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To Catch a Thief: Special Edition

Perhaps directors should take working vacations more often. Alfred Hitchcock, for one, was fond of traveling, but rarely allowed business to mix with pleasure. Working as a young director in Britain's film industry, Hitch, wife Alma, and daughter Patricia often visited France and Switzerland for brief respites — getting Hitch to take a film crew along was an altogether different task, and he normally preferred to labor in the confined, controlled settings of a studio's soundstages and back-lots. But by the mid-'50s Hitch was ready to shoot To Catch a Thief, a film property he had owned for several years, and location work on the French Riviera was put on the schedule. Such would not be the only aberration in the Master's oeuvre. Prior to 1955, Hitchcock had delivered a series of dark, thematically complex films — Rear Window, Dial 'M' For Murder, Strangers on a Train, Notorious, et. al. — that relied on protagonists who were spiritually or morally corrupted to some degree, and thus were complicit in the dramatic events that enveloped them. One practically has to go all the way back to 1938's The Lady Vanishes to find a pure cinematic lark — a picture that exists merely to excite and enthrall the audience. To Catch a Thief was "lightweight material" (by the director's own admission), but it was a welcome diversion when it arrived. And despite the glitz and the glamour of its French setting, it nonetheless ranks among the most emblematic of Hitchcock's films.

Adapted by John Michael Hayes from the novel by David Dodge, To Catch a Thief concerns American expatriate John Robie, a former circus acrobat who became a master jewel thief in France before World War II, but later joined the French Resistance and earned a parole for his wartime efforts. Living in retirement on France's Mediterranean coast, Robie (aka "The Cat") enjoys his spacious villa and serene lifestyle — until a series of jewel thefts strike the region's upper classes, each one bearing the mark of The Cat himself. Keeping one step ahead of the police, who plan to hold him for questioning, Robie starts nosing around his old Resistance colleagues, hoping to uncover which one of them has launched the vendetta. Meeting up with a British insurance agent (John Williams), Robie also obtains a list of homes the burglar may hit next, leading to his striking up a friendship with wealthy American Jessie Stevens (Jessie Royce Landis) and her daughter Frances (Grace Kelly). Posing as a lumber baron from Oregon, Robie intends to be nearby when the Stevens jewels are stolen — what he can't suspect is that the beautiful Frances knows a few things about Robie as well, and the thrill-seeking girl has set her own cat-trap.

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Put simply, To Catch a Thief is what the best of Hollywood movies are all about. And in this instance, it didn't hurt that Hitchcock shot this champagne-soaked romantic adventure with one of the best teams he had ever assembled. Foremost among these was scenarist John Michael Hayes, who wrote four films for Hitchcock and arguably provided the director with his wittiest dialogue — here, each scene crackles with lively ripostes and double-entendres. Judging by the trailer, the Côte d'Azur settings are what drew crowds, and the lush scenery was captured by cinematographer Robert Burks, who won an Oscar for the picture. Lyn Murray's score smartly underplays every scene, lending to the film's suspenseful atmosphere. Legendary costume designer Edith Head handled the wardrobe, and in particular the many outfits that flatter Grace Kelly's persona (and without doubt delighted Hitchcock). As for Kelly, this would be her third and final movie with Hitch before retiring from the film industry, and in it she defined the "Hitchcock Blonde," icy-cool on the exterior, but passionate and sexually agressive after she's trapped her prey. Cary Grant, another of Hitch's favorite actors, also got a definitive role with a script varied enough to utilize his skills at comedy, action, and just looking smolderingly handsome in the dark. But despite its "lightweight" status, To Catch a Thief often is dismissed too easily by Hitchcockian scholars — it's pure entertainment through and through, but nonetheless loaded with the director's signature touches. An innocent man eludes the police, meals figure prominently, and the finale involves a bit of height-induced suspense. Above all, the title itself is a play on two of Hitch's favorite themes: sex and theft. If Robie is the thief set "to catch a thief," then Frances is set upon catching a thief as well (Robie), using her sexual allure to absorb his identity for her own purposes — something the mysterious new "Cat" is doing after dark. Such identity-shifting leitmotifs would recur in Vertigo, Psycho, and Marnie — in this instance, it's a fun opportunity to see Hitch playing the piece with a softer touch.

Paramount's second DVD release of To Catch a Thief arrives as a "Special Collector's Edition," and the foremost new feature is the most important one: The new anamorphic transfer (1.85.1) features a restored print of the VistaVision film, enhancing the color spectrum and eliminating the collateral wear that marked the original DVD — one of Alfred Hitchcock's most visually stunning films is now virtually flawless on home video, while the original monaural audio has been upgraded with a Dolby 2.0 Surround option. Also new to the release is a commentary featuring filmmakers Peter Bogdanovich and Laurent Bouzereau, both who offer several insights into Hitchcock's career, while Bogdanovich also serves up a few personal anecdotes on his friendships with Hitch and Cary Grant. Returning from the original release are the Bouzereau-produced featurettes "Writing and Casting To Catch a Thief" (9 min.), "The Making of To Catch a Thief" (16 min.), "Alfred Hitchcock and To Catch a Thief: An Appreciation" (7 min.), and "Edith Head – The Paramount Years" (13 min.), all featuring comments from daughter Patricia Hitchcock O'Connell and others. (Best anecdote: One of Hitch's granddaughters got him to secretly co-author a paper on one of his movies for her college film course — they earned a 'C'.) Theatrical trailer, keep-case.
—Robert Wederquist

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