“A lightweight story.” That was what Hitchcock called his 1955 romantic thriller: “It wasn’t meant to be taken seriously.” In his expansive chat with Francois Truffaut for the book Hitchcock/Truffaut, the Master of Suspense is more than modest about To Catch A Thief, fresh out on Blu-ray from Paramount Presents (and streaming on Amazon Prime). The whirlwind ordeal of a retired cat burglar does indeed sound like trifling viewing, but every frame reveals the command of an auteur. The film falls smack in the middle of a monster ten-year run that includes Strangers on a Train, Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Vertigo, North By Northwest, and Psycho for the cherry on top. Hitchcock utilizes a range of genres to ensnare and assault audiences over the decade, but To Catch A Thief plays with the trappings of the heist mystery to deliver a crown jewel of glamour and wit.
Based on David Dodge’s novel of the same title, the film stars stage presence king Cary Grant as John “The Cat” Robie, an infamous jewel thief who has retired in luxury in a spacious villa on the Côte d’Azur. A series of copycat crimes along the French Riviera disturbs his peace; the burglaries are immaculately executed with all the earmarks of a Cat job. Naturally, Robie’s the prime suspect—even his former accomplices in the French Resistance believe him to be the perpetrator. The ticking time bomb is a sly one: Robie knows the local laws, and knows that he has ten days before the investigating magistrate can take him in (before that, “provisional liberty based upon insufficient evidence” keeps him a free man). Striking an unlikely alliance with insurance agent H.H. Hughson (John Williams) to shadow the next possible target, the filthy rich Jessie Stevens (Jessie Royce Landis) and her eligible daughter Frances (Grace Kelly), Robie races against time and pressure to catch the real culprit and clear his name.
As with so many Hitchcock joints, To Catch a Thief refuses to sit on its haunches, opting instead to stretch out in the moonlight with striking visuals before prowling along with strong emotional currents to keep the viewer entranced. George Tomasini’s work in the cutting room does a lot of the comedic heavy lifting in the beginning (the editor would continue his collaboration with the English filmmaker for another nine years and seven films). Just after a hustling, bustling opening credits sequence filled with travel displays promising “If you love life, you’ll love France,” a screaming woman with a face full of moisturizing masque (Margaret Brewster, with a practical credit as “Cold Cream Woman”) fills the frame, just realizing that she’s been robbed while she was out loving life. Next, a black cat slinks along a tiled roof, juxtaposed with images of a cat burglar running some fancy jewels. A j-cut of audio pierces the ears with more wails and shrieks before the screen illuminates with a picturesque panorama of paradise itself: Cannes. The irony is thicker than Grant’s trans-Atlantic accent.
The spatial beauty of the movie cannot be overstated. When the jewel thefts start to rack up, the police come calling to the one expatriate whose criminal record warrants such scrutiny. Ever-ready, Robie makes his escape. The ensuing car chase is filmed in a breathtaking series of helicopter shots, putting one of the film’s main characters on full display: France itself. In fact, the film was Hitchcock’s first to shoot on location there; the climax takes place at the famous Carlton Hotel, and major plot points play out at the Nice flower market and along the Grand Corniche. The film won DP Robert Burks an Oscar for Cinematography, and rightfully so: southern France serves atmosphere that goes down like a smooth cognac, even in the blur of Grace Kelly’s rearview mirror. The filtered night skylines and serpentine coastlines dazzle as much as any heirloom diamond in the short-lived Vista Vision format they’re filmed in; Technicolor settings never looked so good.
Catch is shamelessly enamored with the obscenely rich, a hard sell in today’s increasingly guillotine-friendly climate. Fortunately, John Michael Hayes (he of the Rear Window and Butterfield 8 screenplays) digs the hook in with solid character writing, while Edith Head’s phenomenal costume designs make the hypocritical spectatorship easy on the eyes.
Cary Grant has a fun, complicated character to inhabit. Robie is a sophisticated anti-hero, more Danny Ocean than Byronic. He eschews any comparisons to Robin Hood; his only shrugged justification for stealing is that he “only stole from people who wouldn’t go hungry.” Grant also had a tight script to play around with; adaptive scribe Hayes put his radio-writing skills to use with rapid-fire dialogue, employing the cast of characters to say nothing and everything at the same time. The thrilling dividends show up especially well in a barbed exchange between Frances Stevens and Danielle Foussard (Brigitte Auber), each clearly jealous of the other, with poor Robie in the middle. Foussard shoots side-eye to Stevens and comments on her apparent age; the icy blond returns the volley: “To a mere child, anything over twenty might seem old,” while the trio all tread literal and metaphorical water. Though Grant is reduced to whimpers and anxious laughter throughout the scene, it’s Grant’s awkwardness and pained expressiveness that provides the cringe-worthy laughs. The debonair and tailored suits certainly fit him, but so does the hopeless fluster and comedic timing that made Arsenic and Old Lace such a riot when he starred in it over a decade prior. As with all of Hitchcock’s works, the dialogue lends itself to what’s already being displayed visually, the concrete supporting the abstract.
Grace Kelly is a dream walking. She’s in Europe (along with her eccentric mother) to find a husband, and while she accepts that someone suitable must be vetted and chosen for her, she’s not thrilled about it. Every interaction is a verbal sparring match, and she’s armed with far more than quivering lips and wiggling hips. In fact, Hitchcock cast Kelly specifically for her resting bitch face. To Truffaut, he confirms: “I deliberately photographed Grace Kelly ice-cold and I kept cutting to her profile, looking classical, beautiful, very distant.” Her detached sexuality acts as a cool counterweight to Grant’s composed demeanor, two characters who merely appear to be in control as they each desperately strive to dominate their own circumstances. Kelly’s history as a model feels superfluous until the moment she appears onscreen, absolutely gliding in one of Edith Head’s numerous stunning ensembles. From swimwear to formal gowns, Head’s clean lines and disciplined fit and color are what makes her threads iconic, giving Hitchcock the distinct mid-century aesthetic he’s known so well for.
The film is funnier than one might expect from the mind that brought forth the likes of Norman Bates and killer birds, with humor that often relies upon juxtaposition and jarring tonal shifts. During a quiet brunch, Hughson remarks that the food is delicious and Robie replies that the cook, Germaine, has a delicate touch. As Hughson gleefully agrees, Robie replies, with deadpan delivery, that Germaine once strangled a German general with her bare hands, without a sound. Hughson’s reaction elicits that sort of laugh that many a mother has given a stern look and a backhand in church for. It’s this oscillation between mirth and mystery that keeps the kitty purring throughout the 106 minute runtime. In his study of Hitchock, Truffaut concludes that “this determination to compel the audience’s uninterrupted attention, to create and then keep up the emotion, to sustain the tension throughout, makes Hitchcock’s pictures so completely personal and all but inimitable.”
To Catch a Thief is one of the last classic films to romanticize the one percent, while maintaining a healthy cynicism of the material and the trouble it causes. Against a backdrop of “a kind of travel-folder heaven,” as one character calls it, intrigue and romance swirl together like two cats in heat. The tagline scandalously whispers, “For a moment he forgets he’s a thief—and she forgets she’s a lady!” While Hitchcock may have wanted to forget about his “lightweight” film, it remains an unapologetic escapist gem that deserves to be watched, watched again, and remembered.