Saturday, 8 May 2021

A Film Journalist's Life - John Baxter recalls encounters with Brigitte Auber and her work with Hitchcock on TO CATCH A THIEF (USA, 1955)

Cary Grant and Hitchcock's cameo,
To Catch a Thief


            When President Macron ordered everyone in France to find a place to stay and remain there for four weeks, we left Paris for a small town on the Atlantic coast, our customary summer retreat. 

            It proved a voyage in more than distance, since each kilometre took one further back in time. Our town dozed in a calm not known for a century. Along the Cote d’Azur, in Cannes and Nice, it was the same; hotels empty and cafes closed, as they would once have been in the off-season slump. 

                  But I recognised this France.  It was the France of the nineteen-fifties, ofEt Dieu Créa la Femme, Bonjour Tristesse and To Catch a Thief.

            Hitch’s romantic thriller takes place on a Riviera remote from the crowded modern tourist mecca. The difference is visible in the black Citroën Traction Avants of the police and their discreet alarms, like the ring of a giant dial telephone, and the formal casinos, with everyone in evening dress; no slot machines or tourists in t-shirts or kids larking in the rococo anterooms. Grace Kelly, Jessie Royce Landis and John Williams watch Cary Grant across a Carlton Hotel restaurant more deserted than at any time since the Lost Generation, and Grant and Kelly chat with Brigitte Auber on an otherwise unoccupied pontoon floating a few metres away from an only moderately crowded Cannes beach. As for the secluded beauty spot (constructed for the film) where Grant and Kelly enjoy their “Do you want a leg or a breast?” picnic, nothing like it has been seen since they widened the Grand Corniche to accommodate 16-wheelers and tourist buses.

"..leg or breast..." Grace Kelly, Cary Grant,
To Catch a Thief

            A few years ago,  Patrick McGilligan asked me to interview Brigitte Auber for his biography of Hitchcock.* I welcomed the chance to compliment her, belatedly, on her appearance as Danielle Foussard, the cheeky teenager (though she was thirty when she played her) who moonlights as a cat burglar. Auber never developed an international career. Her stocky frame and high cheekboned face placed her with the peasant girls who posed for Aristide Maillol, a world away from the willowy sex kittens and Bardot lookalikes who prowled the art house successes of the day.

            She also spoke no English, though learning her role phonetically gave to Danielle’s lines a slightly halting lilt, a sense of deliberation, effective when Kelly, in the pontoon scene, insults her by calling her a child. Auber’s eyes narrow as she says evenly “Shall we stand in shall-ow-er wa-ter and dis-cuss that?” 

Brigitte Auber, Cary Grant,
To Catch a Thief

            French film stars seldom live in luxury, and Mme. Auber was no exception. The only sign of affluence in her small suburban house was a trellised patio, rare in a congested city where each square metre can cost as much as a small car. She’d invited along a male friend, not so much as chaperone but to translate, though once she decided my French was equal to an interview, he discreetly made his adieux.

            I’d encountered enough French actresses to tread carefully. Where Americans and Britons came equipped with a studied cool that concedes a kind of intimacy but demands deference and distance in return, the French were women first, and only then performers. How readily I had fallen under the spell of Catherine Deneuve’s husky murmur in the afternoon calm of Yves St Laurent’s salon, been bewitched by the languid crossing and uncrossing of Stephane Audran’s flawless legs, and felt forced back in my chair by the almost physical power of Jeanne Moreau’s passion. In each case, it required an effort of will to drag the conversation back to their work. 

            Of crucial importance, however, was knowing where the woman ended and the actress began. A colleague returned with ears ringing from an interview with a rising star who, after hinting – so he sensed anyway – that a warmer and more personal relationship was in prospect, rounded on him in fury when he confessed there were a few films in her earlier career that he hadn’t seen.  “Then you are not doing this out of love!” she snarled, and showed him the door.

            Fortunately Auber made it easy.  She recalled working with Grant and Kelly and Hitchcock as one might look back on a distant but pleasurable vacation. She and Grant enjoyed each other’s company. They jived together surreptitiously between takes – Auber started her career as a dancer – and he confided to her that Hitchcock “likes me a lot but at the same time detests me. He would like to be in my place.” 

            There was more – about the dialogue problems of veteran actor Charles Vanel,  playing restaurateur and former maquisard Bertani, whose part had to be completely dubbed, and her friendship with Grace Kelly who, fluent in French, came to Auber’s rescue during post-production in Hollywood when locals threw up their hands in horror at her bikinis. The senior star took her shopping for maillots that discreetly obscured her navel.

Grace Kelly on a thinly populated Cannes beach,
To Catch a Thief

            After an hour, I felt I had what Pat needed. Nothing scandalous, but one doesn’t always strike gold.  I was getting ready to disconnect the recorder when I asked casually “So you never saw Hitchcock after the shoot?” I only half heard her reply - until I began transcribing the interview at home. When I did, I had to ask my wife for help.

            “What is she saying here? I don’t know the idiom.”

            She listened a couple of times. “It’s slang,” she said. “She’s saying ‘He grabbed me.’ Actually ‘He jumped me,’ to be precise.”

            Hitchcock jumped her? 

            Swallowing my pride, I rang to ask for a second rendezvous – “to clarify a few points.”  I thought I heard amusement in her voice as she agreed. 

            I arrived with roses, and a rueful smile.

            “You must have thought I was very stupid” (With actresses, abasement is seldom a bad idea.)

             “Not at all,” she smiled. But we both knew I was not the first man to miss a woman’s hint.     “So...he jumped you?” I began once we had settled down.

            “Well, it was a small car...”

            Contrary to my assumption, she and Hitchcock had continued to meet after Thief. Whenever he was in London, he came to Paris,  but always alone. In return, she sent him bottles of his favourite wine. Over intimate meals in backstreet bistros, he confided some of his problems with actresses, confirming the story of finding a certain star -  Ingrid Bergman, if the rumours are right - naked in his bed.

            One night, after such a dinner, Auber drove Hitch back to his hotel. On arrival, they parked and talked – until, to her astonishment, he lunged at her, and tried to kiss her on the mouth. 

            “I shied away from him,” she told  me. “I said something like ‘It’s not possible.’ ” She vividly recalled the feeling of his mouth on hers, the lips of an old man,  dry and cracked, “like a crocodile.”   

            A scrap of parental advice popped into her head. “I told him I had a lover of whom I was very fond. I had to be faithful to him, I said. That was the kind of girl I was.” 

             The moment passed, and they parted – for the last time, as it happened. Hitch contacted her a few times, asking if they couldn’t again be friends, but Auber “felt betrayed. One never imagines someone like him could have a crush on you. It was an enormous disappointment for me.” On reflection, she thought he felt ugly, and the sense of this acted as a barrier between them. 

            Her epitaph to their relationship had a simplicity consistent with her sturdy peasant image. “The poor cabbage had a wonderful soul.” It’s a kinder conclusion than he could expect in today’s poisonous climate of recrimination and blame. 


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