Two views of Hitchcock’s romantic thriller “To Catch a Thief”
Updated: May 9, 2022
BLU-RAY REVIEW / FRAME SHOTS
Top - 2012 Blu-ray version featured more clarity on Cary Grant's face, controlled highlights, and a warmer palette. Bottom - 2020 Blu-ray shows signs of digital noise reduction causing waxy faces, plus the color toning has been dialed to the cooler side. Should Grant's jacket be gray or blue? The bright highlights in Grace Kelly's hair are also blown out.
(Click an image to scroll the larger versions)
“TO CATCH A THIEF – PARAMOUNT PRESENTS” Blu-ray, 1955, Not Rated
Best extra: A comprehensive commentary with Dr. Drew Casper, film historian
DIRECTOR Alfred Hitchcock would shiver in his grave over the latest Paramount presentation of his romantic thriller “To Catch a Thief” if he saw it now.
Eight years ago, Paramount released a marvelous Blu-ray special edition of the film from a new 4K master (1.78:1 aspect ratio). The results were spectacular, one of the best, with unmatched detail and breathtaking vistas overlooking the French Riviera, where the story takes place.
This week, the studio launched the new “Paramount Presents” series sourced from new 4K masters and showcasing the 65-year-old title starring Cary Grant and Grace Kelly, along with two other studio favorites, Elvis Presley’s “King Creole” (1958) and the bleak thriller “Fatal Attraction” (1987). Film critic/historian Leonard Maltin says Hitchcock’s two-screen stars were “possibly the most gorgeous screen couple ever to exist” in the sole new extra, “Filmmaker’s Focus,” a featurette he also hosts on “King Creole.”
The previous Blu-ray was nearly perfect, so we expected Paramount to recycle the previous downconverted HD master, or seriously consider an anniversary 4K Ultra HD edition, but from the opening frames, it’s easy to tell something went wrong.
First off, highlights are much brighter to the point of being washed out at times, and the natural film grain is nearly scrubbed away. Cary Grant’s face has a waxy look – clearly, a sign of a digital noise reduction application. This was a nasty trick of the Hollywood studios during the early days of Blu-ray, and has even shown up on a dozen or so 4K discs. Its purpose is to reduce film grain, which is the base of the whole photochemical process of film stock.
(1) 2012 version - In the distance French police approach John Robie's (Cary Grant) villa. (2) 2020 version - less definition and the color timing set toward a blue cast. (3) 2012 version - Excellent facial detail. (4) 2020 version - Missing detail on the stone wall and Grant's face.
Yet it’s not just the lack of fine detail on the actor’s faces. Costumes and distant objects are missing definition, too. It was far superior on the 2012 presentation. And for some crazy reason, the rich warm colors from the three-strip Technicolor process have been dialed to the cool side and desaturated, while the overall frame has been cropped on all four sides.
On the audio front, the new version has upgraded from a straightforward two-channel to a six-channel Dolby TrueHD soundtrack. Both versions also include the original mono track.
It’s unbelievable at this stage of modern post-production digital workflow that anyone would approve these revisionist alterations – especially since the Master of Suspense captured the film on VistaVision, Paramount’s premiere large-format widescreen process.
It was revolutionary at the time, utilizing standard 35mm film stock and running the film horizontally through the camera (normally, the film runs vertically). This technique provided an exposed negative more than double the size of 35mm. It meant the picture would have exceptional charity and detail – similar to the IMAX experience. Director Martin Scorsese calls VistaVision “high fidelity, 1950s moviemaking.” The additional resolution only made Kelly look that more glamorous on-screen. “The camera fell in love with Grace Kelly,” producer A.C. Lyles says in a featurette carried over from the previous editions.
During the commentary, Dr. Drew Casper calls himself a tour guide. He’s extremely prepared and leaves no stone unturned in what seems like a lecture at The University of Southern California. It’s a perfect listen for any avid movie buff. It’s terrific to re-discover how icy blondes and Hitchcock were a perfect cinematic match.
For more than three decades, he cast blonde actresses in his films, not as stereotypical sex symbols, but as daring and passionate characters. The lineup includes some of the U.K.’s and Hollywood's hottest stars: Madeleine Carroll (“The 39 Steps”), Joan Fontaine (“Rebecca” and “Suspicion”), Carole Lombard (“Mr. & Mrs. Smith”), Ingrid Bergman (“Spellbound,” “Notorious” and “Under Capricorn”), Vera Miles (“The Wrong Man”), Kim Novak (“Vertigo”), Eva Marie Saint (“North by Northwest”) and Tippi Hedren (“The Birds” and “Marnie”).
Top - 2012 version - More detail in the shirt and jacket of English insurance investigator H.H. Hughson (John Williams). Bottom - 2020 version - Is the suit gray or blue? The scene was filmed at the flower market in Nice, France.
But his ultimate blonde was the cool and elegant Grace Kelly, the former model from Philadelphia and future Princess of Monaco. In her first Hitchcock film, “Dial M for Murder” (1952), she played a wealthy, unfaithful wife who ends up stabbing her would-be assassin with scissors. In the next, “Rear Window” (1954), Kelly was a member of highbrow society and girlfriend to photojournalist James Stewart; the duo tries to solve a murder from the confines of his Greenwich Village apartment. Then Hitchcock and his favorite blonde headed off to the picturesque French Riviera to film “To Catch a Thief.” Hitch convinced Cary Grant to step out of retirement to play John Robie, a reformed jewel thief called “The Cat.” Twenty-five-year-old Kelly plays Frances Stevens, an heiress who’ll do anything for the man she loves. The kiss between Kelly and Grant is one of the hottest ever filmed, rivaling his kiss with Ingrid Bergman in Hitchcock’s “Notorious.” Maltin says, “Hitchcock saw in her not only great beauty, of course, but an actress who was sensitive to his direction, somewhat pliable, malleable in his hands.” The script is from John Michael Hayes, a frequent collaborator, and is loaded with double entendres. “Yet it’s never dirty-minded, [having] to parry with the censors,” Maltin says. Hitchcock hoped to make the French Riviera production a working vacation since it had been a favorite family holiday spot for years. “It’s never been better showcased or photographed. That’s for sure,” Maltin says. It was photographed by Robert Burks, who worked with Hitch on a dozen films. “He was very simpatico with Hitchcock,” Maltin continues. Burks won the Academy Award for Best Color Cinematography.
(1-3) 2012 version - Shows an overview of Monte Carlo with Frances Stevens (Grace Kelly) and John Robie (Cary Grant). A staged interior of Robie's home and the funeral of Danielle’s (Brigitte Auber) father, the wine waiter Foussard, held at the cemetery of Haut-de-Cagnes.
The 2012 disc included an interactive travelogue with a map and brief location clips and facts – highlights from the Carlton Hotel and Croix des Gardes in Cannes, the food/flower market in Nice, and a handful of villages used throughout the production.
“To Catch a Thief” premiered the same year Hitchcock began hosting his weekly TV show. Maltin reports that up to that time, he’d been a familiar face to “sharp-eyed moviegoers" because of his cameos though not everybody would’ve had known who he was: “So, I don’t know if the audience erupted into laughter or snickers when he turned up on that bus Cary Grant hops onto.” It’s strange, but the clips that run while Maltin narrates are from the 2012 master.
Several more extras are MIA including a 23-minute featurette, “A Night with the Hitchcock’s,” where family members attend The Hitchcock Film Class, one of USC’s favorites. Students get a chance to ask probing questions, as granddaughter Mary Stone calls it. It’s “an honor that Hitchcock’s creativity is being taught to future generations,” she says. “Understanding his body of work is understanding what the audience wants.” What did the moviegoers crave? SUSPENSE! "To them, it was extremely important because he wanted the audience on the edge of their seats,” says daughter Patricia Hitchcock, who starred in three classics, “Stage Fright” (1950), “Strangers on a Train” (1951) and “Psycho” (1960). The special night puts Hitchcock in human context, says Elizabeth Daley, Dean of the School of Cinematic Arts at USC. His public persona was completely different than the private family man, who was “quiet and loved by his family,” Stone explains.
It’s a shame this attractive postcard thriller wasn’t handled properly or, even better, released in 4K. Maybe next time, Paramount!
— Bill Kelley III, High-Def Watch producer