you guilty’

She states plainly to a concerned Manny. This scene culminates in one of the most action based and unrestrained scenes in the film – Rose grabbing a large hair brush and striking Manny on the forehead, simultaneously cracking a mirror.

Manny’s reflection is shattered in two to mirror his own life. Fantastic. Seven years bad luck too, just when they don’t need that in their lives. She’s admitted to a sanatorium with a typically Hitchcockian staircase to welcome her.

The courtroom scenes nicely break from tradition – yes, they cover all the salient points but repeatedly cut to Manny’s expression. At one point he observes the lawyers in the courtroom – one seemingly cracking a joke, another idly doodling: for them it’s a job of work, another day at the office, for Manny it will decide the fate of his family and future. Manny is not a clever man but he is moral and decent and looks disbelieving as the others in the court don’t seem to realize the magnitude of what is happening to him.  When one of the jurors causes a mistrial O’Connor asks him if he can go through it all again – and you wonder if he actually can do it, mentally.

And just at his lowest ebb, him praying to a Christ portrait in his home, Hitchcock pulls out a classic dissolve. Manny in close up, his expression almost religious, and The Right Man walking up to camera until their faces are overlapped onscreen.

A perfect storytelling technique, audacious and clever. When we see this guy try to rob another store, the ballsy shop keeper grabs a knife and bashes her heel on the floor, her husband then overpowering the Fonda-a-like.

The happy ending, with a caption stating that the mentally (and dentally) damaged Rose eventually was completely cured of her illness, gives the picture a slight upswing but it is all pretty bleak. ‘The Wrong Man’ is based on a true story and this fact does give the film a greater weight and believability. You really feel for this couple, just struggling their way through life and then the rug gets yanked away from under them – totally unfair and they’re left bereft and damaged by the end. It’s a downward spiral for the most part and at times uncomfortable to watch. I can’t say it’s an enjoyable experience but is certainly worthy. Its depiction of the (in)justice system in all its inevitable machinations is convincing and suitably scary – he’s the wrong man(ny) in the wrong place at the wrong time, and you feel for him every haunted step of the way.

Miscellaneous notes

Hitchcock uniquely appears in a speaking role here – as an introductory narrator to the film beautifully silhouetted in a large sound studio in the distance (indeed, it may actually not be him, just his voice).

*Manny plays the double bass – there it is again, the suggestion of a doppelganger, a dominating preoccupation. See ‘Strangers on a Train’ where the director himself heaves the same instrument on board.

**I love Anthony Quayle. He’s not much spoken about but is as good a character actor as someone like Harry Andrews, not a star but always strong and dependable. Check out ‘Ice Cold in Alex’ (wow!) or the magnificent Rutger Hauer red wine fest ‘The Legend of the Holy Drinker’ (double wow! wow!). Marvellous fella.


Week 42: ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’ – 1956

October 23, 2010

Unique in Hitchcock’s career is this remake of his own 1934 minor classic, ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’. This 1956 version boasts multi country locations and star power that its predecessor lacked – James Stewart and Doris Day as the innocent couple (Ben and Jo McKenna) who find themselves embroiled in an international terrorist ring and pay for their nose-poking with the kidnap of their young son, Hank (Christopher Olsen).

‘A single crash of cymbals and how it rocked the lives of an American family’

So states the opening caption before we launch into this twisty turny tale of terrorism. The family take in the sights of Marrakech and then witness a stabbing, Dr. Ben helping the victim, Louis Bernard (Daniel Gelin), and being given some illicit information. Ben’s knowledge of an impending assassination leads to Hank’s kidnapping and an increasingly fraught journey to get him back – culminating in said Albert Hall based cymbal crash and Jo’s scream saving the target from death.

I didn’t quite buy that any parents would let their young son go off to be taken care of by another couple that they have only just met – a slight plot flaw that has to happen to get shot of Hank and ramp the whole thing up (ok, they spent some time with the other Mr. and Mrs.  the previous evening but I certainly wouldn’t do this with one of mine – probably different times). Ben is even confused why this other couple, Edward and Lucy Drayton (played by Bernard Miles and  the equally shifty Brenda de Banzie) are even party to the fact of the kidnapping, surely enough to give him pause before passes his child over to them?

Like ‘To Catch A Thief’ there’s an interesting mixture of location and rear projection scenes – slickly done but, as usual, fairly obvious. It’s pretty distracting as the actors literally start on location, walk out of shot and then appear against rear projection. And yes, I know this is a budgetary thing and they didn’t have time on location and it’s cheaper in the studio and maybe there were shots that were then needed post the location shoot (although with Hitchcock’s reputation as the arch storyboarder, probably not) but it’s still weird and derails the enjoyment a little.

There is an element of light heartedness in the early stages of the picture before it all goes south (they are a family on holiday after all) – Stewart allowing his height to be joked upon by having to curl himself into some low slung Moroccan seating in the restaurant. I also liked Jo with her suspicious nature, causing a little marital frisson with Ben. She picks up very quickly that they are being watched by the dodgy Mr. and Mrs. Drayton and also notices Louis Bernard chatting amiably to the very Arab guy that they previously had a bit of a spat with. Bernard is fishy from the outset, all too convenient the way they meet on the coach (an accident involving Hank and a Muslim woman’s veil) – although this would then reveal itself as a mistake as the dodgy couple Bernard is supposed to hook up with is the Drayton’s, not the McKenna’s.

Ben is much more naïve and trusting, and will obviously be proven wrong in the events that unfold. When the kick off murder occurs, Ben goes up to full speed very fast – Stewart great at showing  a strong steely side to his character – then quickly derailed as he gets the call about Hank’s kidnap. He has a great range of emotions and it’s another clear example of why he is such a star/actor. There’s a lovely camera track round Ben as he takes the fateful phone call telling him Hank is under threat – Bernard Herrmann’s music creeping in to gently reinforce the point. The repeated cut to Ben flicking the pages of the telephone book and cutting back to him slowly realizing the truth are excellent – finally he snaps the pages as if to put a full stop to the situation, and straight back into action he goes.

The murder of Bernard and the passing of the vital info to Ben is well handled, a family’s pleasant holiday sightseeing interrupted by violent death. Ben’s look to his hands – smeared with Bernard’s dark make up disguise – is a classic Hitchcock shot, very unusual but striking and effective.

The whole scene of Jo losing it and having to be drugged by her husband is very well done, Day perfect at expressing a mother’s hysteria. Hitchcock cuts to a great low shot as Ben restrains on the bed (@ 50’51”) and the whole scene is superb. Even better are the scenes later when the couple eventually track Hank down by hearing his whistling in Ambrose Chappell – Jo recovering her steel and composure – and there are wonderful sequences as they doggedly track him down. The final cymbal crashing, Jo screaming Albert Hall set piece is superb – justifiably classic and worth the price of admission alone.

Ben’s diversion off to the incorrect Ambrose Chappell (he assumes it’s a person rather than a building) is well handled and suitably steeped in suspicion. Chappell the younger works with his rather more doddery father (as taxidermists) and when Ben talks to him Chappell is flanked by a stuffed and roaring tiger looming to the left of frame* – giving a suggestion of threat where in reality there is none.

The struggle that then ensues is marvellous, it’s the kind of humour Hitchcock does all too rarely but handles well – a bizarre scene of stuffed animals being brandished about and Ben then getting his arm stuck in the mouth of the tiger before escaping. Very mad, silly and good. This whole suspenseful sequence/buildup and comedy payoff is a complete red herring to the story but a welcome slice of light heartedness to the trauma the parents are going through.

I don’t quite buy that the explaining of when the assassin (Rien – [his name is ‘nothing’!] played by the fantastically creepy Reggie Nalder**) can shoot his target by playing him a record of the music to be performed that evening is quite detailed enough. Drayton literally plays Rien about three seconds of the music before the vital crash and the assassin seems perfectly happy to go out and do his dastardly duty. Personally, I’d know the score inside out if I was going to try to pop a politician like this, maybe that’s just me. Hitchcock does add in a female companion for Rien, who diligently follows the score as the music progresses – but still.

As Ben and Jo find themselves in the congregation at Ambrose Chappell they do a little bit of that ‘talking in tune to the hymn’ that was done so well in the 1934 original with Leslie Banks and Hugh Wakefield – but not nearly as extensive here, which is a shame as it’s a funny technique and works well. The earlier film also had a wildly more destructive and entertaining church scene with pretty much all of the furniture being totally smashed up – whereas here Ben just gets a sound clonk on the head and he’s out for the count.

Hitchcock classic composer Bernard Herrmann appears in person as the conductor in the climactic Albert Hall scene, a nice big poster as Jo approaches the hall boasting his name.

Rien approaches Jo with a sinister: ‘You have a very nice little boy, madam. His safety will depend upon you tonight’ – genuinely chilling at the best of times but, when delivered by the creep meister Reggie Nalder, it would be enough to make you soil your britches.

It puts Jo in an enormous quandary, does she intercede in the assassination or save her son? The tension ramps up as the scene plays out, the music and choir soaring as Jo is more and more torn. The next few minutes play out entirely as a silent movie, Ben more and more frantically trying to gain access to the box housing Rien and the pace of cutting increasing as the music winds up to its high point. All classic and wonderful stuff and a set piece to rival any others in Hitchcock. I liked the brief appearance of Richard Wattis here (playing the assistant manager at the Albert Hall) – he’s one of those British thesps who pops up in loads of films and TV and is generally unsung. Here’s to Richard Wattis, well done.

The final scenes in the Embassy, Jo endlessly singing ‘Que Sera Sera’ as Hank whistles along and Ben searches him out, are effective and exciting – Drayton ready to kill the kid to get everyone out of the mire. Drayton eventually buys it by his own bullet and, in typically rapid Hitchcock fashion, the film ends fast – but with a nice coda back at the McKenna’s hotel where their guests from an age before are all sparko on chairs and sofas:

‘I’m sorry we were gone so long – we had to go over and pick up Hank!’

Says Ben brightly, as if nothing had happened.

The film is at times a bit creaky, with the usual mixture of questionable rear projections and location shots, the story sometimes veering around and not standing up to too close analysis, but all in all it’s a good old yarn and very entertaining. The parents’ genuine feel of desperation at their lost son is well depicted and acted, a high crane shot closing in on them as they talk to Hank for the first time. The slight tacking on of the inevitable Doris Day toon ‘Que Sera Sera’ seems slightly out of whack with other proceedings but it does give the makers a device to get the McKenna’s into the embassy and also plays with sound nicely with Hank having to whistle to be found by his father. There may well have been some kind of contractual thing to do with Doris Day also, and it’s a pretty classic song.

Stewart and Day are top notch – Day in particular rising above her traditional persona of the more light comedic roles she is often associated with, her impassioned singing as they finally find Hank impressively done. ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’ is a fascinating curio when stood next to its namesake, and well worth watching as a double bill. I don’t think either of them completely succeed and neither are amongst my favourite Hitchcock’s – but check them out anyway if you have three and a half hours spare.

Miscellaneous notes

*this kind of animal association will be used to marvellous effect in 1960’s ‘Psycho’.

**Nalder is a great baddie and has a really creepy face, apparently the victim of a mysterious burns incident when younger.

Monsieur le H. popping up in Marrakech market in the opening scenes, back to camera, left of frame – in the crowd watching rear projected tumblers perform.

Week 41: ‘The Trouble with Harry’ – 1956

October 16, 2010

What a bizarre little film. It’s a curious black comedy involving an inconveniently dead body popping up in small town Vermont and the way the locals deal with it. I found the tone of the film very odd and, from a modern standpoint, not particularly funny at all. Saying that, on a second viewing I found the whole thing to be pretty charming, and charmingly pretty too. The vivid colours of Robert Burks’ camerawork really evoke the lovely backdrop of Vermont in autumn and the location/studio shots are amongst the best matched in all of Hitchcock’s movies (ie. there are no dodgy, bluescreened, furry backgrounds).

The Harry of the title turns out to be Harry Worp (Philip Truex), the ex husband of the young and attractive Jennifer Rogers (first film for the then twenty one year old Shirley Maclaine) who lives in the town with her young son, Arnie (Jerry Mathers). Various disposing of the body shenanigans ensue and Harry is actually buried and dug up four times during the course of the picture.

The film lacks any major stars, the only such case in Hitchcock’s 1950’s output. Maclaine was obviously completely new to the screen, John Forsythe (playing the painter Sam Marlowe) mainly a TV actor (both before and after the picture) and Edmund Gwenn way too much of a character actor (not that that’s a bad thing but he wouldn’t have the pull to open a movie).

Forsythe is pretty good as the enthusing and inspired painter, playing well in the scene where he envisages Miss Gravely as some object of glamour (after guessing her age at 58, then being told by her she is 42 – smooth). I don’t quite buy that all his artistic bluster and distraction causes him to blank the clearly rich old gent who pulls up in his chauffeur driven car and shows interest in his paintings, but there you go.

The initial discovery of the body is well done, Arnie playing with his toy gun and hearing real gunshots – a great composition as he emerges between the enormous foreshortened feet of the dead Harry.

Edmund Gwenn as Captain Wilde I like a lot, veteran as he is of many earlier Hitchcock’s. But he does seem a bit at sea here (pardon the sailing pun) – talking to himself when he first finds Harry in order to get across his thoughts, a technique which just seems slightly contrived.

There’s a real dark humour to the film that is enjoyable, Miss Graveley (Mildred Natwick) prodding the deceased to check he’s dead. She’s a game old bird, inviting the Captain over for muffins in a bid to woo him. Throughout the film there’s a lot of this kind of double entendre titter-ye-not-ness. Most famously is when Sam stating quite openly to Jennifer that he wants to paint her in the nude – quite the scandal at the time of release. The dialogue in the picture is one of the best parts – the script peppered with little one liners that make you smile:

Jennifer: ‘He looked exactly the same when he was alive, except he was vertical’.

The Captain: ‘Marriage is a good way to spend the winter’.

Forsyth (about Miss Graveley): ‘Do you realise you’ll be the first man to…cross her threshold?’
The Captain (also referring to Miss G.): ‘She’s a very well preserved woman…and preserves have to be opened someday’

The film is one of the most static in all of Hitchcock’s work – in the sense that the camera pretty much is locked off on the action, and will only move to follow actors as they move about the frame. For this reason, the whole thing feels very play-like and theatrical – dialogue delivered in longish scenes. Not a bad thing but an interesting exercise for a director who was so adept at exploring innovative camera techniques for so long.

As the plot thickens, the local deputy (Calvin Wiggs, played by the fantastically named Royal Dano) spots Sam’s sketch of the dead Harry but you kind of know that there isn’t going to be any great threat to the community in a film of this kind.

There is a pretty perfunctory investigation to the whole affair and we slowly realize that each of the main cast have some reason to have bumped Harry off.

The story ramps up as they stash the corpse in Jennifer’s house, Deputy Wiggs comes sniffing around and various close shaves ensure. Harry is dumped in the bath and the local Doc. Greenbow (already a rather confused fellow – played by Dwight Marfield) eventually checks him and says he died of a heart seizure, so no-one is to blame. This is all nicely farcical and ridiculous, and lightly played by all the cast. There’s some rapid dialogue in these scenes to match their fast thinking and it’s all sweet and charming.

A nice little touch of the Captain snoozing in a chair with the shadow of Harry’s feet on the wall behind him and the repeated closet door opening with creepy music sting suggests some kind of a haunting, both nice touches – as is the Captain’s expression of surprise on finding out the true reason for Harry’s death:

The Captain: ‘Well, I‘ll take a trip to the Philippines’

The whole film then neatly goes full circle with them replacing Harry where they found him, ending on a chuckle about a double bed – sweet and satisfying.

This was the first film that Hitchcock collaborated with the composer Bernard Herrmann, and the score is really enjoyable. Parts of it reminded me of Herrmann’s later soundtrack to ‘Cape Fear’ (both the original from 1962 and the Scorsese remake, his music reworked by Elmer Bernstein) – big stabby descending notes of impending doom. There are charmingly light themes in there also, which work well with the pastoral New England backdrop.

The film is undeniably an oddity in all of Hitchcock but, I have to say, it’s pretty enchanting in its own strange way. It kind of has this feeling that you are glimpsing a strange, naive world that has never really existed but you’d like it to – preoccupations with blueberry muffins, the size of teacup handles and other day by day domesticity against a backdrop of death and dark humour: quite an intoxicating mix. I would hesitate to recommend it as classic Hitchcock (it’s not) but if you’re in the mood for a relaxing, nostalgic slice of old, weird American innocence it’s well worth a look (this innocence summarized by Sam accepting a load of random gifts for everyone as payment for his paintings, rather than any massive cash reward). The gentle discussion between the Captain and Miss Gravely over tea and muffins about how best to dispose of the inconvenient Harry is perfectly pitched and a summary of the tone of the film. The repeated sly and grim humour, good dialogue and daring innuendo is top notch and consistently entertaining. Herrmann’s score, Burks’ camerawork and Edith Head’s costumes all – as you would expect – wonderful. ‘The Trouble with Harry’ is a weird one, for sure – but good weird rather than ‘Number Seventeen’ waste of time weird.

Miscellaneous notes

I assume the misspelling of ‘Addmitance’ in the P.O. Dept. section of the town store is intentional – good gag, hey?

Monsieur Hitchcock strolls by Sam’s paintings outside, wearing a longish light brown coat.

Nice profile shots of Maclaine and Forsyth about seventy minutes in.

Stylish socks there, Harry, well done.

Week 40: ‘To Catch A Thief’ – 1955

October 8, 2010

In Vistavision Motion Picture High-Fidelity, the opening titles proudly proclaim. This is a lovely piece of Hitchcock-lite, fluffy and romantic, mildly intriguing and exciting – and a great travelogue movie set in the sunny South of France. His two stars have never looked more attractive and the whole enterprise is the sheerest of pleasures to behold.

The opening titles do that ‘posters in a travel agent window’ thing establishing where we are – the text itself very subtly angled onto the window in a neat way.

It’s a simple yarn involving a retired ‘cat’ burglar called John Robie (Cary Grant) and the authorities who are after him for a new spate of thefts. He is far more preoccupied with trying to ensnare wealthy heiress Frances Stevens (the as usual luminous Grace Kelly) than be hassled for what will transpire to be copycat robberies.

The opening sequence is a neat silent movie style – a series of fades up and down of a variety of cat burglaries on the rooftops of France, interspersed with various hysterical jewellery-lacking women. I liked the cat claw scratch marks on the newspaper in Robie’s hilltop villa, a little touch but tidy.

Robie is terribly smooth – his opening escape from the cops by having his housekeeper speed away after a random gunshot is great, wrong footing the cops perfectly.

I love this kind of sleight of hand stuff – making you believe one thing whilst something quite different is actually occurring. The car chase seems a good excuse to show the audience a bunch of wide shots of  France from helicopters but is enjoyable enough as a diversion*.

There’s an interesting mixture of back projection and genuine shots in the picture, with some very brief blue screened shots. Grant and Kelly are clearly on location in many scenes, whereas others scream trickery (the picnic scene in particular). There is also some very questionable sync (especially on Robie’s old resistance chum Bertani, played by Charles Vanel, who couldn’t speak any English at all) and Robie’s fine striped top in many scenes plays a kind of havoc with the TV horizontal lines – but all of this is small potatoes in a well crafted tale of this quality.

Robert Burks’ photography throughout is vivid and attractive – especially the flower market scene where Robie first meets H.H. Hughson (the suave John Williams from ‘Dial M for Murder’). The chase that ensues in the flower market is very well done – sleek backwards dollying resembling the fluidity of Steadicam as Hitchcock cuts between Robie and Houston and their pursuers. It all kicks off in a nicely humorous scene involving Robie being beaten with flowers by an old French lady – pretty broad, but good fun.

The vivid colour also appears magnificently in the end masked ball scene – an absolute gem of an opportunity to present multicoloured loveliness, taken full advantage of by the director and his DoP.

Robie and Hughson have lunch and, my word, does the guest get his wine glass topped up a lot – in the space of 60 seconds he has three refills and starts in on a second bottle – and there’s a third ready in the ice bucket! This despite Hughson‘s protestations of ‘not in the middle of the day’ as his glass drifts toward the proferred bottle. The lunch the pair of them enjoy is a good summary of the mood of the film – Robie serving Hughson the novelty of Quiche Lorraine and the latter saying the pastry is ‘as light as air’ – Robie then revealing that his housekeeper strangled a German general with the same hands that kneaded the dough: it’s a light scene underlined with a drop shadow.

Robie’s entrée to the circle of Frances and her chatterbox mother (played by Jessie Royce Landis, who will later appear in ‘North by Northwest’ playing Grant’s own mother) is slick – dropping a roulette 10,000 franc piece down the bodice of a French lady. The following drinks scene has a distinctive Hitchcock profile shot of Frances and features some good dialogue from the slightly tipsy Jessie, after quizzing Robie why he hasn’t made a pass at her daughter:

Mum: ‘…sorry I ever sent her to that finishing school, I think they finished her there’

And Francis’ last minute spontaneous kiss on Robie is nice and surprising – her rebelling at mom saying she is too nice. Grant’s expression of surprise is lovely also following this.

This kiss is a precursor to one of the most outrageous and camp love scenes in all of Hitchcock. Frances invites Robie to her room, determined to get him to admit his true identity (he has been masquerading as a Mr. Burns) and, of course, seduce her (although, as the scene is played out, quite the opposite happens). There follows some slinky chat from Frances and Robie holding it together for a remarkably long time, considering what’s on offer (thousands of dollars worth of diamonds laid around her svelte neck):

Even in this light I can tell where your eyes are looking’, she says, as Robie moves in close. ‘Look, John, hold them…’

As Robie and Frances kiss lingeringly Hitchcock cuts to ever increasing and more chaotic (and hilarious) fireworks until the climactic thunderstorm of explosions is perfect to express their orgasmic passion. It’s even funnier than the ‘train into tunnel’ shot from ‘North by Northwest’ four years later. Very good though.

The figure of Danielle (Brigitte Auber), daughter of Foussard (Jean Martinelli, who ends up being killed by mistake under suspicion of being the cat), is interesting and seems fairly peripheral but then becomes centre stage as she is revealed as the real imitation cat. You feel kind of sorry for her, with her boyish looks and obvious crush on/past history with Robie – him: ‘you are just a girl, she is a woman’ – she’s no competition for the vivacious Frances. The catty exchange between the two women when they first meet in the water is pleasantly bitchy ‘she looks a lot older up close’ says Danielle, then Frances retorts ‘to a mere child, anything over twenty must seem old’. There seems to be a little improv going on here – Cary Grant appearing to get the giggles at one point – all of which is very charming and attractive.

The heavily rear projected car chase sequence is playful but exciting, a sometimes crazed selection of shots using overcranked camera, rapid cutting and some distinctive Hitchcock compositions (Robie’s hands clutching his legs from above, as an example). The flirty couple eventually shake their pursuers thanks to a chicken crossing the road and then pull over for their (different) chicken and beer based picnic:

Frances: ‘Do you want a leg or a breast?’

Robie: ‘You choose’**

Say no more. This picnic is a pretty convincing eating scene, as was the earlier luncheon with Hughson at Robie’s villa. Very often in films people eating doesn’t look at all convincing but in both these cases they do seem to be actually consuming their food and drink, which is impressive given this latter scene is in a fairly long take with chicken legs/chewing/beer bottles all having to be negotiated around lengthy dialogue – both of them are top notch at doing this and it passes that food/movie test of actually making you want to eat/drink what they are having (see the mattresses/pasta scene in ‘The Godfather’ or the ‘apple pie with melted yellow cheese’ in ‘Taxi Driver’).

The climactic rooftop exposing of Danielle, Robie gripping her hand to stop her falling – forcing a confession out of her –  is pretty exciting and well done. Robie is steely and determined to clear his name from the frame, Frances finally turning up at Robie’s villa, the two united towards some kind of future together.

‘To Catch a Thief’ is an enjoyable romp, beautiful people gallivanting around in beautiful locations in a slightish story – but there’s nothing wrong with that. Grant and Kelly make a very attractive couple (even given the age difference of 26 years in reality).

It’s thoroughly entertaining and, although not in the super league of Hitchcock, a definite must see and will enjoy.

Miscellaneous notes

*And when Robie casually boards the local bus he is seated next to his deadpan director.

**Apparently this dialogue was an improvisation.

It’s often said that the car chase scene takes place on some of the same roads that, in 1982, Grace Kelly would be involved in her fatal car crash.