Sunday, July 1, 2018

Don't Make a Scene: To Catch a Thief

July 4th, 2018.  Hmmm.  Fireworks...yeah.  Let's have some Fireworks!


The Story: You must remember this: a kiss is just a kiss.

Well, maybe in Casablanca. However, in the twisted world of Alfred Hitchcock's films, a kiss can be a great many things. Hitchcock loved devising interesting kisses. The ultimate voyeuristic director, he'd push in so close with the camera the performers no doubt felt awkward...or in danger. In Notorious, Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman participated in what was advertised as the longest kiss in cinema history and, indeed, their clinch lasted a few minutes with some travelling across the set, with the camera inches from their snoggin' noggins. Vertigo's famous kiss between James Stewart and Kim Novak featured a camera spinning around them and a mid-spin change of scenery. In North By NorthwestEva Marie Saint and Grant's (again!) train-bound kiss in an unsteady train state-room has some odd pirouettes to it, and the one between Tippi Hedren and Sean Connery in Marnie threatens to scratch the camera lens with his beard-stubble.

But this one in To Catch a Thief? It goes down in the history books as the longest fore-play by means of the most suggestive dialogue Hitchcock ever slipped past the censors. It's a simple scene: a man and woman's-post dinner conversation watching the fireworks from her balcony on the Riviera. But...it's complicated: He's a jewel thief traveling incognito, and she's deliberately (provocatively) wearing a very expensive diamond necklace atop her strapless white gown, daring him to expose himself for the crook he is. See the levels? It's more complicated than that—she wants him to be a jewel thief—the idea excites her, it turns her on. Her entire dialog is meant to entice him to either rob her or ravish her. But he's having none of it. Well, almost. It's Cary Grant, after all. With all her talk about elation, frustration and heavy breathing (Notice that at that point, Hitchcock has her face in shadow, but the rest of her body in the light?), he's deflecting her advances by talking about going home, getting a good night's sleep, psychiatrists and "women who need weird excitement." Everything but dousing her with cold water.

Grant on the defensive, romantically, always played better. And we'd already seen Hitchcock employing the ultimate example of his favorite "cool blonde:" during the dinner of their first meeting, Frances was dressed in blue, her blonde hair in a tight bun and shot in profile. Escorting her to her room, Grant's John Robie is taken aback when at the threshold, she turns and plants a passionate kiss that rocks him a bit. From then on, we come to expect the unexpected from her...and forward behavior.

Hitchcock's character of Frances Stevens might be the twisted sister of Marnie Edgar* as they both associate plunder with power...and sex. In fact, Frances' excitement over ill-gotten booty (er...) approaches the fetishistic.** Her dialogue drips with innuendo ("I have a feeling that tonight you're going to see the Riviera's most fascinating sights!"), while outside fireworks are sparking off. And there's some noun-confusion whether she's talking about the diamonds or her tightly cossetted features, not the first metaphor-association in film-history***


The color palette is suggestive, too. In To Catch a ThiefHitchcock was experimenting using green filters—the color of envy—rather than the traditional blue—associated with moon-light—for night scenes. It pays off as a dramatic cue here as Hitchcock became accustomed to using red hued lighting as a warning, alarming color, and green to spur action (which would become very apparent in Vertigo).

There is nothing suggestive about Hitchcock cutting away to the fireworks display during their kiss. That says everything that can be said...in 50's cinema, of course.

The Set-Up: Oh, dear, dear. Life is rather hard for John Robie, former jewel-thief known as "The Cat" (Cary Grant). He's retired to the South of France, but is now being hunted by the French police, his reformed criminal friends, and insurance agencies for a series of...copy-cat crimes. To prove his innocence, he returns to his old modus operandi (with the supervision of an insurance detective, of course) and begins tracking the activities of rich Riviera dwellers whose jewelry stashes might attract the active thief in the night. But he hits a skid with the American widow Jessie Stevens (Jessie Royce Landis) and her rather haughty daughter Frances (Grace Kelly). But, Frances shows she's a cat of another color—she's actually attracted to Robie, and enticed by his suspected criminal past. In this after-hours game of cat-and-mouse, Frances makes Robie an offer he can't refuse.

Action!



Waiter: Bonsoir, Madam.
Frances Stevens: Bonsoir.
Waiter: Bon soir, Monsieur.
John Robie: Good night.
Frances: If you really want to see fireworks, it's better with the lights out. (She begins turning out the lights)
Frances: I have a feeling that tonight you're going to see the Riviera's most fascinating sights!
Frances: ...I was talking about the fireworks.
Robie: I never doubted it.
Frances: The way you looked at my necklace, I didn't know.
Frances: You've been dying to say something about it all evening. Go ahead.
Robie: Why, have I been staring at it?
Frances: No, you've been trying to avoid it.
Robie: May I have a brandy?
Frances: Please.
Robie: Do you care for one?
Frances: No, thank you. Some nights a person doesn't need to drink.
Frances: Doesn't it make you nervous to be in the same room with thousands of dollars' worth of diamonds and unable to touch them?
Robie: No.
Frances: Like an alcoholic outside of a bar on election day.
Robie: (laughs) Wouldn't know the feeling.
Frances: All right. You've studied the layout, drawn your plans, worked out your timetable, put on your dark clothes with your crepe-soled shoes and your rope.
Frances: Maybe your face blackened.
Frances: And you're over the roofs in the darkness, down the side wall to the right apartment, and the windows locked.
Frances: All that elation turned into frustration. What would you do?
Robie: I'd go home, get a good night's sleep.
Frances: Oh, what would you do? The thrill is right there in front of you, but you can't quite get in—and the gems glistening on the other side of the window, and someone asleep, breathing heavily.
Robie: I'd go home, get a good night's sleep.
Frances: Wouldn't you get a glass cutter, a brick, your fist—anything to get what you wanted? Knowing it was just there waiting for you?
Robie: (drinks) Oh, forget it.
Frances: Drinking dulls your senses.
Robie: Yeah, and if I'm lucky, some of my hearing.
Frances: (She strokes the necklace) Blue-white with just hair-like touches of platinum.
Robie: You know, I have about the same interest in jewelry that I have in politics, horse-racing, modern poetry, or women who need weird excitement: none.
Frances: Hold this necklace in your hand and tell me you're not John Robie "the Cat."
Frances: John, tell me something. You're going to rob the villa we cased this afternoon, aren't you? Oh, I suppose "rob" is archaic. You'd say "knock over."
Robie: Oh—
Frances: Don't worry. I'm very good at secrets.
Robie: Tell me, have you ever been on a psychiatrist's couch?
Frances: Don't change the subject. I know the perfect time to do it. Next week the Sanfords are holding their annual gala. Everyone who counts will be there.
Frances: I'll get you an invitation. It's an 18th-century costume affair.
Frances: There will be thousands of dollars' worth of the world's most elegant jewelry. Some of the guests will be staying for the weekend. We'll get all the information, and we'll do it together. What do you say?
Robie: My only comment would be highly censorable.
Frances: Give up, John. Admit who you are.
Frances: Even in this light, I can tell where your eyes are looking.
Frances: Look, John. Hold them. Diamonds. Only thing in the world you can't resist. Then tell me you don't know what I'm talking about.
(She kisses his fingers, then places the diamond necklace in his hand)
Frances: Ever had a better offer in your life? One with everything?
Robie: I've never had a crazier one.
Frances: Just as long as you're satisfied.
Robie: You know as well as I do this necklace is imitation.
Frances: Well, I'm not.


To Catch a Thief

Words by John Michael Hayes

Pictures by Robert Burks and Alfred Hitchcock

To Catch a Thief is available on DVD from Paramount Home Video.







* She certainly could be the blue-print. Alfred Hitchcock spent the years after To Catch a Thief trying to coax Her Serene Highness out of retirement with role after role for cool blondes--VertigoNorth by Northwest, MarnieGrace stayed in her Riviera castle with her Prince.

** And the aphrodisiac aspect of thievery was transferred to the character of Mark Rutledge, played by Sean Connery, which had the effect of making thievery less of a thrill and more of a violation.

*** Here's a hint: "But square-cut or pear-shaped/ these rocks won't lose their shape." Breasts were on Hitchcock's mind during this film, as evidenced by the double entendre dialog in this scene, and the crack Hitch made when Kelly arrived on set for the climactic ballroom scene in her (again) strap-less gold gown: "Grace, there's hills in them thar gold."

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