“I called the police from your room and told them who you are and everything you’ve been doing tonight.” ~ Frances
“Everything? The boys must have really enjoyed that at headquarters.” ~ Robie
“I take it you were a sort of modern Robin Hood, you gave away most of the proceeds of your crimes?” ~ Hughson
“Kept everything myself. Well, let’s face it, I was an out and out thief, like you.” ~ Robie
“Don’t you think it’s foolish to remain here without knowing what will happen to you? But if you were in South America with me, you will know exactly what will happen.” ~ Danielle
“Sorry I ever sent her to finishing school. I think they finished her up there.” ~ Jessie
“Hold this necklace in your hand and tell me you’re not John Robie, the Cat. John, tell me something. You’re going to rob that villa we cased this afternoon aren’t you? Oh, I suppose rob is archaic. You’d say, knock over?” ~ Frances
“You know, I have the same interest in jewellery that I have in politics, horseracing, modern poetry, or women who need weird excitement. None.” ~ Robie
To Catch A Thief is the 1955 romantic thriller by Alfred Hitchcock, pairing the director of suspense with actors he’d worked with on other occasions- Cary Grant and Grace Kelly. The film, which plays with the innocent man wrongfully accused storyline, is set in the French Riviera, concerning itself with a series of crimes being committed by a burglar, crimes that have the hallmark of a retired cat thief. Delightfully brisk and with a lighter touch than many of Hitchcock’s films, the movie is a pleasure to watch.
The story opens with crimes underway, the theft of high end jewels from visitors and residents in the area. The police suspect and try to arrest John Robie (Cary Grant), a former thief with the nickname the Cat, who spends his life quietly tending his vineyards at his villa in the hills. He gives them the slip, meets up with his former associates from his days in the French Resistance. Many of them resent him, because with these new crimes, all of them are under suspicion- the entire group was paroled after their wartime service, and yet still come under suspicion when crime waves happen. He does receive aid from the daughter of one of the gang, Danielle (Brigitte Auber), who has a thing for him.
Robie decides the best method to prove his innocence is to catch the new Cat in the act. He enlists an insurance man, H.H. Hughson (John Williams), who assumes Robie will only end up incriminating himself and provides him with a list of expensive jewels on the Riviera. Among the list are those belonging to two Americans, a mother and daughter, Jessie and Frances Stevens (Jessie Royce Landis and Grace Kelly). Robie steps into their lives, quickly charming Frances, and being charmed by her in return, all the while working to uncover the truth behind the new burglar.
Hitchcock took on the film, based on a novel of the same name by David Dodge, which was adapted as a screenplay by John Michael Hayes. With a good deal of location shooting on the Riviera, the film fully exploits the sophistication and beauty of its surroundings and the story plays on the suave charm of its leading man. There are signature Hitchcock notes to the film- the brisk pace, the required cameo by the director early on, the wrongfully accused plotline, innuendo, dashes of suspense, and the dry sense of humour, with some differences as well- the psychological aspects of films like Vertigo or Psycho are not in play here.
Hitchcock’s crew certainly showed their worth here. The film won an Oscar for Cinematography, and it’s certainly beautifully shot, and so the award is well earned. The attention to detail is well taken care of- this being a high society sort of environment, the clothing looks well tailored, and the attire for a late in the film masquerade ball that is an essential element of the film is lavish. Oscar nominations were also in play for art direction and costume design, and the nominations are well deserved.
The cast is impeccable. John Williams had previously worked with Hitchcock, most recently in Dial M For Murder. His character is a reluctant source of help for Robie- as an insurance agent, he’s naturally suspicious of the notorious thief at first, and wary of the offer being made. There’s a mannerly keep-calm-and-carry-on sort of manner to the character, which Williams plays to, and as the film goes along Hughson proves to be an indispensible ally to Robie. I like the dry sense of humour for the character- his reaction to Robie’s revelation about his housekeeper’s wartime exploits is wonderfully rendered by Williams.
Jessie Royce Landis would work with Grant again some years later, playing his eye rolling mother in North By Northwest. Here she’s a different kind of mother, playing the role to Grace Kelly’s Frances. Her take on Jessie Stevens is both down to earth and with a good sense of humour. The character is one who came into money as opposed to inherited it, so she doesn’t have the polish that years of finishing school have given her daughter, but she’s likable, wise in her own way and likely to wisecrack. Her daughter, on the other hand, is more given to roll her eyes in exasperation at Jessie’s remarks.
Brigitte Auber’s Danielle is remarked upon by Frances as a child during the film- ironic, as the actress was in fact over a year older than Grace Kelly. Her character has the look of a teen, though, and particularly the attitude- impetuous, sarcastic, and flirtatious. There’s more to her, and the actress has to keep things close to the vest as the movie goes along. One must wonder on the odd occasion why Robie doesn’t take her up on the whole going to South America thing.
Grace Kelly had worked with Hitchcock previously on Rear Window and Dial M For Murder. This was one of her final films- within a couple of years she married Prince Rainier of Monaco. Her character Frances is more mature than her mother, with the sophistication that comes from finishing school. She’s wary of the attention of men- are they after her or after her money? There’s a dash of mischief and spirit in the character early on, in how she banters and flirts with Robie, or spars with Danielle. She sees right through Robie’s cover story, teases him with an unusual offer, and yet turns on him when events take another turn. And yet she’s not so proud that she can’t admit to a mistake. Kelly brings great warmth into the character as time goes on, and she’s got great chemistry with Grant.
Cary Grant’s take as Robie is one of his best roles, with the actor as suave, charming, and debonair as you expect. He’s rather graceful and calm under pressure, more self assured than the character he would later play in North By Northwest, where he comes into his own gradually as events become chaotic around him. Robie is a resourceful man, quick thinking and able to improvise, and Grant gives him a nicely dry sense of humour- perhaps best summed up in one facial expression before the screen fades to black. I like the nuance he gives to the character- that even though he’s been pardoned for his crimes in the past, he lives out his life always under suspicion when a crime spree happens, and it’s a status that bothers him- he has to prove every day of his life that he doesn’t belong in jail. I like the way he relates to Frances- playful and flirting, trying to resist temptation on one occasion, and able to forgive at another crucial point.
This is one of my favourite films from the master of suspense. Hitchcock gives us a film with a delightful touch, a brisk pace, and wonderful leading actors. The film is more romantic thriller than psychological melodrama as some of Hitchcock’s other works, but it does have the tell tales of his style, and it’s a treat to watch the story unfold. There are many reasons this film’s a classic, and all of them work so incredibly well.