Ed Howard: Alfred Hitchcock is one of the eternal touchstones of the cinema. He’s been a major influence for many of the best filmmakers to work in his wake, and films like Psycho, The Birds, North by Northwest, Rear Window and many others remain cultural markers that would be recognizable even to those who have never actually seen them. With a director this major, very little of his career hasn’t been explored in depth, with the possible exception of his fertile British period, which seems to get less attention than his later work. However, we’ve decided to discuss two of the master’s Hollywood films that, while perhaps not overlooked (indeed, both are remembered more or less fondly), are generally considered to be “minor” Hitchcock: Rope (1948) and To Catch a Thief (1955). My own perspective is that these supposedly “minor” films are, in their own ways, keeping in mind their quirks and undeniable limitations, major works nearly as rich and rewarding as Hitchcock’s better-known milestones.
They’re very different films, though, and there are very different reasons for their somewhat lesser stature in Hitchcock’s oeuvre. Psycho is mostly remembered for its audacious formal gimmick: it is composed entirely of a series of unbroken 10-minute-or-less takes, and the cuts between shots are often disguised in ostentatious ways to create the (not very convincing) illusion of a single take weaving through the enclosed set. This trick dominates the film to such an extent that it’s all many people remember about it, and I think this is unfortunate. If Psycho is remembered as a formal experiment and little more, To Catch a Thief is often viewed as Hitchcock making a hangout movie with some of his favorite stars, Grace Kelly and Cary Grant, on the French Riviera. Hitchcock said as much, and even opened the film with a shot of a tourism office’s front window (setting up the dark humor of the second shot, an abrupt cut to a screaming woman). So what we have here is one film that’s usually cited as a simple formal exercise, and another that’s considered a fun, sugary entertainment. Are these minor works from a major director? Or are they two more examples of Hitchcock’s mastery and genius, as well as his often-underappreciated range?
Jason Bellamy: How about both? Rope in particular is “minor” in large part because Hitchcock created so many majors. It isn’t as sinister as Psycho, as assaulting as The Birds, as epic (by Hitchcock standards) as North by Northwest, as taut as Rear Window, as moody as Vertigo, and so on. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it trails all of those more famous films (I’d certainly put it ahead of The Birds, for example). All it means is that against such iconic competition, Rope is most easily categorized by its gimmicky technique—those long unbroken takes. That’s what makes the film stand out, sometimes rightly and sometimes wrongly. To Catch a Thief, on the other hand, is certainly more of a lollipop movie. It’s fun and sugary, yes, and not much more. And yet while I’d never make the argument that it’s an overlooked masterpiece, I don’t disparage its pleasures. As you said, this is a “hangout movie” with two of cinema’s most beloved stars, and I don’t see anything wrong with that. To Catch a Thief might not be a deep film, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t genuinely entertaining (at least in places).
And that leads me to the second part of your question, because as minor as these films are in Hitchcock’s oeuvre, they certainly reveal his mastery, genius and often-underappreciated range, too. Put another way, Rope’s thrills remind of Rear Window while To Catch a Thief’s pleasures remind of (parts of) North by Northwest. I make those connections not because the former two films star Jimmy Stewart while the latter two star Cary Grant but because of the films’ designs: Rope and Rear Window are both gripping and claustrophobic pictures that play out mostly in a single set and mostly in real time; To Catch a Thief and North by Northwest are both films about a wrongfully accused man who engages in some delightfully saucy banter with a female companion. What’s interesting to me is that watching Rope and To Catch a Thief one could easily get the sense that Hitchcock is resting on his laurels, mailing it in, selling out, settling for pale imitations of his masterworks. But that would be inaccurate. It’s important to remember that Rope (1948) preceded Rear Window (1954) and To Catch a Thief (1955) preceded North by Northwest (1959). Furthermore, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), Vertigo (1958), Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963) all came after the two less-celebrated movies that are the subjects of this conversation. I don’t want to imply in any way that Hitchcock was some novice filmmaker still learning his craft when he made Rope and To Catch a Thief. But in retrospect it’s hard to ignore that these films seem to be warm-up exercises for the unquestionably major films that would follow them. Or is it just me?
EH: In the case of Rope, certainly, it’s fair to call it a warm-up exercise. Hitchcock wanted to see if he could make a film using as few shots as possible, simple as that. It’s the kind of formal challenge he’d set for himself on occasion, as when he decided to see if he could make a film set entirely on a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean (Lifeboat, of course, which really is a formal experiment that isn’t too interesting beyond its gimmick). Rope and Lifeboat were perhaps both necessary first steps towards Rear Window, which further developed the claustrophobia and formal restrictions of the earlier films.
We’ll get back to Rope, but for the moment I want to defend To Catch a Thief, since I don’t really agree with your faint praise for that one. Sure, it’s sugary and light, and easy to enjoy on a surface level as a popcorn entertainment. And it has its structural flaws as well: I’d entirely forgotten just how dull and ungainly the first half-hour is, with the awful dubbing of the French actors and Cary Grant looking really uncomfortable in some ridiculous outfits and a horrible tan. It’s a waiting game: when is Grace Kelly finally going to show up, anyway? Once she does, though, as oil heiress Francie Stevens, it’s a whole different story. Her interactions with Grant (as the one-time cat burglar John Robie) are playful, charming and charged with barely restrained sexuality and—there’s no other word for it—naughtiness. Hitchcock was always pushing the boundaries of how he could have his characters talk about sex without actually talking about it, but the approach reaches its peak here and in The Trouble With Harry, Hitchcock’s other great “light” film of the mid-’50s. There’s so much wonderful, naughty dialogue here, so much sexual energy. Francie’s mom Jessie (Jessie Royce Landis) takes one look at Robie and says, “I wouldn’t mind buying that for you, dear.” Later, Francie promises Robie that “tonight you’re going to see one of the Riviera’s most fascinating sights,” then belatedly adds, “I was talking about the fireworks,” which of course only emphasizes that she was talking about anything but the fireworks. That’s without even getting into the famous banter about breasts and legs, or the whole extended fireworks scene, which is one of the best sequences Hitchcock ever filmed (more on that later).
More than any other Hitchcock film, then, this is a film about sex. In its basic form, it’s the most common kind of film that Hitchcock made, a “wrong man” mystery with a “saucy” love interest. Hitchcock made this film over and over again, and its roots are in his earlier British work, like The 39 Steps and Young and Innocent, both of which are built from the same basic template. Here, though, more than usual, the thriller mechanics are reduced to an afterthought, and Hitchcock, aided by screenwriter John Michael Hayes, instead concentrates on one opportunity after another to probe the mutual attraction of the leads. Does all this add up to a “deep” movie? It depends on what you mean by deep. The film doesn’t have the psychosexual darkness of Vertigo or Marnie, sure, but in many ways it’s another of Hitchcock’s characteristic examinations of sexual dynamics and sexual roles, just in a brighter and more optimistic context. And although its final joke makes marriage a trap for the man, a typical Hitchcock gag, throughout much of the rest of the film Kelly’s Francie is smart, confident and sexually open in a very refreshing way. Check out the seductive, leering look she gives Robie when he asks her what thrills her, or the “efficient” way she kisses him to signal her interest. Perhaps only Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep does a better job of generating sexual sparks from this kind of dueling banter, in which sexual prowess is evaluated by deftness with a one-liner, and the woman is at least the man’s equal in verbal dexterity and cleverness. It’s easy to say that this kind of stuff is “fun” and make it sound like a dismissal, but I think there can be—and in this case, as in the Hawks film, is—a great deal of substance in this fluffy romantic repartee.
JB: Yes, there can be a great deal of substance in fluffy romantic repartee. But the sad truth is that there really isn’t that much of it in To Catch a Thief. Is it memorable? Oh, absolutely! It’s not only the best stuff of this movie, it’s some of the best stuff of Hitchcock. Bar none. But while you suggest that the thriller mechanics are an “afterthought,” and I don’t disagree, the truly naughty banter between Grant and Kelly actually gets less screen time. You alluded to this already, but it’s 22 minutes before we get a glimpse of Grace Kelly. Then it’s a few minutes more before she actually says something. A few minutes after that, 39 minutes into the movie, Kelly’s Francie and Grant’s Robie share their first embrace—and at that point Francie is so undeveloped that she’s nothing more than a pretty face (though Grace Kelly gets more mileage out of that than most). A few minutes later, Francie engages in the water-treading verbal spat with Brigitte Auber’s Danielle, while Robie grimaces between them. Then Robie and Francie have a few walk-and-talk scenes that really don’t amount to very much. And then, finally, almost an hour into a 106-minute movie, the two of them are in a car, Francie at the wheel and the police on Robie’s tail. “Why are we dawdling like this?” Robie asks, and indeed he might as well be speaking for the audience.
I don’t mean to imply that To Catch a Thief’s first hour is entirely without pleasure. (I’m always delighted by Francie’s spunk in the water-treading scene: “Are you sure you were talking about water skis? It looked to me like you were conjugating some irregular verbs.”) But the film is rarely worth watching when Kelly isn’t on the screen, and it takes about 45 minutes for her to be anything more than wallpaper. Beyond that, we both seem to agree that the film is at its best when Francie and Robie are engaged in their steamy repartee, but the terrific picnic scene (“Do you want a leg or a breast?”) is just four minutes long, and the fireworks scene, fantastic though it is, lasts just five minutes. Being generous, I could stuff maybe 15 more Grant-Kelly minutes into this package of goodness, but even then I’m struggling to find so much as a third of the picture that I can really rave about.
I realize I’ve just broken down the film like some baseball statistics geek debunking the legendary status of a great pitcher by talking about his WHIP and VORP, which isn’t my intent. But at the same time I find that, like you, the memory of all the wonderful Grant-Kelly verbal fireworks doesn’t line up with reality. So perhaps the thriller aspect of the film shouldn’t have been such an afterthought after all. And perhaps that’s the lesson Hitch took with him to North by Northwest.
EH: But Hitchcock had been making films like North by Northwest for more or less his entire career—that film is a summation of his cinema to that point—and films like Saboteur, Young and Innocent and The 39 Steps have varying balances between the “wrong man” thriller plotting and the dialogue-driven romance scenes. I don’t buy that he learned any lessons from To Catch a Thief so much as he was willfully playing with the extremes of a balance he’d toyed with throughout his career. In that context, it’s possible to think of To Catch a Thief as a formalist experiment of sorts, albeit a less obvious one than Rope. The experiment here is to see how much Hitchcock can abstract the film’s focus from its ostensible suspense/mystery plot onto the romantic interaction of the leads. Is it entirely successful? No, no more than Rope is. Do I wish there was even more of that great banter? Of course, and to some extent Hitchcock delivered on that promise with The Trouble With Harry, which is all naughty banter and cleverly masked sexual metaphors. (There’s some great stuff in that one about crossing thresholds.) Maybe the problem then isn’t that Hitchcock didn’t stress the thriller plot more but that he stressed it too much. If he’d allowed it to evaporate completely, as he did in Harry, the film might’ve been even better, even more charming and funny and sexually adventurous.
As for the rest, for some reason I’ve now got this image of you sitting there watching the movie with a stopwatch in hand, or maybe a scorecard, to continue the baseball metaphor. I guess when you break it down like that, the Grant/Kelly scenes represent a surprisingly small proportion of the total screen time, especially since, as I already noted, those are the scenes that everyone remembers. It’s a good demonstration of the selectivity of memory: I’ve seen the film a few times now but I still never remember how long it takes for Kelly to appear on screen, or how shaky the film is before that point. Maybe all that matters is the memory, though. The great scenes might be statistically insignificant if we measure things in terms of screen time, but they make a powerful impact. This is a movie, not a science experiment, and a few minutes of thrilling screen time can pretty easily counterbalance a half-hour of less satisfying moments.
I mentioned Howard Hawks already, and he’s a pretty good reference point for this film, which in some ways feels more like one of his banter-packed comedies than a proper Hitchcock thriller. Hawks maintained that a good film consisted of “three great scenes, no bad ones.” In other words, the moments that stand out are the only ones that really matter. I don’t think To Catch a Thief meets that criteria about no bad scenes, but boy does it exceed its quota of great ones. That’s more important, to me, than the math. Sure, the film’s far from perfect, and it’s marred by those stretches where Grant and Kelly aren’t interacting. (Not that the rest is worthless; at the very least, there are some good scenes between Robie and Danielle, like the one where he urges her to distract a spying plane and gets an eyeful of her legs as a result.) But when I think back on the film, it’s the great scenes I remember: the fireworks, the picnic, Grace Kelly’s mischievous smile when she’s speeding along those back-projected mountain roads (a scene made poignant by subsequent real-world events), the bright artificial colors of the climactic party, the sharp wit of the dialogue in virtually every encounter between Francie and Robie. The rest just melts away, easy enough to ignore in focusing on the good stuff. So what do you think of Hawks’ criteria for judging movies? Does To Catch a Thief fare better when judged on that kind of scale?
JB: I like Hawks’ test, but I don’t think To Catch a Thief passes it. As you said, there are some truly bad scenes here, particularly early: that awful dubbing of the French actors, the goofy scene at the market that is neither as suspenseful nor as funny as it seems to want to be, plus all the initial plot exposition in a film that doesn’t particularly care about its narrative anyway. To Catch a Thief does well upon reflection, you’re right about that, because our brains preserve those scenes we want to cherish. I have fond memories of the movie, too. But if I’m honest, part of that fondness is tied to my basic affection for Cary Grant and Grace Kelly. As I’m writing this, I’m thinking of the scene in which Robie and Francie walk around the gardens of that mansion, with Robie surreptitiously surveying the grounds, trying to determine the ways in which the imitation cat burglar will strike. In memory, flickering against the movie screen in my imagination, that’s a delightful little scene—beautiful people in a beautiful location. In the film itself, it’s nothing. There’s not much to it beyond the beauty of the subjects and the landscape.