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François Truffaut (1955) - To Catch a Thief



To Catch a Thief

John Robie (Cary Grant), an American thief who had worked in France before the war, had such a personal technique that each of his crimes bore his stamp, and he had been dubbed "the Cat" Eventually caught and imprisoned, Robie, when the prison was accidentally bombed, took advantage of the situation. He escaped, joined the underground and eventually became a Resistance hero.

The film finds Robie some years later, when he has completely retired to a villa in Saint-Paul-de-Vence to live in considerable comfort on the profits of his earlier career. His tranquility is soon spoiled by a series of jewel thefts in the great mansions and hotels of the French Riviera, thefts committed by someone as expert as he and in his style.

He falls under suspicion and his retirement and daily routine are disrupted. So the ex-Cat decides that the only way to get back his peace and quiet is to unmask the plagiarist burglar who has baffled the police. To track down his imitator he employs a dialectic Arsene Lupin would not disavow: 'To unmask the new Cat, I must catch him in the act during his next theft; to figure out who his next victim will be (since "he" reasons by imagining himself in "my" place) all I have to do is imagine what I would once have done, or what I would do now if I were in his place; that is, in the final analysis, in my own place." Naturally, Robie succeeds.

I have bothered to tell you the story line of To Catch a Thief in such detail to demonstrate that, in spite of appearances, once more Hitchcock remains absolutely faithful to his perennial themes: inter-changeability, the reversed crime, moral and almost physical identification between two human beings.

Without wanting to reveal the outcome of To Catch a Thief, I am sure that it is no accident that Brigitte Auber resembles Grant and wears an identical striped jersey: blue-and-white for Grant, red-and-hite for Auber. Grant's hair is parted on the right, Auber's on the left. They are look-alikes and opposites at the same time, so that there is a perfect symmetry throughout the work, a symmetry that carries over to the smallest details in the intrigue.

To Catch a Thief is not a black film, nor is there a lot of suspense in it. The framework is different from I Confess or Strangers on a Train, but the basics remain the same and the same relationships bind the characters to each other.

I mentioned Arsene Lupin before because this new film of Hitchcock's is elegant, humorous, sentimental almost to the point of bitterness, somewhat in the manner of 813 or L'Aiguille Creuse. It is, of course, a crime story that is designed to make us laugh, but nonetheless Hitchcock's basic idea led him to Jacques Becker's formula in Touchez pas au Grisbi: the thieves are burned out. The protagonist, admirably portrayed by Cary Grant, is disillusioned, finished. This last job, which forces him to use all his skill as a burglar for the ends of a policeman, fills him with nostalgia for action. You may be surprised that I consider To Catch a Thief a pessimistic film, but you have only to listen to Georgie Auld's and Lyn Murray's melancholy music and watch Grant's unusual performance.

As in Dial M for Murder and Rear Window, Hitchcock's use of Grace Kelly is critical: here she embodies the character of a superb Yankee Marie-Chantal, and she's the one who finally catches Grant by getting him to marry her.

I have read that To Catch a Thief has been criticized for its lack of realism. But André Bazin has pointed out the nature of Hitchcock's relationship to realism:

Hitchcock does not cheat the spectator; whether it is a case of simple dramatic interest or of profound anguish, our curiosity is not compelled by a vagueness about what the threats are. It isn't a question of mysterious "atmosphere" out of which all sorts of perils might emerge as from a shadow, but of an unbalance: a great mass of iron begins to slip on a smooth slope, and we can calculate quite easily how it will accelerate. The direction then becomes the art of showing reality only at those moments when the suspended perpendicular of the dramatic center of gravity is about to break away from its supporting polygon. Such direction disdains both initial shock and the final crash. For my part, I would certainly see the key to Hitchcock's style — a style that's so personal that we recognize it at first glance in even his most ordinary shots — in the wonderfully determinant quality of this unbalance.

To keep up this imbalance, which creates a nervous tension throughout a film, Hitchcock must obviously sacrifice all those scenes that would be indispensable in a psychological film (connections, exposition, climax), the more since it would obviously bore him to death to shoot

them. He is inclined to neglect verisimilitude in his mysteries, and even to despise plausibility, especially since a whole generation of misguided viewers credits only plots that are "historically . . . sociologically ... psychologically" plausible.

Alfred Hitchcock has in common with Renoir, Rossellini, Orson Welles and a few other great filmmakers the fact that psychology is the least of his worries. Where the master of suspense achieves realism is in the fidelity to the exactitude and the correctness of the effects within the most improbable scenes. In To Catch a Thief, three or four basic implausibilities leap out at the viewer, but never has there been such precision within each image.

Here is an entry from the record: After Hitchcock had returned to Hollywood to direct the studio scenes for To Catch a Thief his assistants remained in France to film the "transparencies" on the Riviera. Here is the text of a telegram he sent from Hollywood to his assistant in Nice to have him redo a scene which would last two, or perhaps three, seconds at the most on screen:


Have watched scene where auto avoids oncoming bus. Afraid it doesn't work for following reasons: as we-the-camera take the curve the bus appears so suddenly that it is already past before the danger is realized. Two corrections: first: move along the long straight road with the curve at the end so that we are warned about the curve before we get there. When we reach the curve, we should be shocked to find autobus appearing and coming straight at us, because since the curve is narrow the bus should be on the left but we-the-camera should never take the curve straight.

Second: in the projected shot, only half the autobus appears on the screen. I realize that this is due to the fact that you are swerving. This error can be corrected by keeping camera trained on the left so that at the same time as the auto takes the curve the camera can pan from left to right. All the rest of the shooting is breathtakingly beautiful.

Regards to the whole crew. HITCH.

While it may be a minor film in the career of a man who knows better than all the others what he wants and how to get it, To Catch a Thief completely satisfies all his fans — the snobbiest and the most ordinary — and still manages to be one of the most cynical films Hitchcock has ever made. The last scene between Grant and Kelly is classic. It is a curious film that both renews Hitchcock and leaves him unchanged, an amusing, interesting film, very wicked about French police and American tourists.

-- 1955