To Catch a Thief is sort of the perfect summer movie. It’s a breezy trifle of a story, spiced up by some electrifying star power in the form of Cary Grant and Grace Kelly, beautifully directed by one of the great masters of mainstream Hollywood cinema and dressed by the most stylish and insanely brilliant costume designer the Golden Age of the Studio system ever produced.
Kelly, Grant, Alfred Hitchcock and Edith Head are the sort of names that, when combined, necessarily result in something insurmountably watchable. It’s true this may be one of Hitchcock’s most inconsequential and least daring pictures, but who cares when we can gaze at gorgeous movie stars sexing it up in the French Riviera under the umbrella of a silly little delight of a plot about jewel thieves?
If I could choose a transition rather than a single shot I would undoubtedly pick something from the famous firework sequence. It’s one of the silliest and steamiest scenes in all of Hitchcock’s oeuvre, a director whose work is filled to the brim of similar moments where one can practically see him spit in the faces of Hollywood’s sanitized morality by injecting as much sexual subtext as he can. Here, his cinematic innuendos reach explosive levels as he intercuts Kelly’s forceful seduction of Grant’s retired jewel thief with colorful fireworks which are presented in an increasingly abstract manner, until they resemble little more than an orgasmic and messy explosion of light and color.
At least I can point out to my runner-up shot as representative of this entire scene’s greatness.
Here, Kelly’s character is trying to appeal to the thief’s desire for jewelry and illicit adventure. It’s a moment where this glamourous figure stops being the cold image of an entitled rich woman seeking cheap thrills and actually starts to seem deranged in her plight. Wonderful, powerful, glamorous and surprisingly seductive but a bit deranged nonetheless. Reflecting this, Hitchcock covers her head in shadow, turning her into a faceless gorgeous body adorned by the luxurious trappings of a Hollywood starlet. Her necklace, made of fake stones, glitters as the focal point of the shot showing off the object what she believes to be the key to win this game of passion.
Another great reason to name that particular image as my runner-up shot is the way in which the lighting and framing highlight the mastery of the costuming. This is the second chiffon evening gown Kelly has worn in the film. The first one, a blue work of perfect cinematic couture, showed off the actress’s icy persona and was conspicuously worn without a single piece of jewelry, not even some modest diamonds or pearls adorning her ears. Now, the silhouette, material and technique are basically the same, but there’s no ice blue to distract the eye from Kelly’s figure, no spaghetti straps cutting through the line of her shoulders and delicate collarbone, and, most importantly, there’s that unescapably showy necklace. It’s such a deliberate, studied look that we can almost call it a costume inside the world and narrative of the film, but Head doesn’t get caught up in such intellectualizations. After all, her job is to create the perfect unreachable appearance of a Hollywood movie queen and she does it, creating another breathtaking pinnacle of Studio Age glamour.
Continuing this love letter to Head’s designs, my pick for best shot is, unavoidably, one where the costumes are put in even greater evidence, not so much by the lighting but by the lines the extras’ eyes create as they hungrily converge on Kelly’s Vogue worthy figure.
Of all the ensembles Grace Kelly wears throughout To Catch a Thief, her black and white bathing costume is the strangest and showiest of them all. Unlike the climatic masked ball where Grace is simply the best dressed individual in a sea of crayon colored sparkly spectacle, here she’s dressed to stand out in a much less elegant manner.
It’s actually a bit jarring to see Kelly and Grant parading through the hotel lobby, the retired burglar even seems a bit embarrassed to be in the company of such a blatant attention seeking glamour girl. Augmenting this is the sheer impracticality of her clothes, her crownless white hat, for one, seems to be constantly on the verge of falling from her head, and her black top and capri pants combined with an open white skirt don’t look like they are a particular appropriate choice for a beach outing. Understandably, as they walk, you can see the other guests, mostly middle aged women, gawking at her, both in amazement and mocking contempt.
Still, once Grant distances himself from his extravagant love interest and looks back at her, she suddenly doesn’t look ridiculous anymore. In fact, she completely commands the image. Out of the confines of an uninteresting medium shot and the surprisingly inelegant company of her co-protagonist (weirdly doing the fashion faux-pas of buttoning two buttons of his blazer), she looks breathtakingly stunning.
The wider composition allows us to see her entire body and outfit, being obviously constructed as a way to show off both the actress and the costume. By slightly altering the presentation of his lead actress and her costume, Hitchcock transforms what could be an absurd and impractical vision of blatant attention seeking style into an image of pure Hollywood stardom. The looks of the surrounding people, no longer seem to be mocking, but rather admiring her from all directions like one would do with a beautiful celebrity. In essence, Hitchcock presents, in this shot, the raw power of creating the celestial illusion of the Movie Star, the turning of unobtainable, unpractical levels of spectacle and artificial perfection into an effortless crystallization of our desires and idealized concepts of beauty. In the end, what could be more appropriate for such a summery delight of a star vehicle?