Right in the middle of the finest decade in the life of any artist, during any historical period, Alfred Hitchcock saw fit to go on a holiday to the south of France (fact: it was a working holiday, and he made a movie), and take us along with him. The result: To Catch a Thief, a travelogue delicacy that uses only a soupçon of an early-‘30s jewel thief/romance plot to give the Master of Suspense an excuse to give audiences some of the most fantastic Technicolor imagery they’d ever hope to see. While the film is now only fondly remembered as a light bauble in the midst of the director’s hard, perfect diamonds, it worked like gangbusters at the box office, going as far as any other film had gone, or would ever go, in erecting the legend of screen immortals Cary Grant and Grace Kelly.
Owing much to films like Ernst Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise and William Dieterle’s Jewel Robbery, it also goes against the grain of their celebration of impeccably dressed men who ought to know better. Instead of portraying its protagonist, John Robie (Grant), as a scoundrel who should be excused for his grand larceny because he’s just so damned suave, he’s a former hero of the French Resistance whose transgressions over the course of the film don’t exceed taking on a false name and wooing a beautiful American under false pretenses, in order to nab a copycat burglar who’s out to frame him. He doesn’t steal anything, in other words, and we’re practically the only ones who know it.
Aside from a vague sense of the danger presented by Robie’s former Resistance pals, and the momentary brush with gravity when a secondary character tumbles to his death, To Catch a Thief bristles with suggestions of French words pertaining to lightness, fluff, pastries, and respite. The film set the bar very high for travelogue cinema, and was perhaps indirectly responsible for the James Bond series, or, at least, its mandated requirement to mix gorgeous location shots with death-defying action and suspense.
Without grouping it in the upper tier of Hitchcock’s masterpieces (too many to name), one can still extract a great deal of the auteur’s eccentric artistry, concealed behind the entertainment-first coding of the John Michael Hayes script, whose basic framework would be perfected by Ernest Lehman’s screenplay for North by Northwest. Many night shots are cloaked in a jade green aura that anticipates Vertigo. Key scenes take place without a word, or with only a few words heard in passing. The opening minutes make abstract, Eisenstein-esque cutting into something funny and fairly user-friendly—as does the famous fireworks love scene. Something about its diffuse international-ness looks forward to later, more problematic pictures like Topaz and Torn Curtain; it would be difficult to argue that the features of Hitchcock’s auteurism would, harnessed as they are to the slack Hayes narrative, raise To Catch a Thief to the heights of what he would make when he was firing on all cylinders. However, if the accused could be acquitted based on pure charm, the evidence here is irrefutable.
Enough to make you think that VistaVision was developed by Paramount engineers with Blu-ray in mind, their high-definition transfer of Hitchcock's film—the second in his career to take the Best Cinematography Oscar—is one of the best-looking home-video reproductions of a color film I've ever seen, up there with the studio's own disc of North by Northwest, or Criterion's The Leopard. Partly this is due simply to Hitchcock's extraordinary artistry; To Catch a Thief appeared at the peak of his personal Renaissance. Partly it's the genius of legendary cinematographer Robert Burks, and the French Riviera locations, filmed with an occasional dip into jade green Riviera nights and black expressionist shadows. Crucially, it's VistaVision, that high-density 35mm format that makes everything seem hyper-real and surreal at the same time, an entire world of woodcut surfaces that looks as if you can walk into it. Even the recent, highly rated Arri Alexa HD camera can only hint at the wonders created by the trifecta of Hitchcock-Burks-VistaVision, and Paramount's video unit did a splendid job, capturing even the tricky patterns of Cary Grant's turtlenecks. If anyone you know remains, at this late date, unconvinced by Blu-ray, pop this disc in.
The artistry of Hitchcock's sound unit is considerably less ostentatious than it would be in some of the director's great masterpieces (or near ones) from the same period: Vertigo and Rear Window in particular. Nevertheless, the soundtrack is shrewdly layered in its design, alternating long sequences of wordless action with the pleasantries of Lyn Murray's score, the vroom-vroom of Grace Kelly's Alpine roadster, and, of course, the pitter-patter of a prowler's feet across tile rooftops.
There's quite a decent package of featurettes on Paramount's Blu-ray, though the bulk of it leans a little toward general subjects relating to the film, via numerous tangents: the Hays Code, an evening with Pat Hitchcock, and Mary Stone (the director's daughter and granddaughter) at USC in 2008. Those items concerning the film directly are the characteristic Wikipedia-esque gloss, nothing that makes the film out to be more than it is. Perhaps the one rarity in the bunch is an interactive guide to the film's locations, aptly titled "If You Love To Catch a Thief, You'll Love This Interactive Travelogue."
Unsurprising, as To Catch a Thief is one of the most beautiful movies of all time, Paramount casually drops one of its best-looking Blu-rays, with a nice sideboard of extras.