Hitchcock-a-thon: To Catch a Thief (1955)

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After a long period of dark and serious films, Hitchcock tried his hand a something fun and frothy for the first time since Mr. and Mrs. Smith nearly fifteen years earlier. But unlike that last attempt, To Catch A Thief is very enjoyable.

Retired cat burglar John “The Cat” Robie (Cary Grant) is framed by new wave of jewellery robberies. On the run from the ever-inept police, he escapes to safety with the aid of his old flame Danielle (Brigitte Auber) and sets out to prove his innocence.

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Cary Grant gets stuck with the bus weirdo

In order to catch this new cat burglar red-handed, Robie becomes close to wealthy widow Jessie Stevens (Jessie Royce Landis) and her daughter Francie (Grace Kelly). While initially ice cold towards him, Francie’s attraction to Robie swells after she learns of his devious and thrilling old ways. But when Mrs. Stevens’ diamonds vanish in the night, it’s no longer fun and games in Francie’s eyes.

The driving force of To Catch A Thief comes from the pairing of two dream leads: Cary Grant and Grace Kelly (this proved to be her final Hitchcock film as she gave up acting due to her marriage to Prince Rainier III of Monaco in 1956). The chemistry between them is electric and every line of the innuendo-crammed dialogue between them is marvelously corny.

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“You want a leg or a breast?” Kelly ask, presenting him with a picnic. “You make the choice,” replies Grant unblinkingly. Bond would be proud.

While the film can’t be called a “comedy”, strictly speaking, it’s an enjoyable romp around gorgeous French scenery that serves as a great little call-back to some of the lighter films of Hitchcock’s late British years.

The central “who is the imposter cat burglar” mystery plays out in a fairly boring fashion without any great twists and turns, despite all the suave turtlenecks Cary Grant can squeeze into. But when the leads are this fun and the dialogue is this flirty, who cares?

“I have a feeling that tonight you’re going to see one of the Riviera’s most fascinating sights,” promises Kelly. Then, after a pause, “I was talking about the fireworks”.  “I never doubted it,” reassures Grant. Sure, mate. Sure.

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Hitchcock-a-thon: Saboteur (1942)

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When watching Saboteur why not play “spot The 39 Steps similarities”? A double chase with police hot on the tail of our falsely-accused hero as he tracks down the true culprits? Check. A reluctant heroine who initially doubts our hero’s claim to innocence but falls in love with him by the end? Check? People in positions of power who can’t be trusted? Check. The hero spending most of the movie in handcuffs? Check. Wit and sparking dialogue? Uh…that one not so much.

After a wartime airplane factory is set alight in a shocking act of sabotage, worker Barry Kane (Robert Cummings) is wrongly accused and forced to flee across the country, following a lead which he thinks will bring him to the true masterminds behind the attack. With his gal by his side (Priscilla Lane) they’re search for justice takes them to abandoned ghost towns, a train of circus performers and to the very top of the Statue of Liberty itself.

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As is evident from my brief synopsis, Saboteur was something of a retread for Hitchcock who needed to get back into familiar territory after the lukewarm critical reaction to Mr. & Mrs. Smith and Suspicion.

However, what sets the film apart from Hitchcock’s previous “man on the run” thrillers is his first truly “American” take on the formula. There are no stately English manors or Laurence Oliviers to be found here. American actors and American landmarks all the way, baby.

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There’s also a couple of over-the-top speeches about how gosh darn swell America is. Perhaps a bit hard to stomach for the modern cynical viewer, but it has to remembered that production on Saboteur began less than two weeks after the strike on Pearl Harbor. This kind of patriotism was common in Hollywood at the time.

Despite big blockbuster set-pieces, most notably the climatic fight on top of the Statue of Liberty, Saboteur doesn’t have the same impact as The 39 Steps or even Young and Innocent. It’s still an entertaining romp, but it needed a more compelling lead couple and a tighter script to push it into the top ranks. It would be nearly 20 years before America finally got it’s true rival to 39 Steps. Just wait. Hitchcock was only getting started…

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Hitchcock-a-thon: Mr. & Mrs. Smith (1941)

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Could Hitchcock do comedy? He could certainly be funny, time and again he demonstrated his ability to bring comic elements to dramatic films. But when it came to pure comedy his only attempt so far in his career…wasn’t funny. But that was over a decade ago. It was time for him to try his hand at directing a screwball American comedy in the footsteps of Bringing Up Baby (1938) and His Girl Friday (1940).

Mr. and Mrs. Smith (almost entirely unrelated to the plot of the 2007 Brangelina spy comedy of the same name) stars Robert Montgomery and Carole Lombard as David and Ann Smith, a New York couple who have been happily married for three years. But after a fight with David and the discovery of a technicality that means their wedding was never legally binding, Ann decides that maybe the single life is better after all. She kicks her not-husband out of their apartment, gets a job and begins courting a Southern lover called Jeff (Gene Raymond). In true Rom Com fashion, it’s up to David to try and win back her heart.

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Lombard, who was also a good friend of Hitchcock’s, holds the film together. Her energetic and fiery delivery coaxed a couple of chuckles out of me and I got one good proper laugh at her wonderfully world-weary expression at the top of a broken Ferris wheel.

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She was known as the Queen of Comedy in the ’30s and she more than proves her worthiness to the title with her ability to milk some gags out of this flimsy script. Tragically, this was her penultimate film. She died a year later in a plane crash.

Lombard aside, there’s really not much to recommend. Her comic counterpart, Montgomery, does an adequate job but – once again – he’s not working with much. His role is essentially an underdeveloped modern version of Petruchio from Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew as he tries to stomp out his wife’s wild temper.  There’s even one moment right at the end that’s a bit (how do I put this?) domestic-abuse-y.

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The last five minutes aside, Mr. & Mrs. Smith is inoffensive; it’s just not very funny. Despite Lombard and Montgomery’s best efforts the characters aren’t especially likeable, there’s weak pacing throughout and you’ll find more sparkling wit in five minutes of The Lady Vanishes than in the entire running time. But you can’t blame Hitch for trying something different.