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Considering how little I feel I have to add to the volumes of criticism and appreciation surrounding Alfred Hitchcock’s filmography, I was going to cheat and just reuse my To Catch a Thief DVD review. Then I read it and realized it was terrible. Utterly terrible. But I’m still going to keep things brief, because, you know, it’s Hitchcock.

To Catch a Thief
To Catch a Thief isn’t one of Hitchcock’s absolute masterpieces, but it easily stands among the director’s few significantly, almost exclusively light-hearted films (though apparently Hitch was on a bit of a comedic roll in 1955, which also saw the release of The Trouble with Harry, a much blacker comedy). Hitchcock experts easily point to any number the dark undertones, but the underlying perversions of Vertigo and Marnie are mostly missing, as are the more easily observed horrors of Psycho and The Birds. These themes are largely replaced with playful romantic comedy, clever quips, and gorgeous and stoic photography (it won the Oscar for cinematography). It’s not a particularly intricate plot, but there’s a lot of plot set to unfold, and it unfolds in such a grand, witty fashion. Sometimes Hitch is so comfortable with the effervescence of it all he even allows himself to be a bit lame, like the bit where he explains why the proverbial chicken crossed the road.

To Catch a Thief is also notable as Hitchcock’s third collaboration with both Cary Grant and Grace Kelly. Grant is playing mostly to his charming and dashing strengths, not pushing himself to the dark places Notorious took him, or the physical places North by Northwest took him five years later. Kelly, on the other hand, is given a proper chance to be a full-fledged character. Her roles in Dial M for Murder and Rear Window are brilliant in their way, but similarly objective. Both Margot Mary Wendice and Lisa Carol Fremont are both definitely supporting characters. Hitchcock is still treating her as a glowing screen goddess here, but Frances Stevens propels the plot and commands scenes with more than her breathtaking physicality. She also shares more palpable chemistry with Grant than she did with James Stewart. The blatant, production code baiting sexual subtext is one of To Catch a Thief’s most continuously discussed elements. Besides the usual undercurrent of fetish, Hitchcock includes some genuinely hilarious visual metaphors and double entendres, the most famous of which is the rapid editing between Kelly and Grant locked in a kiss, and exploding fireworks.

To Catch a Thief

Video


This is twice now that I’ve reviewed a Vista Vision release from Paramount on DVD and Blu-ray, the other example being White Christmas, and both films looked significantly better in HD ( White Christmas looked significantly worse than To Catch a Thief due to misaligned blue strips). It seems the high-resolution possibilities of the format simply aren’t done justice in anything less than 1080p. To Catch a Thief was the first of five Hitchcock films to be shot using Vista Vision, including The Trouble with Harry, The Man Who Knew Too Much, North by Northwest, and most notably, Vertigo. Hopefully all of these will eventually show up on Blu-ray, though apparently that’s Universal’s choice, not Paramount's.

Most film historians seem to agree that Vista Vision is second only to the three-strip Technicolor process in terms of colour quality, and Hitch and Oscar award winning cinematographer Robert Burks take advantage of the format by including just about every crayon in the box on screen at any given time (the party that kicks off the climax will burn your eyeballs out if you aren’t careful). Occasionally they even treat the format as if it were a gimmicky 3D horror flick, and toss swaths of colour, like flowers or fireworks, directly at the lens. Then there are those abstract colour schemes utilized during the stage-set night sequences, where the moon appears to glow green, and windows bleeds pink. The rich and vibrant highs don’t lead to entirely natural skin tones (as if Grant’s skin tones could ever be considered ‘natural’), but who cares. The clarity and sharpness of the image is relatively consistent, but there are sequences that reveal distinctly more life-like detail and texture (wetted skin will make you itch, and you can count the hairs on Grant’s knuckles), and some of the beauty shots of Cannes have such distinctively defined backgrounds they almost appear 3D (likely even more so in theaters). The only problem is that location shots are sizably cleaner than the process shots, an issue that wasn’t really all that visible in standard definition. There are still some issues with edge enhancement here, along with a few other sharpening issues like blown-out whites on the darkest shots, and headache-inducing issues with Moiré effects on Cary Grant’s horizontal striped shirt, but otherwise comparisons between this and the sadly over-compressed DVD release are (green) night and day.

Audio


Unfortunately this Dolby TrueHD 2.0 surround soundtrack doesn’t quite match the fantastic video quality, and generally speaking doesn’t sit too far above the Dolby Surround track on the DVD release. This isn’t really a problem given the mono source, but I’d prefer something a little louder. Sound effects are a bit cramped up, but nothing is really lost in the design, especially not those fun car and foot chase sequences. There are a handful of lip-sync issues, and minor distortion on high volume levels, but these all appear to be a case of ADR problems on the original masters, not problems with the disc’s sound. Lyn Murray’s musical score is romantic, and reminiscent of early ‘60s live action Disney scores—but it’s missing the indelibility of Bernard Herrmann’s finest work (Hitchcock and Herrmann would begin their celebrated collaborations the same year with The Trouble with Harry). The score is the 2.0 track’s most intense element, and is reasonably warm for such old material. There’s a little bit of minor distortion to the dialogue, but the track is consistent. The disc also features the original mono track, which generally sounds the same with a tad less width on the musical score.

To Catch a Thief

Extras


(I’ve just transcribed this section from my DVD review, since the extras are all the same) This Centennial Collection two-disc set starts with an incredibly rich and informative audio commentary with Hitchcock expert Dr. Drew Casper. Expert commentaries can be overwhelming, but Casper strikes a decent balance between packing the track with information, and pacing himself so that his audience may actually absorb the information. This is one of those commentaries that makes you appreciate the film on a different level, and it’s enough to make an amateur reviewer second-guess his skills. It’s like a film school lesson, with the good doctor filling us in on the genius of subtext and framing. I was preparing a more in depth review, but listened to this track, and realized I couldn’t have said it better, or possibly been as informative.

A Night with the Hitchcocks (22:30, SD) is a filmed Q and A featuring Hitch’s daughter Patricia and granddaughter Mary speaking to a film school class. The questions are mostly of the softball variety, but Patricia Hitchcock is still pretty quick witted, so the answers are at least entertaining. The more personal anecdotes, like Patricia complaining about never dating as a kid, and Mary recalling that the lovebirds from the beginning of The Birds ended up killing each other, are the most amusing.

Unacceptable Under the Code (11:30, SD) explores the censorship of the pre-rating system production code, and Hitchcock’s efforts to surmount it. The specifics of the code itself are covered first, then the subtextual ways around the code, and then the specifics of To Catch a Thief’s stern warnings. Interestingly enough many of Hitch’s code beating techniques are still used to get around NC-17 ratings these days.

Writing and Casting To Catch a Thief (9:00, SD) starts the making-of featurettes, which like the Odd Couple Centennial release should’ve probably been re-edited into one more satisfying documentary, like the ones that accompany most of Universal’s Hitchcock releases. As the title signifies this featurette concerns the processes of scripting the film (which was based on a book), and the gathering of the cast. With-in the featurette is a reiteration of some of the film’s censorship problems, and a description of a scene that was deemed too expensive to film.

To Catch a Thief
The Making of To Catch a Thief (16:50, SD) continues the behind-the-scenes story, and mostly covers the actual production phase. Subjects covered include location scouting, the advent of Vista Vision, costume design, filming, editing, the score, and release.

Behind the Gates: Cary Grant and Grace Kelly (6:00, SD) has clearly been made by a different production crew than the other featurettes, and might have been made for television. Here Grant and Kelly are each given brief life histories, mixed with elements of To Catch a Thief’s history. Alfred Hitchcock and To Catch a Thief: An Appreciation (7:30, SD) is another bit that should’ve been coupled with the other making-of featurettes, and focuses a lot on Hitch’s personal life, including home movies. Edith Head: The Paramount Years (13:40, SD) is far too short a look at one of filmdom’s most important and consistent contributors. As the title signifies, this featurette doesn’t only cover Head’s work on To Catch a Thief’s costumes, but her work for the studio in general. Things are completed with the original theatrical trailer, a French Riviera interactive travelogue, and image galleries.

To Catch a Thief

Overall


You want a double feature for the ages? I’ll give you one. Take To Catch a Thief and chase it with Mario Bava’s mod explosion thief picture Danger Diabolik. If you’re really bored stick From Russia with Love or John Woo's Once a Thief between them. If you’re particularly bored throw Entrapment in there too. To Catch a Thief is an exceedingly charming film, and if you haven’t seen it you really should, and this Blu-ray release (finally) is a great place to start. The video quality is remarkably sharp and vibrant, the mono audio is acceptable, and the extras, which were available on the previous DVD release as well, are still entertaining and informative.

* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality


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