Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Return of the Cat

I welcome once again  Randal S. Brandt as Guest blogger. Randal S. Brandt is a librarian at The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, and the creator of two critically-acclaimed websites: Golden Gate Mysteries, an annotated bibliography of crime fiction set in the San Francisco Bay Area, and A David Dodge Companion, chronicling the life and works of mystery/thriller writer David Dodge (1910-1974). He has recently written the introductions to new editions of Dodge’s Death and Taxes (July, 2010) and To Catch a Thief (October, 2010). Thanks, Randal!

Return of the Cat by Randal S. Brandt

In 1951, a novel called TO CATCH A THIEF, still in galley form, landed on the desk of film director Alfred Hitchcock. The story had everything in it that Hitchcock was looking for in a film: mystery, suspense, romance, glamour, and—best of all—an exotic setting in the South of France. The French Riviera had long been one of Hitch’s favorite vacation spots, and he bought the film rights to the novel in December 1951, a month before the book appeared in hardcover in January 1952.

TO CATCH A THIEF was written by well-traveled author David Dodge and tells the story of American expatriate John Robie, a retired acrobat-turned-jewel-thief (known in the newspapers as “Le Chat”) living peacefully and quietly in a villa in the South of France. Robie had been arrested before World War II and sentenced to a lengthy prison term. But, during the occupation of France, the German army foolishly set the prisoners free. The prisoners promptly went into the maquis, the French underground, and used their skills and talents against the Nazis. After liberation, in gratitude for their “service,” the French government gave the prisoners provisional paroles—paroles that could be revoked at the first suspicion that they had returned to their old ways. Robie’s provisional liberty is threatened when a copy-cat thief starts working in the Riviera. Determined to avoid his prison sentence, Robie goes undercover to catch the thief himself. During the course of his investigation, he makes the acquaintance of the wealthy, bejeweled Mrs. Stevens—an irresistible target for the new Cat—and her beautiful, aloof daughter Francie (who wears no jewelry, herself), a London insurance man, and a pretty young French girl named Danielle.

So far, that sounds a lot like the Hitchcock film, right?

Even a casual student of Hitchcock knows that the director freely adapted his source material to reflect his personal vision for the film treatment. TO CATCH A THIEF, released by Paramount Pictures in 1955 with Cary Grant and Grace Kelly in the starring roles, is no exception. Several years after the film was released, Dodge observed: “All that survived in the end were the title, the names of some of the characters and the copyright, which was mine.” It was a little more than that. Several plot points and locations are lifted directly from the novel. But the changes are indeed numerous and significant. Key characters in the novel are either radically altered or dropped altogether. When Robie goes undercover in the book, he employs a disguise that would have made the casting of the svelte Cary Grant in the role extravagant. And, it is certainly not giving anything away to reveal that Dodge’s Francie is a brunette, not a cool Hitchcock blonde like Grace Kelly.

But, while the film version has been readily available to viewers for a number of years on home video, TO CATCH A THIEF, the novel, has been virtually out of reach to most readers. No doubt spurred by the rumors that Hitchcock was interested in it, initial sales of the hardcover edition were brisk enough that the novel caught the attention of Reader’s Digest, which issued a condensed version later that same year. A Dell paperback edition appeared in 1953—with a cover illustration of a beautiful, bikini-clad blonde that looks suspiciously like Miss Kelly. And that, as far as U.S. publication is concerned, is basically it. In England, a hardcover appeared in 1953, followed by a green-and-white Penguin paperback in 1955. A British book club edition was published in the 1970’s and a trade paperback surfaced in 1988. In the last twenty years, copies of any of these versions of the novel in the used book trade have steadily climbed in price, effectively eluding the hands of all but the most serious collectors.

Fortunately, this problem has now been solved with a new edition of the novel published by Bruin Books. Issued as part of the Bruin Crimeworks line, TO CATCH A THIEF is now available in the United States for the first time in over fifty years and fans of Alfred Hitchcock and David Dodge alike will at last be able to take a long look at the book that inspired one of the iconic films of the twentieth century.

Postscript: A brand new adaptation of the novel is coming soon! On January 8, 2011, TO CATCH A THIEF, dramatized by Jean Buchanan (who contributed the afterword to the Bruin Books edition), will be presented on BBC Radio 4 as part of the Saturday Play series.

Randal S. Brandt is the creator of A David Dodge Companion and Golden Gate Mysteries.

1 comment:

vallerose said...

Terrific commentary. Always enjoy hearing from Randall. I wonder if the radio series would be available here. Maybe as an archive? anyway, I will probably buy the book. Glad the old ones are being rediscovered and printed.