Wu Ming's 54 and To Catch a Thief

54

“The plot of To Catch a Thief. Not a bad story. A bit light for Hitchcock. Sure.” (54, p. 319)


    The filming of Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief (Paramount, 1955) on the French Riviera plays a central role in the novel 54 by Wu Ming. Wu Ming is a “mysterious guerilla collective of novelists from Italy” whose name means either “anonymous” or “five names” in Mandarin Chinese. The novel was originally published in Italy in 2002 and has subsequently been translated into several languages. The English edition was published in the U.K. in 2005; an American edition followed in July 2006.

    All of the action in the novel takes place from January through November 1954. The plot—and subplots too numerous to count—fairly defies description. Along with a multitude of fictional characters (including a living, thinking television set), several real people, including Cary Grant, Alfred Hitchcock, Lucky Luciano, Marshal Tito, Frances Farmer, and Sen. Joe McCarthy, creep into the narrative. Cary Grant claims one of the major subplots: as he contemplates coming out of retirement and returning to the screen, he is recruited by Britain’s MI6 to go to Yugoslavia for a secret meeting with Tito. (In a clever ironic twist, Cary is reading Ian Fleming’s first James Bond yarn, Casino Royale, on his journey. His impression of the novel? “I read a ludicrous and revolting book written by somebody called Fleming. The protagonist is an MI6 agent called James Bond. Brief summary. Incoherent, indeed. They’ll never make a film out of that!” (p. 319-320). And, of course, he is relating this bit of dialogue to his friend, David Niven.)

    In the spring of 1954, Cary Grant has “retired” from his film career. He is, however, contemplating a return to Hollywood. The script that lures him back is To Catch a Thief. In an early scene from the novel, Grant is at home with his wife Betsy in Palm Springs, California:


    Betsy Drake glanced up from her morning paper and looked at her husband in his blue pyjamas and indigo silk dressing gown, shaking his head as he flicked through some typed pages.
    “Something wrong, darling?”
    “No, nothing. I get the feeling that even old Hitch isn’t feeling so great. This script isn’t one for him.”
    “What’s wrong with it?”
    “I can’t make a comeback with something like this. For pity’s sake, a captivating little story based on a novel by a certain David Dodge. A retired thief in a hotel has to demonstrate his own innocence by catching the man really responsible for a series of theft. A beautiful girl tries to put him to the test with her jewels and falls in love with him. In the end he finds the guilty man and marries the girl. But I don’t know ” (p. 100)


    Of course, Cary does decide to do the film. Later in the novel, the action shifts to Cannes and Nice, where Cary, Grace, Hitch and the rest of the cast and crew of To Catch a Thief meet up with Stefano “Steve Cement” Zollo, an American gangster working for Lucky Luciano in Italy, and a young Italian named Salvatore Pagano, a.k.a. Kociss. Kociss catches Hitchcock’s attention and earns himself a minor role in the film:


    The scene was feverish, a brawl in the middle of the flowers, with Cary Grant’s head peeping out, wearing a striped shirt and a red scarf around his neck.
    An old woman started yelling something at him in French, and beating him with a bunch of flowers.
    Zollo turned up just in time to see Salvatore Pagano, known as Kociss, along with two other guys, leaping into the fray.
    Pagano tore mercilessly into his adversary.
    “Stop! Perfect. That’s enough, could someone tell the Italian to stop. Oi, you, stop! The scene is over! Will you let go? Jesus Christ, call the interpreter!”
    The actor broke away from Kociss’s grip, and made off, coughing.
    Zollo approached the set manager: “Can I take him away?”
    “You must take him away, my friend. He’s almost ruined one of my actors. Have you any idea of the insurance premiums?”
    Zollo didn’t stay to listen, but went over to Pagano and put an arm around his shoulder.
    “Let’s go.”
    “Stiv! You should have seen me, Stiv! That animal was trying to choke me, so I nutted him one.” (p. 401-402)


Related Links

Wu Ming Foundation: http://www.wumingfoundation.com/english/biography.html
    54: http://www.wumingfoundation.com/english/54_english.htm

To Catch a Thief on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/To_Catch_a_Thief_(film)

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“He had read something in the barber’s, in a magazine, about the film Hitchcock was making. The story of a retired thief forced to come out of retirement because someone is trying to frame him using the same modus operandi. A fine metaphor for Cary Grant’s return to the big screen.”
(54, p. 402)

Randal Brandt, December 2006


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