To Catch a Thief - Centennial Collection Review

The dance of penny-ante film and DVD reviewing can often involve politely letting acknowledged classics pass through unencumbered. If a movie has survived with an audience decades after its release then there's no apparent harm in a bit of collective backslapping. If Paramount rolls out the black-bordered carpet and puts a film in its Centennial Collection series, it must be good, right? Right? I can't do it, though. I couldn't find enough to like in Breakfast at Tiffany's from the last wave and, while less obnoxiously offensive on the whole, To Catch a Thief has never impressed me either. I know it's directed by Alfred Hitchcock and from probably his most fruitful period. I know it stars Cary Grant and Grace Kelly. It's set on the French Riviera. The screenplay is by John Michael Hayes, who also wrote Rear Window. All well and good. Still don't like the movie.

Either by simple circumstance or perhaps because Hitchcock himself had a less than fully favourable opinion of the film, To Catch a Thief ended up as the only picture he made at Paramount which the studio retained the rights for, with the others all eventually landing at Universal. Calling the movie a working vacation for Hitchcock wouldn't be a stretch. The director here seems bored and unchallenged, especially in the lifeless second half. His best gasp at self-entertainment comes in the form of repeatedly grinning at the audience with sexual imagery and innuendo that would probably make James Bond roll his eyes. The supposed lightness of tone and plotting many of the film's admirers like to glow about is really nowhere to be found here. This is one of Hitchcock's least inspired efforts, flawed in every direction from Grant's crispy appearance to his lack of chemistry with Kelly, who was over 24 years his junior. Hitchcock relies too heavily on his MacGuffin and the plot lacks any inertia to maintain our interest.

Even so, the general premise of To Catch a Thief isn't necessarily the problem, though the stiffness of how it's presented certainly could be part of the disappointment. Letting Grant's reformed cat burglar John Robie skulk through the whole movie on a quest to find the person who's aping his style becomes tiresome. Grant is sleepwalking in this role. It was the third of four Hitchcock collaborations and the only one that isn't an unassailable classic. There's no tension, hardly a doubt as to Robie's innocence or eventual unmasking of the culprit, and the character lacks any real verve. It's disorienting to see Cary Grant stuck on the perturbed setting instead of his usual charm to burn. Robie is too stilted and, worst of all, passive for a man supposedly involved in a police manhunt. Even Grace Kelly lunging at him with a kiss doesn't seem to quicken the pulse or knock the cat into full consciousness.

Grant's Robie is largely indifferent to the Kelly character despite her best efforts. The romance, beloved by the bonus feature talking heads, feels strictly clinical. The actors even don't seem sold on dancing around it. Sparks fly all right, but they're of the manufactured variety and those inventive fireworks that make up the film's most famous scene are more a credit to Hitchcock than his performers. Kelly is often targeted for her coolness, especially in the three films she made for Hitchcock, but he put her next to Ray Milland (trying to have her killed), Jimmy Stewart in a wheelchair, and a beyond sunburned Cary Grant who was easily old enough to be her father. It's no wonder that she comes across as icy to critics, who have been typically male, probably a couple of decades older than she was in these films, and quite possibly unsure how to take a beautiful young blonde attaching herself to men of a certain age with limited enthusiasm. And what did Hitch do to cope with losing his favoured actress to the prince of Monaco? He repeatedly cast women who shared a similar physical appearance to Kelly, and he made a movie about a man who tried to specifically mould a woman's appearance after he's unable to accept the loss of a beautiful young blonde.

The Discs

Since Paramount owns just one of the films Alfred Hitchcock made for the studio, it apparently feels the need to milk the teat for all she has before the presumed Blu-ray consumer refill. We're now looking at the third R1 DVD release of To Catch a Thief in less than six and a half years, with the last coming in 2007. Paramount's excuse is connected to the spine-numbered Centennial Collection releases trotted out every other month of late. Hitchcock's film occupies number 6 in the line. Its packaging consists of a nifty slipcover box with a regular plastic case sliding in on the side. The cover art sleeve for the keepcase retains the same bathed in gold look as other Centennial Collection entries.

To Catch a Thief was an early example of Paramount's VistaVision process, filmed at 1.85:1. The DVD transfer sits closer to the 1.78:1 widescreen television aspect ratio and is enhanced for those home viewers' sets. This is the third attempt to reproduce the film for DVD and, while I haven't compared the images myself, all reports indicate the Centennial Collection version as being superior. It's progressively transferred on a dual-layered disc. Colours pop on a bright, vibrant palette that seems accurate. Cary Grant is just ridiculously tan, but that's inherent to the film and the other actors appear far more natural-looking. The image is free from any damage or distracting noise. I think detail could ideally be improved despite a generally impressive degree of sharpness. While the scenic backgrounds frequently look out of focus or overly soft, this is another built-in aspect of the movie and an apparent quirk with VistaVision at the time. Worth noting, Grant wears a striped shirt in a couple of scenes and when I looked closely it appeared to be moving unnaturally. Closer inspection revealed, surprisingly, some combing, which can be easily seen by clicking on the image below to enlarge it. This isn't a recurring issue on the transfer, but it's there in at least one instance.

Audio options in English include a Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround track and a mono alternative, which is also spread across two channels. A low hiss is present, more noticeable in the mono. The dubbing of Charles Vanel is distracting, but not really fixable at this point. There aren't any real hiccups to the English language mixes that I heard. I think the mono is sufficient in this case, though the surround option lets the score breathe a little. The film is mostly dialogue, some of which is obviously dubbed in, and it's easily understandable, at a consistent volume. There are also mono tracks dubbed in French and Spanish as well as English, French and Spanish subtitles. The font used is yellow in colour.

Disc one has traded in Peter Bogdanovich's commentary from the 2007 Special Collector's Edition for a lively track by Dr. Drew Casper. He's a professor at USC where he teaches a Hitchcock course. I think I must've earned at least a class's worth of credit for listening to this. Casper can be overly dramatic, too keen on questionable analysis and mix up facts from time to time, but I'd prefer sitting through one of his commentaries than most of the other usual suspects hired by studios to talk over classic films. He at least has a good deal of enthusiasm and keeps going during most all of the picture. I don't always share his opinions, but I like that he's prepared some.

The second disc is single-layered and includes everything of significance from the previous iterations while also adding a couple of new featurettes. Here's the breakdown:

"A Night with the Hitchcocks" (23:20) - The daughter and granddaughter of Alfred Hitchcock, Pat Hitchcock and Mary Stone, respectively, are shown in a November 2008 question and answer session moderated by Dr. Drew Casper. This was a special event for Casper's Hitchcock course at the University of Southern California and the audience is mostly students. Casper's face seems to have sprung a leak and he's literally dripping with sweat as the conversation advances.

"Unacceptable Under the Code: Film Censorship in America" (11:47) - A nice look at the Production Code and its enforcement by Joseph Breen's censorship office, with interviews from a handful of film professors. To Catch a Thief caught a bit of resistance from the censors and that back-and-forth is discussed here.

"Writing and Casting To Catch a Thief" (9:04) - 2002 - Returning to the blandness of typical bonus features, this piece mostly concerns the two aspects its title alludes to, paying particular attention to Grant and Kelly.

"The Making of To Catch a Thief" (16:53) - 2002 - Topics here include discussion of shooting the picture, roughly half of which was done on location in the French Riviera, the locations, VistaVision, cinematographer Robert Burks winning the Oscar for the film, and Edith Head's costumes. It's mostly a continuation of the preceding featurette.

"Behind the Gates: Cary Grant and Grace Kelly" (6:12) - Critic Richard Schickel and Paramount producer A.C. Lyles talk warmly about To Catch a Thief's stars.

"Alfred Hitchcock and To Catch a Thief: An Appreciation" (7:32) - 2002 - Pat Hitchcock and Mary Stone speak a little about the director's personal side, including some home movie footage. Stone mentions that she took a class on Hitchcock's films in, I believe, the 1970s and she was assigned to write a paper on his favourite movie. Despite her grandfather's help, she was given a C on the paper. When Stone told him they'd only gotten a C, Hitchcock said it was the best he could do! Great story.

"Edith Head: The Paramount Years" (13:43) - 2002 - One of the warhorses of Paramount's extra feature stable, this look at the legendary costume designer has shown up on several of the studio's DVDs, including Sunset Blvd. and Roman Holiday.

"If You Love To Catch a Thief, You'll Love This" - An "interactive travelogue" where you can hear short bites of information on 10 total places that appear in the film. An introduction (0:57) plays prior to being able to select the different locations with your remote.

Original Theatrical Trailer (2:11) - In 1.33:1 aspect ratio.

Galleries - I counted 130 total stills, accessible across categories like The Movie, Publicity, Visitors to the Set (including Danny Kaye and Bing Crosby), Production Part 1 and Production Part 2.

Booklet - Eight pages filled with photos and text.

Final Thoughts

If you have to own this movie in its best edition, Paramount has just the fix. Otherwise, there are too many better Hitchcock films worth watching, whether it's a first viewing or a fiftieth, instead of letting To Catch a Thief take up your time or space on the shelf.

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