To Catch a Thief: Better Days with Better Movies

In 1984 by George Orwell, the people of Oceania are tranquilized through an endless stream of mass-produced, low-quality entertainment, from pop music to pornography.

Winston attends a movie featuring the gruesome deaths of a ship full of refugees. Julia works as an operator of novel writing machines, all part of the sinister Party’s propaganda apparatus.

In our own world, things are little different.

The state may not directly control the American entertainment industry. But that does not change the fact there are few recent films which are both popular and good.

This was not always so. Case in point: To Catch a Thief, a thriller in which there is not a single gunfight, sex scene, or four-letter-word.

To Catch a Thief demonstrates that it is entirely possible to make a thrilling, high-caliber film without resorting to vulgarity and shock-value.

The film tells the story of a retired cat burglar living in France who must now clear his name after a new “cat” begins pinching the valuables of American tourists.

Released in 1955, the film was directed by Alfred Hitchcock and stars Cary Grant in the lead role. By today’s standards, it is rather tame for a thriller.

At the same time, it would probably bore young children who have spent too much time on the internet or watching television.

But for those with an appreciation for vintage cinema, it is a wonderful, beautiful film.

From the opening scene which abruptly cuts from a pleasant opening credits montage to a screaming woman, to the car chase along a narrow country road, to the final revelation of the thief’s identity, there is not a dull moment in it.

The plot is smart and airtight. Everything makes sense and every detail matters.

Even a dilettante such as myself can see that it is a technical masterpiece. From what little I know of cinematography, To Catch a Thief excels. It did after all win an Oscar for it.

Nor is there a shred of real indecency. No blood is shed, no skin is shown, not a single obscenity is uttered.

The action is focused on the events taking place, in keeping with the chief strength of film.

Where gravity is required, subtler means are in place to communicate the feeling, such as when an angry cook crushes a handful of carrots in his fist.

There is romance, and plenty of smooching, but not in the egregious, titillating way found in modern films. Where such displays today are meant to sell tickets, in To Catch a Thief they are meant to sell characterization.

Nor is there a trace of profanity. I have heard plenty of reports about how films such as Manchester by the Sea are fawned over by critics, despite their rejection by mainstream audiences.

The chief complaint of such films is that they are both inanely bleak and utterly polluted with swearing.

(I have not seen Manchester by the Sea, chiefly because I do not care to spend $13.00 to sit through that sort of thing.)

Andrew Klavan has noted that in the days of the Hayes Office, in which Hollywood self-regulated the content of its films, even the mediocre films were good by today’s standards.

Now, says he, filmmakers can show anything on screen, and now most films “kinda suck.”

I firmly believe that with the Hayes Office in place, filmmakers were forced to be creative with the limits they had to work with.

They knew that if they wanted to appeal to a mass audience, they had to make their films as decent as possible. To Catch a Thief was a product of this age, as are many classic films.

The system worked because the majority of moviegoers were average Joes living in middle America who just wanted to watch a good movie without having to endure an exercise in pointless vulgarity.

Things have changed.

In the words of Cal Thomas: “Many old films are watchable today. Some are considered classics. I doubt most of today’s films will be worth watching in 50 years. They aren’t now.”

Image from rubinmuseum.org

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