Sunday, November 19, 2023

Don't Make a Scene: To Catch a Thief

The Story:  
Alfred Hitchcock: Sex on the screen should be suspenseful, I feel. If sex is too blatant or obvious, there's no suspense. You know why I favor sophisticated blondes in my films? We're after the drawing-room type, the real ladies, who become whores once they're in the bedroom. Poor Marilyn Monroe had sex written all over her face, and Brigitte Bardot isn't very subtle, either. 
Francois Truffaut: In other words, what intrigues you is the paradox between the inner fire and the cool surface.
A.H.: Definitely, I think the most interesting women, sexually, are the English women. I feel that the English women, the Swedes, the northern Germans, and Scandinavians are a great deal more exciting than the Latin, the Italian, and the French women. Sex should not be advertised. An English girl, looking like a schoolteacher, is apt to get into a cab with you and, to your surprise, she'll probably pull a man's pants open. 
F.T.: I appreciate your viewpoint, but I doubt whether the majority of the public shares your tastes in the matter. I think the male audience prefers a highly carnal woman. The very fact that Jane Russell, Marilyn Monroe, Sophia Loren, and Brigitte Bardot became stars, despite the many flops in which they appeared, seems to bear this out. The majority of the public, it seems to me, prefers the kind of sensuality that's blatant. 
A.H.: That may well be true, but you yourself admit that those actresses generally make bad films. Do you know why? Because without the element of surprise the scenes become meaningless. There's no possibility to discover sex. Look at the opening of To Catch a Thief. I deliberately photographed Grace Kelly ice-cold and I kept cutting to her profile, looking classical, beautiful, and very distant. And then, when Cary Grant accompanies her to the door of her hotel room, what does she do? She thrusts her lips right up to his mouth.
Hitchcock/Truffaut p. 167-168 English Translation copyright © 1967 by Francois Truffaut*
I've been seeing a lot of stories popping up in my news-feeds, usually headlined "The Baffling Cruelty of Alfred Hitchcock" which means that I should be looking for a new book on Hitchcock out (there is..."Hitchcock's Blondes" by Laurence Leamer), and there was a review published in The Atlantic—headlined with that "Baffling Cruelty" title—that took its own sweet time mentioning the title of the new book, and cherry-picking the "usual suspects"...Spoto, White, Hedren, et al...not so much in service to reviewing this particular book, but to reviewing Hitchcock...and exposing the review-author's fascination with him. There was nothing new to the article "review", nothing revelatory. It could have been researched and written by ChatGPT.

It's safe to say and uncontroversial to say that Hitchcock was a flawed human, but those same flaws informed his art, hence the collective appreciation of his work among film-scholars and (here's a shock!) audiences. And those audiences recognized their own flaws and fears, peccadilloes and fetishes, in his films and how Hitchcock, a master manipulator, could turn them into "thrillers." And Sir Alfred was such a skilled practitioner of motion-picture directing that he was constantly inventing new ways to thrill, new ways to tell a story with image and even new ways to surprise his audiences after they got used to his old tricks. He knew how to tell a story internationally—through the film-image—and have it work across languages and cultures.
Still, the stories of Hitchcock's obsessions began appearing soon after his death, and became something of an industry after Hitchcock's daughter, Patricia, died.
I have long since stopped judging films by the character of their directors, who by definition are both diplomats and control freaks—and those two traits, in the best and worst of circumstances, are diametrically opposed. I've read things about John Ford that make my hair stand on end. One of my favorite films—a film I consider "perfect"—is directed by Roman Polanski. The entire industry is rife with stories of scandal, and addiction, and manipulation. It's business as usual. Film-makers are obsessed, driven people, seeing things through their tunnel-visioning view-finders. They are control freaks. They create what they want to see...and want us to see. They are story-tellers, liars, manipulators...and most certainly voyeurs. I don't think you can be a director without that last one.

But, Hitchcock is something of a special case. He was always the "naughty little boy," the one his father had the bobbies lock up in a jail-cell to mete out some punishment. That little moment of cruelty at 8 years old is what inspired the many "wrong man scenarios" in his movies, their protagonists fearing imprisonment and the loss of freedom...unjustly. And the director seemed to take delight in the temptation of making the characters in his films miserable. Conversely, he was raised a Catholic, and so he also knew that intertwined with that delight came something else...Shame. There's always an element of "shame" in his films. But, perversely, that only made things better...more delightful. Intellectually, he knew that the two were linked. But, psychologically and emotionally, he was just as susceptible to them as we are.
He never really grew out of that "naughty little boy." Even as he grew older, more insecure and vulnerable...and feared becoming irrelevant. And feared losing whatever control and autonomy he had acquired throughout his career.
But, the last word, ultimately, must go to Oscar Wilde: “Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.”
Think about that when you go over this scene. Who is the one exerting power?
The Set-Up: Former cat-burglar John Robie (Cary Grant), now retired in the French Riviera, is having his post-work life some competition. Apparently, there have been recent jewel-thefts among the glitterati, and the Police (and some old allies) suspect that he is the one who is back in business, given that the modus operandi of the thief resemble his old methods. What's a man to do? Investigate, that's what! With the aid of a friendly insurance adjuster, Mr. Hughson (John Williams), Robie finds out who are the most likely targets for potential sacking. With that in mind, he ingratiates himself with Mrs. Jesse Stevens (Jessie Royce Landis), widow of Jeremiah—and less so with her daughter, Francie (Grace Kelly)—by causing a scene at a local casino, earning him a post "scandale" drink. By the time we start this scene, Mrs. Stevens has had many.


FRANCIE: I think we’d better go to bed, mother. 
MRS. STEVENS: Nobody calls me Jesse anymore. 
Mr. Burns—would you call me Jesse? 
ROBIE: I’d be happy to.
MRS. STEVENS: Mr. Hughson—would you call me Jesse? 
HUGHSON: If you like. 
MRS. STEVENS: Good. I like. (Looks away—then back) Stop worrying. 
(To Robie) Mr. Burns—
you said lumber. 
ROBIE: That’s right. 
She stares at him a moment. Then, slowly and measured— 
MRS. STEVENS: How come you haven’t made a pass for my daughter? 
MRS. STEVENS: (To Francis) And don’t say “mother” to me. (She imitates Francis’s tone) 
Robie glances at Francis. 
MRS. STEVENS: Mr. Burns—I asked you a question.
ROBIE: She’s very pretty. 
ROBIE: Quietly attractive. 
MRS. STEVENS: But too nice. 
I’m sorry I ever sent her to finishing school. I think they finished her there. 
Francis rises, seemingly not disturbed. 
FRANCIE: Come on, mother. 
Mrs. Stevens rises, a little unsteady, Hughson putting out an arm to steady her elbow. 
MRS. STEVENS: And so up to bed—
—where I can cuddle up to my jewelry. 
She turns to Hughson. 
MRS. STEVENS: You know, Mr. Hughson—as rare and wonderful as they are—
—I think I’d rather have eighty thousand dollars worth of Jeremiahs. 
Robie helps Francie on with her fur, as Mr. Hughson helps Mrs. Stevens on with her stole. 
HUGHSON: (Stretches) Well, I think I’ll toddle along to my cot. 
ROBIE: (To Francie) I’d be happy to escort you to your suite. 
FRANCIE: (Over her shoulder) That’s very thoughtful of you— Mr. Burns. 
(To mother) Come on, Jesse. 
MRS. STEVENS: (To Robie) Do you make much money at lumber, Mr. Burns? 
ROBIE: Right now building is booming. 
MRS. STEVENS: (Thinks this over) Mmmm hmm. 
Would you mind —if I had you—investigated—a little? 
ROBIE: Certainly not. Any particular reason? Not at all. With what object?
MRS. STEVENS: If I were Francie’s age—you’d sound too good to be true. 
Robie smiles. 
Mrs. Stevens, Robie and Francie are coming down toward THE CAMERA.
They stop at the door to our left. 
Mrs. Stevens is unsteady. Without even trying the key, she hands it to Robie. 
He takes it, opens the door. 
MRS. STEVENS: Thank you, Mr. Burns—
there is very little lumber around here. Just why did you come to the Riviera anyway? 
ROBIE: To meet someone as charming as you. 
MRS. STEVENS: (Turns into doorway) Boy! Now I am going to have you investigated! 
She starts to close the door behind her. 
Robie turns to Francis. 
ROBIE: Aren’t you going in? 
Francie starts to move away. The CAMERA RETREATING. 
FRANCIE: I’m down the other end. 
The door closes behind Mrs. Stevens. 
Robie walks after Francie, and the CAMERA GOES quite a way down the corridor.
It passes one door, and 
Francie finally comes to a halt at the third door which leads into the suite. 
She puts her key in the lock. 
The CAMERA PANS her as she starts to pass through the door. Robie remains in the foreground. 
She stops in the open doorway, and turns to look back at him. 
She studies him for a brief moment with a calm expression. 
Then quickly steps forward and
presses her lips on his.
At the same time, the CAMERA MOVES IN to big heads. 
She breaks away, 
turns, enters the doorway 
and closes it behind her. 
Robie stares at the blank door. 
When he tarns back to the CAMERA, 
there is a thoughtful look on his face, 
and a lipstick smear across his lips.
He turns away,
and retraces his steps slowly up the hall,
taking a handkerchief out of his pocket to wipe off the lipstick.
He slows up as he reaches the door through which Mrs. Stevens went. 
To Catch a Thief is available on Paramount Home Entertainment—the only one they kept the rights to!
* From the "Hitchcock/Truffaut" tapes:
the point where they have this discussion starts at about 17:00 into the video.
You'll hear that the actual discussion is quite changed from the book's transcription.

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