It wasn’t long ago that Alfred Hitchcock was considered, particularly by British critics, as an entertainer not worthy of serious attention. But now Vertigo tops the latest Sight & Sound poll of the best films ever made and anyone who denies his greatness risks being laughed out of court.
Which brings us to his 1955 production of the now-revived To Catch a Thief which, though it starred Cary Grant (one of the best actors Hollywood ever produced) and Grace Kelly (shortly to become a real-life princess), would probably be the movie his detractors would most readily cite as simple entertainment.
They would, in this case, be right. Even Hitch didn’t make great claims for the film, and a passionate French critic visiting the shoot in France was disappointed when his adored director claimed that he hardly needed to visit the set since everyone concerned knew what to do without him.
As it happens, I interviewed Hitch during the making of Frenzy, his last film set in London, and he said exactly the same thing: “Everyone knows what to do and, if anything goes wrong, they will call me.” Hitch was not without ambition as far as either film was concerned, but he knew exactly what he was doing.
Even so, To Catch a Thief — about a charming rogue accused of a robbery he didn’t commit — is not one of his best, though it is still a piece of entertainment a cut above its contemporary equivalents. Hitch was simply incapable of being boring and the film’s Oscar-winning cinematography is as good as its shrewd script and lead actors.
Incidentally, Hitch told François Truffaut, apropos Kelly: “Look at the opening of To Catch a Thief. I deliberately shot Kelly ice-cold and I kept cutting to her profile, looking classical, beautiful and very distant.
And then, when Grant accompanies her to the door of her hotel room, what does she do? She thrusts her lips right up to his mouth.”
He added: “You know why I favour sophisticated blondes in my films? We’re after the drawing-room type, the real ladies who become whores when they are in the bedroom … an English girl, looking like a teacher, is apt to get into a cab with you and, to your surprise, she’ll probably pull your pants open.”
He could never be said to be au fait with feminism.
To Catch a Thief is at the BFI, Southbank until Aug 28.