These notes accompany the screenings of Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief on August 1, 2, and 3 in Theater 3.
By 1955, Alfred Hitchcock was enjoying a level of celebrity never attained before or since by a movie director, with the possible exception of Cecil B. De Mille when he was hosting Lux Radio Theatre. (Scott Eyman draws this comparison in his excellent Empire of Dreams: The Epic Life of Cecil B. De Mille, but I would also factor in the number of clerical recommendations C. B. received at Sunday morning services.) Hitchcock was appearing weekly on television to introduce episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents (a few of which he also directed). His tiny cameo appearances in his films, a practice he initiated in the silent era, had made him instantly recognizable, as did the self-drawn silhouette he used as a logo on TV and a signature in his correspondence. Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine was about to begin publication, although he had no direct involvement other than selling his gold-standard name. In France, he was interviewed separately for Cahiers du Cinéma by two young and little-known enthusiasts, Claude Chabrol and Francois Truffaut. He also met, and was championed by, their colleagues André Bazin, Jean-Luc Godard, and Erik Rohmer. (Cahiers had already done a “Hitchcock issue” in 1953, and was planning another for the summer of 1956.) Both of the interviews would eventually lead to book-length studies that would be reproduced worldwide in many languages. In New York, Andrew Sarris alerted Americans in Film Culture to “The Trouble with Hitchcock.” The chubby Cockney title-card designer had become the auteurist equivalent of “king of the world.”
What did this mean in terms of his artistry? Quite simply, it enabled him to be an auteur, to choose and develop his films as expressions of his rather perverse personality. First Paramount and, later, Universal found it lucrative to provide Hitchcock with the resources he required, and the director made the most of their largesse. I am a firm believer in the thesis, set forth by Robin Wood in Hitchcock’s Films (1965), that the director’s work in the 1950s surpassed any other period in his (or almost anybody else’s) career. Wood views To Catch a Thief as something of a comedown from Rear Window, which immediately preceded it. Sarris’s Film Culture piece was somewhat critical as well, viewing To Catch a Thief as self-parody, although he later changed his mind, seeing the film as “close to perfection as a romantic comedy.” (Hitchcock biographer Patrick McGilligan says it “begs comparison to the work of Ernst Lubitsch.”) This gets to why, I think, Hitchcock made it: as an antidote to the darkness of Strangers on a Train and Rear Window, both of which were reflections of the director’s view of what Wood calls “that chaos-world that underlies the superficial order” at the end of the latter film. The transference-of-guilt theme is retained from major Hitchcocks of the period, and Cary Grant’s fugitive performance foreshadows his final Hitchcock appearance in the more serious North By Northwest a few years later.
Why not take a breather? Why not, after all, film a romance, basking in the beauty and light of the French Riviera with two of the most bankable and beautiful stars of the era, Cary Grant and Grace Kelly? It is, as Sarris says, one of Hitchcock’s “silkiest and most sheerly enjoyable” films. The script is almost too witty, and the director acknowledged that it was “a lightweight story.” This is a film Hitchcock, at the peak of his powers, made for himself. In that, it resembles the indulgences of John Ford’s The Rising of the Moon or Jean Renoir’s Picnic on the Grass. A couple of his British predecessors sometimes ventured in more shallow water without betraying their gifts. Their names were Shakespeare and Dickens. There was a betrayal, however: the deception that romance in cinema could trump reality. Two things no one could foresee occurred as a result of the film: Grace Kelly met her prince and, tragically, she died hurtling down some of the same roads on which she fled from the police with Cary Grant.