That’s not a serious crime, don’t get me wrong. As I said at the outset, this is indeed a “hangout” picture. Simple pleasures are genuine pleasures just the same. But To Catch a Thief can be downright tedious in segments and it’s only mildly entertaining quite a bit of the rest of the time. That’s the point I was trying to get across earlier. You argued that “a few minutes of thrilling screen time can pretty easily counterbalance a half-hour of less satisfying moments,” and I don’t disagree in principle. But I wonder if the take-away “greatness” of To Catch a Thief is evidence of something else: the importance of finishing on a high note. Rightly or wrongly, most moviegoers are tremendously forgiving of a lackluster first 30 minutes so long as the final 30 minutes deliver thrills. The conclusion of To Catch a Thief doesn’t exactly pack a wallop, at least not by Hitchcock’s standards, but it’s a back-heavy film, no question about it. Even the final moment is one of its best, when we realize that the film’s title refers less to Robie’s nabbing of Danielle than to Francie’s nabbing of Robie, a quintessential Hitchcock gag.
I’ve always been torn over the added weight given to a film’s conclusion. On the one hand it’s perfectly justifiable: a movie’s early scenes are setting the stage for something later; they aren’t necessarily meant to fulfill in and of themselves, but ultimately they’re an integral part of a film’s success. On other hand, beginning or end, it’s all the same movie, and thus praising an otherwise lackluster film for the strength of its final act is just as problematic as condemning a mostly outstanding film for an arguably awkward conclusion. All of that said, it would be incorrect to imply that the first half of To Catch a Thief is truly expendable, but I don’t think this is a case in which the opening half of a picture is integral to the pleasures of its second half.
EH: To me, there’s no question that a truly great film should be satisfying more or less the whole way through and, as you say, To Catch a Thief doesn’t meet that test at all. On the other hand, there’s a solid half-hour, maybe even an hour, of entertaining and enjoyable material here, once the opening exposition is dispensed with and Hitchcock delivers one dazzling Grant/Kelly scene after another leading up to a denouement that’s perhaps not thrilling as a solution to the (non-)mystery but is thrilling in its romance and its artificial visual beauty. Part of that is the intrinsic appeal of Grant and Kelly, of course, but that doesn’t invalidate the pleasure of seeing these Ur-glamorous megastars trading all those sexually charged lines.
I think it’s easy to underestimate how much of that is Hitchcock, too. He’s not often thought of as an actor’s director—he did famously compare his stars to cattle, after all—but there are few directors who could get as much from a star persona. Grant and Kelly aren’t exactly delivering complex performances here; they’re channeling their celebrity aura into these characters, making the characters charming and exciting and interesting merely by virtue of the people playing them. Compare the Hitchcock films with Grant, Kelly, James Stewart, and Ingrid Bergman, and the ones with outrageous villains like Joseph Cotten or Anthony Perkins, to the ones where he was unable to cast a big, charismatic star, and you can often feel that subtle absence, no matter how many other pleasures the films might offer. Like you say, Hitchcock creates this atmosphere where it’s enjoyable just to watch these people walking around, watching Robie/Grant surreptitiously surveying the estate, and Francie/Kelly doing that sidelong smirk she does so well, mysterious in its meaning, both sweet and knowingly ironic. The characters and the actors are inseparable, and it’s a delight to spend time with them.
Maybe that’s a relatively minor success, in the grand scheme of things, and Hitchcock has undoubtedly made many more sophisticated and substantial films. Still, you could do worse than this elaborate excuse to photograph exquisite French countryside vistas (with some stunning helicopter shots in the early car chase) and admire two of classic Hollywood’s most glamorous stars. There’s an attention to detail, too, that suggests that even in a lazy vacation picture like this, Hitchcock’s visual imagination was always firing on all cylinders. My favorite example: the subtle rhyming between the famous, if peripheral, moment where Jessie puts out a cigarette in an egg, and the earlier shot where the angry kitchen staff throws an egg at Robie, shattering against a window and forming an abstract smear blotting out his face. And of course all the other structural rhymes and embedded gags: the cops getting held up first by sheep, then by chickens, the chicken breasts and legs at the picnic, the down-the-blouse shot of a woman’s breasts as Robie plots to drop his gambling chip into her cleavage, Francie saying “hold them” as she hands Robie her… necklace. For me, it’s so easy to just pretend the film’s weaker moments never happened because there’s so much else here that makes me laugh with pure delight. And I still haven’t even gotten to the pivotal fireworks scene.
JB: I think we agree on the film’s pleasures. I just seem to be more irritated by the dry patches in between. As I said previously, those more tedious moments tend to be any scenes not including Grace Kelly. I mean, good lord, what an amazing presence she has! I’m not sure any actress has ever been so effortlessly gorgeous or loveable (and, yes, I’m considering Audrey Hepburn). Furthermore, I can’t think of another actress who could be so daintily feminine while so convincingly mixing it up with the boys. The car chase is a terrific example: Kelly’s Francie wears a sheer pink top and scarf, looking like she’s dressed for Easter brunch, as she puts pedal to the metal to elude the police, an unconcerned smile on her face, all while Grant’s Robie cringes in the passenger’s seat. Every time I watch this movie I marvel at how truly girlish Francie is in that scene and yet I never doubt her tenacity or courage. Saying this, I fear that I come off like some kind of caveman who thinks that it’s impossible to be both “ladylike” and “tough,” but that’s not it at all. My amazement stems from the fact that we almost never see this combination at the movies—unless it’s some heroine in a Jane Austen adaptation or an equally plucky young queen who won’t take shit from nobody. In recent years, we’ve seen more of the sculpted, sexualized, cleavage-baring ass-kickers in the mold of G.I. Jane and Lara Croft, etc., but they’re so far removed from Kelly’s Frances “Francie” Stevens, who never stops being rose-petal soft even while she’s digging a thorn into you.
Hitchcock is famous for his universally thrilling suspense, but I think another reason that so many of his films remain so popular today is because of the strength of his female leads—women who are beautiful, bold, daring, smart, girlish and yet rough-and-tumble. Francie might not be quite as macho as Lisa Fremont, her character in Rear Window, who eagerly climbs a fire escape to enter the second-story window of a presumed murderer, but she isn’t far off. In so many Hitchcock movies, women wear the pretty dresses and the metaphorical pants. And even when they are eye-candy victims, like Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane in Psycho, they are almost never meek. (Marion is a thief before she’s a murder victim, remember.) Their glamour and their sexuality aren’t strikes against them. They are women, hear them roar… or purr, or both. Hitchcock heroines could be sexually enticing and predatory, as here: even in the moments when Robie leans in to kiss Francie, she has already implicitly made the first move. Watching this film it occurs to me that if To Catch a Thief were remade today, the depiction of Francie’s gung-ho sexuality would seem almost progressive, would it not?
EH: Well, almost progressive is right. I don’t want to get into the whole Hitchcock misogyny debate, but it seems odd to talk about Hitchcock and women without acknowledging the ambivalence and contradictions about women that are tangled up in his oeuvre. Hitchcock’s women are frequently compelling, but remember that as often as he’s focused on strong-willed, independent women like Francie Stevens and Lisa Fremont, he’s also crafted characters like Tippie Hedron’s titular role in Marnie, a troubled woman who’s controlled and manipulated before heading towards an implied happy ending with the guy who raped her. And even with Kelly’s characters, who never suffer the abuse that Hitchcock heaped upon Hedron in Marnie and The Birds, the “sexually suggestive and predatory” qualities could be seen as both progressive signs of a woman who knows what she wants and the manipulations of a woman trying to trap a man into marriage.
Still, those uglier aspects of Hitchcock’s perspective on women have rarely seemed as remote or as incidental as they do in To Catch a Thief and Rear Window, in part because of Kelly’s natural charm and screen presence, and how perfectly Hitchcock captures the barely restrained mischievous streak behind her elegance. Nowhere is this more apparent than in that famous fireworks scene, which I’ve kept alluding to mainly because I’m so completely bowled over by it. It’s perfection. I love the editing and pacing of it, the way Hitchcock follows Francie around the room as she turns the lights out one by one, gradually letting in that unnatural green glow that represents night in this film. Slowly, everything gets bathed in shadows, leading towards that wonderful shot where Francie leans back so that her face is obscured in the darkness, emphasizing both the jewels glistening at her neck and the bare skin of her shoulders: such an abstractly sexy image. Throughout the scene, as in the film as a whole, the jewels stand in for the body, with Francie’s dialogue about the jewels (“even in this light I can tell where your eyes are looking”) doubling as an awareness of her own body, her own sexuality.
And then the pair sit down, facing each other on the couch, and the editing settles into this graceful rhythm where, in between exchanges of romantic banter, Hitchcock cuts away to the fireworks outside, and every time he cuts back inside, Francie and Robie are closer together, and the camera has moved in closer. The editing is like breathing: in, out, in, out, this measured rhythmic repetition of shots. The intimacy of it is almost overwhelming, particularly when Francie kisses each of Robie’s fingers in turn and then places his hand on her necklace, whispering “hold them.” The sexual double entendre is so obvious already that the added metaphorical implications of all those bursting fireworks make it practically seem like porn.
Beyond its obvious formal brilliance, though, what impresses me most about this scene is how it’s simultaneously so naughty and so adult. So naughty because of its wink-wink, nudge-nudge representation of sex through fireworks and coded dialogue, which makes it so much fun; though I’ll never lament the death of censorship, I do admit that I miss this kind of clever stand-in for actual sex scenes. So adult because, at a time when Hollywood’s depictions of sexual relationships were hardly progressive, here we get a couple obviously sleeping together and both enjoying it, both engaging in this playful mutual seduction as equals. We in the audience are seduced, too, as much by Hitchcock’s formal structuring of the scene as by its content; he’s establishing the rhythms of the seduction, to the point where by the end of the scene I find I’m actually breathing in sync with the edits, that’s how powerful its subtle effect is. I doubt there’s a better encapsulation of romantic love in the cinema, because each shot, each cut, adds to the accumulating mood of swoony late-night desire. By the time the final over-the-top explosion of fireworks cuts in, it’s exactly the beautiful, fiery release that’s required.
JB: The mutual seduction you mentioned is the core of the spirit I was referring to in suggesting the depiction of Francie is almost progressive. I’m fine skipping the Hitchcock misogyny debate as a whole, but, looping back a moment, I’m glad you brought it up. Yes, movies like Marnie are more problematic in their depictions of women, and I should have called attention to that. However, I don’t see the attempts of Francie to snare Robie in marriage as anti-progressive except under some extremist view that would suggest that progressive women aren’t allowed to desire marriage, which is an attitude that seems hardly progressive at all. In the case of Francie and Robie, or Lisa and Jeff in Rear Window, marriage is something an already well-to-do woman simply desires. These women don’t need a man. They just want one. So they go out and get one, indeed partially outsmarting their targets, who come off as unthinking goons foolishly devoting themselves to some empty single-man code—the ultimate implication being that the man in question benefits from a female influence. Sure, maybe that attitude isn’t actually progressive, but even today how often do we come across movies where women are allowed to go get what they want? It’s important to note that while Francie isn’t exactly loose, she’s not withholding sex on the promise of marriage or using any other conservative or antiquated tricks. Instead she’s giving Robie exactly what she wants to give him, utterly confident that he’ll want more. If not, oh well. Again, maybe that isn’t progressive today, but for a film released in 1955 it’s surprisingly modern.
As for the fireworks scene itself, I share your affection, though I’d stop short of suggesting that it’s one of the utmost portrayals of romantic love. Maybe more like one of the ultimate encapsulations of lust or desire. That’s not a lesser achievement in my book, just a different one. You’ve exhaustively listed the highlights of the fireworks scene, and while I think the silly playfulness of the fireworks cutaways undercuts the sexual tension to a degree, I mostly agree with your analyses, including this one: I, too, miss some of the ways that filmmakers used to cleverly suggest sex without actually depicting it, whether it’s the naughty coded banter in To Catch a Thief or, more than a decade later, the erotic game of chess in Norman Jewison’s The Thomas Crown Affair. And that leads me here: The modern film that makes me think of To Catch a Thief each time I see it is Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight, with its much celebrated seduction scene between George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez. In that film, Soderbergh cuts between the flirtation and shots of actual embrace, so in at least that way Out of Sight’s seduction scene is much different than the one in To Catch a Thief. Then again, both scenes unfold in front of window views of the night sky. Both of them show characters playing with fake identities. Both of them, in different ways, show the man and the woman getting increasingly closer until finally they are locked in an embrace. Both of them have that erotic in-and-out breathing rhythm you cited. And, perhaps most importantly, both of them make us feel like we’re watching two people fucking long before they actually touch one another.
EH: That’s a great way of putting it. I think the romantic comedy genre—to which To Catch a Thief arguably belongs more than it does to the thriller genre—has suffered from the dearth of such clever back-and-forth verbal seduction in many modern takes on the form. Out of Sight is a great counterexample, proving yet again that George Clooney is consistently the closest modern Hollywood comes to the suave, Cary Grant-style classic movie star capable of getting this kind of material across. The seduction scene between Clooney and Vera Farmiga in Jason Reitman’s recent (and uneven) Up in the Air is also very verbally clever, as these two habitual business travelers talk about frequent flyer cards and rent-a-car franchises and manage to make it sound steamy. So there are occasional flashes of this type of repartee in modern films. Soderbergh uses Clooney especially well, of course, evoking that classic Hollywood style, the banter and “hangout” feel, in both Out of Sight and the Ocean’s 11 remake. It’s a reminder of how much fun it can be just to watch talented movie stars chat and joke around: a lesson that directors like Hitchcock and Hawks understood very well, and that for all the worship of movie stars nowadays, few enough people today really seem to get.
Turning to the other Hitchcock film we’re here to discuss, there’s also a lot of talk in Rope, and a lot of rather funny talk at that, but it’s far from the sparkling banter of To Catch a Thief. Instead, as Hitchcock’s camera wheels through the enclosed space of the apartment where all of the film’s action takes place, these characters engage in cocktail party chatter in which the real meaning—the dark, morbid truth hidden beneath the party’s veneer—is obscured by the pleasantries. This is a very different kind of Hitchcock film. If To Catch a Thief is all about the glamour of movie stars and the pleasures of romantic courtship, Rope is about its own formal constraints, and also about some of Hitchcock’s favorite pet themes: the eternal allure of crime and deviancy, and the close connection of these darker undercurrents to what we call “civilization” or “society.”
JB: Rope is an interesting film to discuss alongside To Catch a Thief, because for all of their differences they do have at least one thing in common: playfulness. Oh, sure, the subject matter of Rope is dark, but the mood is often light, in large part because John Dall’s Brandon considers his crime to be a clever party game. Brandon spends most of the film grinning ear to ear, tremendously proud of himself—proud of the murder itself, proud of leaving the body in the room, proud of offering food right off the trunk containing the corpse, proud of bundling some books with the very rope that only an hour before had been used to commit murder, and so on. For Brandon, it’s all a gay affair, by both meanings of the phrase. Brandon and his accomplice Phillip (Farley Granger) are clearly suggested to be a homosexual couple, and the murder is committed not out of malice so much as, well, romance. Brandon intends his demonstration of superiority—his justification of murder—to serve as a big bouquet of roses for James Stewart’s Rupert, the old mentor who Brandon clearly adores.
Brandon is a weasel of a character. As if murdering a fellow classmate weren’t bad enough, he feels the need to meddle in the relationship of one of his ex-girlfriends—another act of playing God. Brandon’s arrogance is so extreme that, against all odds, by the end of the film it manages to be more offensive than his crime; we want Brandon to be caught not so much because he did a terrible thing but because he’s such an obnoxious jerk. Maybe that’s just my reading, but I doubt it. After all, for much of the picture Hitchcock manages to let the audience identify with Brandon and sort of admire him. Rope tempts us to wonder if we could pull off his crime and whether we’d be as bold as Brandon in the artistry of the act. In that sense, there’s something strangely appealing about Brandon’s cocksure swagger, at least for a while.