Tag Archive: John Michael Hayes


TO CATCH A THIEF (1955) – Paramount – ★★★★

Color – 106 minutes – 1.85:1 aspect ratio

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Principal cast:  Cary Grant (John Robie), Grace Kelly (Frances Stevens), Jessie Royce Landis (Jessie Stevens), John Williams (H. H. Hughson), Brigitte Auber (Danielle Foussard).

Screenplay by John Michael Hayes, from the novel by David Dodge

Cinematography by Robert Burks

Edited by George Tomasini

Music by Lyn Murray

Costumes by Edith Head

tocatchathief2

   Alfred Hitchcock entered 1955 riding a hot streak, with the back-to-back smash hits Dial M For Murder and Rear Window, and that streak would continue with To Catch A Thief.    The movie opens with one of Hitchcock’s typical vignettes.  A black cat creeps on a rooftop.  Cut to a woman screaming; her jewels have been stolen.  Cut to the same black cat, slinking by a windowsill.  Then another woman screaming.  Finally we cut to a black cat sleeping comfortably on Cary Grant’s sofa, as he reads a newspaper article about a jewel thief named “the cat”.   A simple but effective story set up.

 To Catch A Thief is often cited as Hitchcock lite:  a good-looking movie that offers little of the subtext or dark undercurrents to be found in many of his best movies.  Actually, all of Hitchcock’s favorite themes are on display here, and while the tone is light, the movie is always entertaining, and pleasing to the palate.

First of all, we have the innocent man falsely accused, in the form of Cary Grant’s John Robie.  A man who was once a jewel thief, but who now just wishes to live quietly in his villa near the French Riviera (don’t we all?)  But now, someone has begun stealing jewels, using his methods, and the police want to arrest him.  The difference between this movie and the many others with this theme is that the action is more static here;  this is a chase movie of sorts, but without constantly changing scenery and set pieces.  This all plays out in the same locale.   So there is not the same sense of menace that we feel in movies like North by Northwest or The 39 Steps.  One never truly feels like Grant is in any real danger.   (And yet, having said that, the rooftop finale is thrilling.)

Next we have the icy maiden as leading lady.  Grace Kelly’s character has a cool demeanor, but inside she is about to bubble over.   She is Frances Stevens, travelling in Europe with her rich mother, whose jewels are a target for the thief.  Observe the transformation of Kelly’s character as the movie progresses, and she becomes more overtly sexual.  Interestingly she is also turned on by the thought of Cary Grant’t character being a thief.  She wants him to be a thief; as a matter of fact, she is willing to help him steal.    Kelly had quickly become Hitchcock’s favorite leading lady, this being their third consecutive film together.  And her performance here is outstanding.

How about the domineering mother?  Grace Kelly’s mother is perfectly played by Jessie Royce Landis, who would later play Cary Grant’s mother in North by Northwest.  Her level head and straight talk make her a polar opposite of her daughter, and provide many of the best moments in the film.

And subtle (or not so subtle) sexual humor?   This film contains more double entendres than any film Hitchcock ever made.  Special acknowledgment goes to John Michael Hayes, who crafted a screenplay that is full of more quotable lines than five average movies.  His dialogue is witty, flirty, breezy, and never boring.

tocatchathief8

And a great climax, occuring in a high place?  John Robie unmasks the real cat thief, and clears his name, on the rooftop of a French villa, which has just hosted a lavish costume party.  The entire party sequence is a lovely set piece, with gorgeous costumes designed by Edith Head (of course) who once said this was her favorite movie to work on.

tocatchathief9

 

Above you can see the gorgeous set from the film’s finale,  on a sound stage at Paramount.

Some people have delved deeper into this movie, examining themes of guilt and trust, but since Hitchcock himself said the movie was not meant to be taken seriously, we will take him at his word.   But just because it is not serious does not mean it is not worth watching.  It is expertly made, gorgeously shot, well acted, with a memorable and funny screenplay.

Performances:  As is usually the case in Hitchcock movies, some of the most interesting performances are in the supporting cast.  Of course the two leads are great, as I’ve already mentioned.  But equally great is John Williams as insurance man H.H. Hughson.  And Jessie Royce Landis steals every scene she is in.   Her part is very well written, but she elevates the character beyond the written word.  And Brigitte Auber, as the second love interest for Cary Grant, is quite good as well.

Source material:  The movie is based on a novel by David Dodge.   Considering it is over 60 years old, the novel reads very well today.  It’s tone is light, and it breezes along, much like the movie.  The main plot points were all transferred from the book directly to the movie.  There are some minor changes.  In the novel, Robie actually dons a physical disguise after fleeing from the police at his villa, so they will not recognize him.  Robie also has a friend named Paul, a character that is eliminated from the movie altogether.  This friend falls in love with Danielle, the jewel thief, which complicates things at the ending.  Although screenwriter John Michael Hayes kept much of the plot, he did bring a lot of original dialogue to the movie.  Dialogue was Hayes’ specialty, and this screenplay features many gems.   As mentioned before, he packs the screenplay with double entendres;  it’s amazing that they all passed muster with the censors.

Academy awards:  Robert Burks won a much-deserved Oscar for Best Color Cinematography.  The movie was also nominated in the Best Costume and Best Color Art Direction-Set Decoration categories.

Robert Burks, cameraman:  Rather than a full scene deconstruction, we are going to take a look at one sequence in the movie, with particular attention paid to Robert Burks Oscar-winning cinematography.  Burks was the director of photography on 12 of Alfred Hitchcock’s films.  In addition to this movie, he shot Rear Window, Vertigo, North by Northwest, and 8 other titles.  One could argue that he was the most important technical collaborator of Hitchcock’s career.

ToCatch1

This is the scene where Frances Stevens (Grace Kelly) attempts to seduce John Robie (Cary Grant).  She is attempting to lure him with both her body and the necklace she is wearing.   In the shot above, Kelly’s face is in the shadows, forcing Robie’s (and the viewer’s) attention to the objects of desire. The green light on the curtains is a great touch as well.

tocatchathief4

The two are drawn closer together, with Grace Kelly’s character being the aggressor, while Cary Grant’s Robie is on the defensive.  Look at the above shot.  First, the two characters frame the window.   Grant stands rigid, while Grace Kelly is relaxed, seductive.  The fireworks are on display behind them.  Next observe the color composition.  Out the window is a deep blue.  The streak of green runs through the center of the frame, with the actors standing just inside it.  You can see that Grace Kelly’s hair appears green.  The light has almost a pinkish tint on the right, and there are deep shadows in the top left of frame, and bottom right.

ToCatch2

The characters are slowly drawn together, then they part.  Grace Kelly sits down on the couch, and now we are seeing her from Grant’s point of view; she is bathed in a brighter, natural light, finally showcasing her absolutely breathtaking face.

tocatchathief5

Back to a two-shot as Grant joins her on the couch.  Now they are surrounded again by that ethereal green light as they draw into a kiss and recline ontocatchathief6

Next, a cut to the fireworks out the window.  This may be the on-screen birth of the now-trite fireworks as sex metaphor.

 

Where’s Hitch?  Alfred Hitchcock’s cameo appears at about the 9:38 mark of this movie.  It is one of the most self-aware cameos of his career.  Cary Grant boards a bus outside his villa, and takes a seat in the very back.  On the seat to his right sits a birdcage with some birds in it.  He then looks to his left, and the camera pans over to show Hitchcock sitting right next to him, stoically looking ahead.

tocatchathief10

 

Recurring players:  Cary Grant had appeared in Suspicion and Notorious, and would later appear in North by Northwest.  Grace Kelly had earlier starred in Dial M For Murder and Rear Window.  Jessie Royce Landis would appear with Cary Grant again (as his mother!) in North by Northwest.  The inimitable John Williams had already been in The Paradine Case and Dial M For Murder.  Lewis Charles (man with milk saucer in Bertanis) would later appear in Topaz.  Steven Geray had earlier appeared in Spellbound.  Gladys Holland (woman at roulette table), Edward Manouk (kitchen helper), Louis Mercier (croupier) and Donald Lawton (police detective) would show up briefly in The Man Who Knew Too Much remake.  Barry Norton had earlier had a bit part in Strangers on a Train, and Loulette Sablon had a bit part in Foreign Correspondent.  And lets not forget Bess Flowers, the most prolific extra in Hollywood history, who was an extra in this and seven other Hitchcock movies.

Cary Grant and the stalwart John Williams

Cary Grant and the stalwart John Williams

What Hitch said:  Alfred Hitchcock had very little to say about this movie, over the years.  He did call it “a lightweight story” and say “it wasn’t meant to be taken seriously.”

 Definitive edition:  Paramount released this movie on blu ray in 2012.  This print of the movie is breathtaking.  Edith Head’s beautiful costumes, and Robert Burks’ Oscar-winning cinematography are on fine display.  The blu ray contains a dry-but-informative commentary track by Drew Casper, and numerous featurettes:  A Night With the Hitchcocks, Film Censorship in Hollywood, Writing and Casting, The Making of, Behind the Gates, Alfred Hitchcock and To Catch A Thief, Edith Head:  The Paramount years, and Interactive Travelogue.  Also included are photo galleries and the original theatrical trailer.  It’s a shame Paramount did not port over the commentary track from the earlier DVD release, featuring Peter Bogdanovich and Laurent Bouzereau.  Their lighter tone was more suited to this movie than Drew Casper’s scholarly dissertation.

THE Mman1956sevenAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1956) – Paramount – Rating:  ★★★

Color – 120 mins. – 1.85:1 aspect ratio

Principal cast:  James Stewart (Dr. Ben McKenna), Doris Day (Jo McKenna), Christopher  Olsen (Hank McKenna), Bernard Miles (Edward Drayton), Brenda De Banzie (Lucy  Drayton), Daniel Gelin (Louis Bernard), Reggie Nalder (Rien).

Associate Producer:  Herbert Coleman

Written by John Michael Hayes, from a story by Charles Bennett and D.B. Wyndham-Lewis

Cinematography by Robert Burks

Edited by George Tomasini

Original Music by Bernard Herrmann

Costume Designer:  Edith Head

Art Direction by Hal Pereira and Henry Bumstead

Why would an A-list director like Alfred Hitchcock choose to remake one of his own films?  He certainly wasn’t the only high-profile director in the “golden age” of film to do so:  Frank Capra, Cecil B. DeMille, Howard Hawks and John Ford all directed remakes of earlier films in their catalogs.  It may have been producer David O. Selznick who first planted the seed in Hitchcock’s mind.   As early as 1941, Selznick told Hitchcock that he thought The Man Who Knew Too Much would be a good film to remake.  Hitchcock (who was under contract to Selznick at the time), actually began writing a new treatment of the story with John Houseman, but nothing ever came of it.

Fast-forward about 13 years.  Hitchcock was in the midst of his prolific run at Paramount Pictures in the mid 50’s.  He had cranked out 3 films in less than two years, all penned by screenwriter John Michael Hayes.   He owed Paramount one more movie, after which he had to fulfill a contractual obligation to Warner Brothers for a movie.  Hitchcock already knew what movie he was going to make for Warner Brothers:  The Wrong Man.  But what movie would he first make for Paramount?  A remake of  The Man Who Knew Too Much, also written by Hayes.

The basic plot of this remake is the same as in the original film.  The McKenna family, on vacation in an exotic locale, witness a murder, and the dying victim imparts vague knowledge of an upcoming assassination attempt.  The child in this family is kidnapped, to prevent the parents from disclosing what they know to the police.   So the parents set out to find their missing child on their own.

man1956four

 

This film can be divided neatly into two parts:  the first 49 or so minutes, which take place in Marrakesh, Morocco, and set up the murder and kidnapping; and the latter 71 minutes, which take place in London.  The first section is by far the weaker of the two;  the pace is at times drearily slow.  Consider that Hitchcock’s original version of this movie took less than 15 minutes to shift the action to London, and this version takes over three times as long.   There are two separate story threads at work in this first section of the movie.  The overlying one introduces us to Ben and Jo McKenna (played by Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day), and their son Hank (Christopher Olsen), travelling in Marrakesh.   The McKennas have several mysterious encounters, first with a man on a bus named Louis Bernard;  later outside their hotel where a woman appears to be staring at Jo; and finally with a rather odd-looking man who “accidentally” knocks on their hotel room door.   The attempt to slowly build up suspense has some nice touches, but overall it takes far too long to get going.  Even attempts at humor don’t always work;  much is made of Ben McKenna’s ignorance of (and annoyance with) eating customs in a traditional Moroccan restaurant.  Yet he has earlier stated that he was in Morocco during the war.  Certainly he would have observed some of the local customs?   The underlying storyline is far more interesting, and this focuses on the state of the McKennas’ marriage.

John Michael Hayes often focused in his screenplays on the difficulties in relationships, how sacrifices must be made for any relationship to succeed.   His screenplays often have men and women from different worlds, who have seemingly irreconcilable differences in career and hobbies.  The best example of this is in Rear Window, in which Jimmy Stewart’s character deflects all talk of marriage with the incredibly sublime Grace Kelly, because of their different jobs and social standing.  The movie ending hints at a possible compromise.  One could  argue that the McKennas in The Man Who Knew Too Much are a logical progression of the couple from Rear Window.  Ben McKenna is a successful doctor in Indianapolis, Jo is an accomplished singer on the Broadway stage, who gave up her career for her husband.    And thus is established a theme of patriarchal dominance (as pointed out by Steven DeRosa in his informative book “Writing with Hitchcock”) which is rather on point for mid-1950’s America, and might have made more than a few movie-going couples squirm in their seats a little.

There are a dozen examples of dialogue in the opening section of the movie that point to the frayed edges in the McKennas’ marriage, and most of them are written with the subtlety and humor that were Hayes’ trademark as a writer.   Jo questions why Ben couldn’t be a doctor in New York, so she could appear on Broadway.  She asks him when they will have another child, which clearly blindsides him.  When their son Hank is getting ready for bed and sings the line “When I was just a little boy, I asked my mother what would I be?” the McKennas exchange a knowing glance.  Clearly Ben wants his son to follow in his footsteps as a doctor, while Jo, by encouraging Hank’s singing, has other ideas.

manwhoknew1956

The male dominance established in the film’s early sequence is not always so subtle.  In the movies most disturbing scene, (and one of the most disturbing scenes in all of Hitchcock), Ben McKenna forces his wife to take a sedative before he tells her that their son has been kidnapped.   By modern sensibilities this goes beyond patronizing.  But I find it hard to believe that a 1950’s audience would have been any less disturbed.  Doris Day’s performance in this scene is gut-wrenching and unforgettable.   But as is usually the case with Hitchcock scripts, the male lead will be emasculated later on, and it is the female who will save the day.

As soon as the story transitions to London, the pace quickens, and this latter half of the movie is far better.  The McKennas work (first separately, then together) to locate their kidnapped child, with the major set piece of the film being the assassination attempt at the Royal Albert Hall, just as in the original version.  ( I will focus on a comparison between the Royal Albert Hall sequences in a later entry.)  It is Doris Day who prevents the assassination, by screaming to throw off the shooter’s aim.  And again it is Doris Day who uses her singing to attract the attention of her child in the movie’s final sequence.

Six minutes of self-indulgence:  In one of the movies better sequences, Jimmy Stewart’s character goes in search of a man named Ambrose Chapell, not realizing that the name refers to a place, not a person.  After a brilliant set-up, and escalation of tension, the sequence moves into a taxidermy shop (which seems to specialize in exotic animals),  where we quickly realize that Ben McKenna is not in the right place.  Further, his rather bizarre and disturbing dialogue alarms the shopkeepers (it sounds as if McKenna is proposing that they stuff a dead person!)  Clearly they think McKenna is a madman.   There is much jostling around, before McKenna flees.  This sequence ultimately serves no purpose in advancing the plot;  it exists only for it’s own sake.  The sole purpose is some comic relief, to deflate the building tension.  Hitchcock enjoyed sequences like this.  He once likened movies to riding a roller coaster, in that you have to give the audience ups and downs.

man1956five

 

Performance:  Jimmy Stewart is adequate in this film, but not nearly as strong as he was in both Rear Window and Vertigo.  He does have several good moments.  Doris Day, who is a polar opposite of the typical Hitchcock heroine, was astounding in this role.  She gives an outstanding performance.   Christopher Olsen has little to do in his role as Hank, and what he does is mostly forgettable.  In Hitchcock movies, it is female children that are given interesting and memorable roles.  Male children, as in this movie,  are used for comic relief more than anything.  Bernard Miles does a decent job as Drayton, the leader of the gang, but he is no Peter Lorre.   Brenda De Banzie does a very good job as Mrs. Drayton, especially as her maternal feelings begin to show in the later portion of the film.

Recurring players:  Jimmy Stewart appeared also in Rope, Rear Window and Vertigo.  Patrick Aherne was in The Paradine Case.  For trivia buffs, Frank Atkinson appeared in both versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much (in the first he is the policeman shot behind the mattress, in this one he works in the taxidermy shop) as well as Young and Innocent.   Betty Bascomb is the only other person to appear in both versions (in the original she gives up her room for the two policemen, in this one she is Edna, the glasses-wearing kidnapper).  I think Betty Bascomb is also in Sabotage;  she is not credited on imdb, but I am almost certain that the girl in the aquarium is her.   And of course Bess Flowers, the Queen of the Hollywood extras (who appeared in more movies than anyone in film history), was also in Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Notorious, Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, To Catch  a Thief, Vertigo, and North by Northwest.   Gladys Holland, Louis Mercier and Edward Manouk were also in To Catch a Thief.  Anthony Warde also had an uncredited role in Rear Window.

Where’s Hitch?  At the 25:40 mark, Alfred Hitchcock can be seen in the crowd of people in the marketplace, watching the performers.  He is to the left of the screen, seen from the rear.

Academy awards:  This movie was the winner of one Oscar in 1957, for best Original Song:  “Whatever Will Be, Will Be (Que Sera, Sera)”.   This was the only nomination the movie received.  Hitchcock was at first opposed to the use of a song, but the studio felt that it would be a missed opportunity to cast Doris Day in the lead and not have her sing.  Alfred Hitchcock was pleasantly surprised with the song penned by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, which became a hit record after the release of the movie.

man1956three

What Hitch said:  In comparing this remake to his original film, Hitchcock said “Let’s say the first version is the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional.”

Definitive edition:   The 2012 Universal blu-ray is by far the best-looking print of this movie available.   That being said, it is not a fantastic print.  There are some problem areas with the movie, where some colors will shift over the course of a scene (particularly skin tone).  On the other hand, some scenes are absolutely gorgeous.  The VistaVision process allowed for amazing image clarity and color separation.    Perhaps a true restoration will be done at some point, but in the meantime, this is as good as it gets.  The soundtrack is a two-track mono, and sounds very good.  Also included is a 34-minute making-of documentary, production photographs, and two trailers.

 

 

%d bloggers like this: