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The Times (01/Nov/1955) - Mr Hitchcock's "To Catch a Thief"

(c) The Times (01/Nov/1955)



The choice of a serious film, however good, for a gala occasion such as the royal performance has sometimes bothered those who feel that solemnities should, above all, never be solemn. This year the choice for the royal performance at the Odeon Cinema, Leicester Square, last night fell on To Catch a Thief — that is to say, on a film that is lighthearted, impudent, and clever enough to flatter the audience that they are all, of course, at least as clever.

To Catch a Thief is the work of Mr. Alfred Hitchcock, a master of the film of suspense, and it is therefore interesting to find that he has chosen to film a story of the French Riviera. From E. Phillips Oppenheim (or whoever else first discovered its possibilities in the literature of crime) to A. E. W. Mason, the Riviera as depicted in their books provided stay-at-homes in England with the perfect, because perfectly different, escape from reality; and now here is Mr. Hitchcock doing it all over again. From the moment the camera looks out from the sometime jewel thief’s eyrie, and we see the exotic hillside fall away towards the pink and white villas and the calm blue sea, we are disposed to enjoy ourselves. There is a cloud, however, over the contentment of that reformed offender. Someone is imitating the inimitable; a whole series of jewel robberies is being carried out with an expertise that people, including the police, are uncharitably quick to say reminds them of John Robie (Mr. Cary Grant). There are excellent reasons why Robie himself should take a hand in the hunt.


In Mr. Hitchcock's hands, of course, the exposition is a matter of the amusing and the unexpected, such as the chase by car full speed down the zigzags of a mountain road that ends in — but it would be wrong to spoil the surprise — or the angry symbolism of the chef and his helpers at a restaurant when they believe they will be implicated in Robie's supposed backsliding, or the overturning of half the stalls in the flower market at Nice as he tries to give the police the slip and is beaten for his pains with a bunch of madonna lilies. It is in the flower market that he meets the insurance investigator (Mr. John Williams), who knows where all the best remaining diamonds are and, incidentally, enables Mr. Hitchcock to have his demure fun at the expense of the conventional English.

His best fun, nevertheless, he owes to the unconventional Americans, for the raffish Mrs. and Miss Stevens (Miss Jessie Royce Landis and Miss Grace Kelly) have been pursued by fortune hunters for too long not to have learnt the shrewdness and directness of adorable Miss Dunstable herself, and they will declare that they are "just common people with a bank account" as unconcernedly as the mother will stub out her cigarette in the remains of breakfast. Miss Stevens owes even more to Shaw than she does to Trollope: she is the superman determined to get her man, though screen convention requires her to throw him back when she learns, as she believes, the truth.


Thus the director delightfully keeps up the interest as his story proceeds towards the fancy dress party of fancy dress parties, at a villa that is the last word in exoticism, where even the Press photographers are in knee breeches and white wigs and all that the policemen retain of their serviceable everyday selves is their shoes. What happens at the villa, and whether Robie clears his good name (of late years) and whether the superman gets her man must be left to each visitor to the film to find out for himself. This much may be said: there is more wit than thrills, more humour than crime, more optimism (without false sentiment) than materialism. It is as good as a holiday in itself.