To Catch a Thief (1955)


I might have called this review: The Glaring Stare of Danielle Foussard.

Her stare, a pained fixing stare leveled at John Robie, and shown but for the merest of moments, in the scene of her father’s funeral in To Catch a Thief–a moment of sublime artistic transcendence by Hitchcock the master cinematic portrait composer–is, I think, one of the finest triumphs of pure storytelling in the triumphant movies of Alfred Hitchcock. Her stare is art beyond words, an art Hitchcock creates in successful expressions by actors, perfect casts of face, which haunt but never distract with mere “explanation.” The most famous stare–the climactic one of Norman Bates–is revelatory after the closely preceding brilliantly scripted psychiatric distraction by Dr. Fred Richman from that primal truth about us sensed by all us humans even though along with our invincible visceral conviction of it we have no confident theoretical understanding of it, only the ingeniously concocted literary criticism of Freud, one with sufficient razzle-dazzle, on which we fall back forlornly in our continuing failure academically to Know Thyself.

Though momentary, I think Danielle’s stare should be spoken of in the company of Norman’s. Certainly her stare at the funereal must be Brigitte Auber’s unforgettable moment in the fading memory of Americans of her acting career.

What does her stare signify?

By way of approaching a conjecture: I discovered her stare yet again today: Having pulled a leg muscle, I finally managed to escape the pain by slipping into a late afternoon nap and, waking a couple of hours later at twilight and feeling better but not like moving, cruised TV channels and discovered happily that To Catch a Thief would start in moments on one of the movie channels. Enervated, I embraced pain, limped to the bar, mixed a drink, and carefully settled in on a recliner in front of a screen to enjoy one of the true revenges on life–an escape into one of Hitchcock’s beautiful Edens.

I’ve found Hitchcock kind to us about his various Edens in but a few of his movies: usually there is a Fall, an Expulsion. Preeminently in Vertigo.

How could it be otherwise in Century Twenty?

North By Northwest and To Catch a Thief are for me foremost in his occasional spells of uninterrupted and prevailing creative kindness. They are magnificent movies absent grand themes and, beginning to end, the friendliest and most considerate high art bringing you purely delightful (and hence comfortably suspenseful) dreamlike experience in a secure realm of beauty: there is no Fall or Casting Out or Keeping Of A Diabolical Bargain. There is just inevitably, naturally, sadly, The End.

In North by Northwest, the action is always across a wide geography but one in a mock-dangerous place. Danger is often almost a joke.

The much more circumscribed Eden of To Catch a Thief is beautifully captured by the dazzling,  incisive and certainly foremost Hitchcock scholar, Ken Mogg, in his magnificent illustrated history of Hitchcock’s movies, The Alfred Hitchcock Story:

“To Catch a Thief was much liked by audiences though reviewers were lukewarm. Variety, for some reason, called it ‘pretentious’. Hitchcock said that ‘[i]t wasn’t to be taken seriously’, but he didn’t mean the film lacked his usual attention to detail. For example, Robert Burk’s VistaVision cinematography fully deserved the Academy Award it won; yet the actual shots of the Cote d’Azur, whose villas cling intrepidly to ancient hills, do more than please the eye and create a certain visceral excitement. So do further shots featuring the region’s architecture, some of it centuries old.”

Captivating us with such comfortable drama takes superb art, great mastery. After all, monstrous history haunts us all, and certainly transfixes great artists: Hitchcock, in fact (or so it seems to me), faces it most of the time in his art, especially after World War Two.

But in these two benevolent Hitchcock triumphs in question, Evil, almost a mere artificial prop of drama for the Master in spinning a Happy Story, is never close to awful. Vandamm complains humorously at the end of North by Northwest that the authorities’ saving use on the monument of firearms and real bullets isn’t very sporting. And you know that Eve will be saved by Roger from falling from the monument. You know too that Danielle will be saved by Robie from falling from the high manse roof in France so distant from Scottie Ferguson’s skyscraper rain gutter in San Francisco. Especially in To Catch a Thief, Hitchcock’s play on our fear of heights is far less intense than in some other Hitchcock movies. No doubt impertinently, I once flashed on a comparison of Roger Thornhill and John Robie to Bugs Bunny: You just know that all three are never in enough danger that they’ll not come through. The danger, just sufficient, is all part of the fun. Grant can convey the confidence perfectly.

To Catch a Thief seems to me the epitome of this Generous Hitchcock. I think it not as engrossing as North By Northwest but a more concentrated and elegant escape, one lovely and benign.

I’ve reviewed Vertigo, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), and The Paradine Case–worlds apart from To Catch a Thief– elsewhere in this blog as movies with a lacerating sense of that Thomas Wolfe calls “The pathos of temporality.” The Hitchcock for which the Ideal cannot be sustained against insistent History–the drama of Falling writ large–we see especially poignantly in The Paradine Case:

“(The Paradine Case) is a loving preservation with no reservation…. (Hitchcock) goes on to tell the… now wistful story of the conservation of Past Grandeur. In black-and-white movie atmospheric beauty equal to splendid styles among great painters–oh, those shadowy grand cinematic scenes staged by Hitchcock amidst the splendor of Imperial British wealth and privilege!–we see caught unforgettably and forever the world of Savile Row suits, the Savoy, formal dinners, elegant women, brandy-and-cigars, manses decorated in perfect taste, top hats and big black umbrellas, rainy London evening streets viewed through limousine windows, elegantly simple impeccable olden courtrooms where the wigged and robed shrewd and acute professionals/Lords-and-Sirs–gentlemen all–proceed crisply and articulately through the evidence in accordance with timeless protocols. It is the only world we see. There are terrible people there–the Judge Lord Thomas Horfield (Charles Laughton [the perfect casting]) is thoroughly repugnant because he is an Awful, Snobbish, Perverted Person–but that is simply, you think under Hitchcock’s spell, to be expected, indeed even defining. You give it little pause. And then–the centerpiece of Hitchcock’s Real Story of Nostalgia, a nostalgia intensified by the Narrow Escape of World War Two–is a magnificent sequence in the middle of the movie in which young barrister Keane (the protagonist) journeys from London by train (Hitchcock loves train stations and trains and in these scenes he is at his best, as always) and then, beautifully symbolically, travels further by buggy, to Hilldane Hall Out There in Pastoral Cumberland. There, Keane tours the grand old but seemingly timeless English Country Estate, the Great House, again in a black-and-white splendor of shadowy stairs (stairs, but of course!) and huge bedrooms safe and secure on upper floors and magnificent wood-paneled libraries and sitting rooms and infinite gleaming and polished dining rooms…. (The Great) house is being shuttered and prepared to be “let” and there is, therefore, the sense of An End To All That. But Hitchcock, able to bear reading the emblazoned handwriting on the wall, got there just in time with his camera crew together with Gregory Peck, Louis Jordan, and a few bit-part actors to save it for posterity in a beautiful, haunting cinematic homage. A masterpiece, pure and simple.”

And of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956):

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934 and 1956) is especially distinguished because of its special music score played in the Royal Albert Hall scenes. I think of the 1956 version as Hitchcock’s Music Movie. Its chief music is The Storm Clouds Cantata written for the movie (1934/1956) by the accomplished Australian composer, Arthur Benjamin, with lyrics by D.B. Wyndham-Lewis, and modified for the 1956 movie by Bernard Herrmann, Hitchcock’s superb Hollywood film scorer for some of his greatest movies. Benjamin’s beautiful eight minute cantata is a modern classic and yet echoes the beauty and structure of the earlier classical tradition. There is a large chorale and a full orchestra, and their dress and arranged grouping on stage for the performance is itself beautiful. I am reminded of some idealized and beautiful idyllic scenes in another great movie of preservation, Russian Ark. In The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), the concert is magical, and that magic manages to manifest itself in the midst of the dire circumstances. That sequence in the Royal Albert Hall, a splendid and beautiful place of transcendent experiences, in which the cantata proceeds with none of the actors audibly speaking, including frantic Jo, is more than a great device of suspense. It is simultaneously an act of preservation of the beautiful, a stunning refuge in the midst of a suspense classic about the travails of ordinary experience. That we must be of two senses, be pulled two ways, when we listen to the music says much, I think, about Hitchcock’s view of the human experience. Indeed, the storyline of the cantata itself–the threatening storm clouds paralleling the main storyline with its foretold, “loaded” import of the assassin’s pistol shot to be hidden by the impending clash of cymbals–conveys the dark vision: There is a serpent in the Edenic garden. The besieging Greek army (“sodeyn Diomede”) is just beyond the walls of Troy and its beautiful and romantic gardens. There is always a storm coming.

And of Vertigo:

I take Vertigo at its highest level to be the bittersweet triumph of realism over surrealism, Hitchcock being haunted then by the horrific history circa mid-century which in the march of its jackboots jolted the Master out of his earlier raptures in Parisian art and German art. Accordingly, Hitchcock gives us in Vertigo fundamentally a classic detective story in which the Detective, the hard-headed realist and  Recovering Surrealist, Scottie Ferguson, pursues and dramatizes the dilemma of our experience in our dreadful times and, really, most other times: can you be an aesthete and yet live peacefully with your insistent and often unbidden primal self, your reliance on a realism in a deadly natural world? Even though Scottie is assaulted by a surreal conspiracy, that fundamental question remains at Vertigo’s center. Indeed, Scottie’s surprised and confounded look in the last frame of the movie–his would-be triumph of realism is entirely ironic–shows Hitchcock again using human expression as the final dramatization of a wordless but profound if inexplicable truth.

In To Catch a Thief, there is one glimpse of Hitchcock the Realist amidst the secure Romantic Eden. It is Danielle’s stare.

Otherwise, the storyline plays out in a reassuring Mediterranean paradise–a “travel folder heaven” and a refuge from the bad times of the War–of mild menace and reserved danger. John Robie (Cary Grant), a wealthy former jewel thief known as the Cat and a former hero of the French Resistance paroled from prison by a grateful French nation, a killer of several dozen people in the war and a man to be reckoned with, lives handsomely and quietly on the French Riviera. He consults with old friends on Monte Carlo at the restaurant of their elder, Bertani, when jewel robberies in the area commence by another cat burglar, for suspicion has fallen on Robie and his old friends have become hostile. Robie eventually encounters an American oil millionaire, Mrs. Jessie Stevens (Jessie Royce Landis), visiting Cannes with her daughter, Francine (Grace Kelly). Seeing the two women as likely prey of the cat burglar, Robie befriends them to position himself to capture the thief. He and Francine draw close. Eventually Robie captures the thief, Danielle, who is carrying out the thievery in league with Bertani. Robie and Francine, apparently to be joined by Mrs. Stevens, are together as the movie ends.

Danielle Foussard’s stare: Her father killed in a trap devised by Robie to catch the thief and which has gone awry, Danielle, who has propositioned Robie to run away with her to South America and live the good life on Robie’s money, stands at her father’s funeral in a crowd of mourners and fixes Robie with a look that is unforgettable. If you peer carefully, you will see that Hitchcock has arranged the cant of the faces and facial expressions of the other mourners in such a way as to focus your eyes on those of Danielle. She is his portrait in a crowd. Her expression opens up a reality beyond words, a hint of a breach in the walls of the gentle Eden of  To Catch a Thief.  It is a most haunting expression. I’m not sure it loses much to Norman Bates’s expression as to power and artistry, though it captures a much different sense of things. Perhaps it intimates a much larger and darker world beyond the one at hand. You know that the last thing to say about Hitchcock, the youngster who explored London, is that he thought movie scripts and sets were reality itself. They were ways of getting to reality, and certainly to include the great challenge of sensing its unutterable aspect. After all, Danielle is a woman scorned; a bereaved daughter; an outcast from the fortunate retired life of Robie; a somewhat innocent child of the earlier War life of far greater peril than the present one.

You’ll have to watch To Catch a Thief to see whether you agree about her stare.

A pleasant undertaking.