To Catch A Thief
US (1955): Thriller
By 1955, when he made TO CATCH A THIEF, Alfred Hitchcock had long since established his reputation as a master of suspense. From THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1934) and THE 39 STEPS (1935) to DIAL M FOR MURDER (1954) and REAR WINDOW (1954), Hitchcock's admirers reveled in the tension for which his films were justly famous. Some of these admirers were, therefore, taken aback somewhat by TO CATCH A THIEF, a lush comedy. Not that the film is entirely devoid of suspense -- there is a mystery to be solved, after all. But TO CATCH A THIEF finds Hitchcock in a playful mood, and the film never generates any real tension. However, a relaxed Hitchcock is still Hitchcock, and TO CATCH A THIEF is a richly rewarding cinematic experience.
The film's title is derived from the old proverb "Set a thief to catch a thief," and Hitchcock populates the film with thieves and manipulators of all sorts. Some of them are reformed thieves; at least one of them is an active jewel thief; some of them are merely expense account padders; and some are manipulative lovers. As the film opens, they have at least one thing in common -- none knows which of the other characters fits into which category. Indeed, one of the director's themes (although he never presses his case to the point of didacticism) is that the moral implications of theft are, if not entirely subjective, frequently dependent upon the perspective of the observer.
The film opens with a typical Hitchcock shock, this time laced with humor. The credits roll as the camera first focuses on the window of a travel agency and then pans to a sign that reads "If you love life, you'll love France." As the camera pulls in on the sign, Hitchcock suddenly cuts to a close-up of a woman screaming, "My jewels! I've been robbed." In one fell swoop, Hitchcock has established both the film's location and its subject -- jewelry theft. The scene continues with a montage of similar screams, intercut with shots of a black cat running across a series of tiled roofs; the obvious association is that of a cat burglar.
Hitchcock introduces us to a real cat burglar (albeit a retired one) in the next scene. John Robie (Cary Grant) strides into Bertani's Restaurant on the French Riviera with a grim look on his face, a look which the restaurant's staff reciprocates. He walks back to the glassed-in kitchen, where he stands for a long moment peering through the transparent door. As the camera moves in for a close-up of Robie's face, Hitchcock delivers his second visual shock of the film -- a raw egg splatters against the glass in front of Robie's face.
An explanation is soon forthcoming. Robie is an American who had fought alongside Bertani (Charles Vanel) and most of his kitchen help in the French Resistance during World War II. After the war, he remained in France and became a famous, and for a time successful, jewel thief, growing rich at the expense of those who could afford the losses he inflicted ("I never stole from anyone who would go hungry," he remarks at one point). Long since retired from the burglary business, Robie nevertheless finds himself under suspicion, both from the police and from his former Resistance comrades, for the latest string of thefts, all of which seem to bear his mark. Robie's assertions of innocence are met with skepticism by all concerned; some are angry, a few are amused, and Danielle (Brigitte Auber), the young daughter of the wine steward, is obviously smitten with Robie.
Robie realizes that the only way he will be able to prove that he is telling the truth is to apprehend the new cat burglar himself. To do so, he must set a trap for the "Cat," and he asks Bertani's help to do so. The pair are interrupted by the police, however, who are hot on Robie's trail. Danielle helps him to escape. Eventually Bertani puts Robie in touch with a man named H. H. Hughson (John Williams), an insurance adjuster from Lloyd's of London. Robie again protests his innocence and outlines his plan to Hughson. In return for a list of Lloyd's of London's most prominent insurees, who will, therefore, likely be the thief's next victims, Robie will undertake to apprehend the new Cat. The two men engage in some intense verbal sparring. Hughson, a proper Briton, is puzzled by Robie's cheerful, guiltless acknowledgment of his past crimes. Robie responds by forcing Hughson to admit that he occasionally pads his expense account and takes towels from hotels as souvenirs; thus, the boundaries of morality are blurred a bit. "You're a thief," asserts Robie. Hughson gives in and provides the American with a detailed list of his clients and their jewels.
Most prominent on the list are Jessie Stevens (Jessie Royce Landis), a rich American widow, and her beautiful blonde daughter, Frances (Grace Kelly). Robie contrives to meet them, and, as "Mr. Burns," ingratiates himself quickly. Mrs. Stevens is a blunt, humorous woman who is open and outgoing; Frances is almost the exact opposite. Cool and virginal, she hardly says a word all night. Thus it comes as a surprise, both to the audience and to Robie, when she kisses him passionately at the end of the evening.
With the introduction of Jessie and Frances Stevens, Hitchcock's cast is virtually complete. He then sets about complicating their lives, much to the audience's delight. Hitchcock presses the theme of the hunter hunted, as the depredations of the new Cat continue, and Robie, who is pursuing the Cat, is himself pressed by both the police and his former friends in the Resistance, who vow to kill him for discrediting them. Meanwhile, Danielle and Frances quarrel bitchily over which of them has the right to pursue the bemused and befuddled Robie, who wants as little as possible to do with either of the young women.
Two long scenes between Robie and Frances demonstrate the playful mood that Hitchcock was in while making TO CATCH A THIEF. He even relaxes enough to permit his characters some witty double entendres (both verbal and visual) -- a rarity for the moralistic director. The first of these scenes involves a high-speed car chase in which a calm Frances helps a nervous Robie elude the police once again. She is driving, and Hitchcock shows their contrasting moods by focusing on their hands. Hers rest lightly on the steering wheel, even as she careens around curves; his hands clench and unclench helplessly as he wonders whether capture by the police might not be preferable to death in an automobile accident on a remote French road. Having successfully eluded the police, the two banter a bit. When Robie calls her "a rich, headstrong young girl," she replies challengingly, "the man I want doesn't have a price." "That eliminates me," Robie chuckles. Then Frances reveals that she knows that "Mr. Burns" is actually John Robie, the jewel thief. Far from being shocked or offended, she is thrilled; it makes him all the more attractive to her. She pulls off the road to a secluded picnic area and offers him some fried chicken: "Do you want a leg or a breast?" she inquires meaningfully. When she announces that she plans to join him on his "crime spree," he groans in dismay. "Don't say it," he pleads, but she does anyway: "The Cat has a new kitten."
The second of Hitchcock's playful scenes occurs back at the hotel. Frances decides to force Robie into admitting his passion; but whether for her or for the glittering jewels she is wearing, Hitchcock leaves an open question. The director intercuts some marvelously photographed shots of exploding roman candles with the sexual fireworks provided by Frances and Robie. The double entendres fly, as Frances seduces Robie by extolling the beauty of either (or both) her diamonds or her breasts. The evening proves eventful; Frances loses her virginity and her mother loses her jewels. Frances tearfully accuses Robie of being the thief. Mrs. Stevens believes Robie's denials -- like her daughter, she finds his former career more than a little intriguing -- but Frances calls the police, and Robie is on the run again.
Hitchcock has one more shock scene up his sleeve. Robie is once more on the track of the Cat. Quite suddenly, he is jumped from behind. The figures grapple in the darkness on a cliff near the water's edge, and one man -- we do not know who at this point -- plummets over the side. For a moment, we fear that Robie has been killed, but the dead man turns out to be Danielle's father, the wine steward. The wine steward is immediately branded as the jewel thief, but Robie knows otherwise; the old man lacked sufficient agility to prowl the rooftops like the Cat. The mysterious sequence does tip the real thief's identity to him, however, and he begins to set his trap.
Robie springs the trap at a delightful costume ball on the Cote d'Azur. With the help of Jessie and Frances Stevens, who play along, and Hughson, who surreptitiously slips into Robie's nubian slave costume and holds the attention of the police by dancing the night away with Frances, Robie is free to track his Cat. He stations himself on the roof of the villa, where he awaits his victim. As the party is breaking up, the thief emerges, and a rooftop chase is on. Dodging bullets from the police below, Robie unmasks the Cat -- who turns out to be Danielle. She breaks Robie's grip, but trips as she turns to run. Robie grabs her hand to keep her from falling off the roof, but threatens to drop her unless she confesses, and loudly enough for the police to hear. Trapped, she admits her guilt, and implicates Bertani, the restaurateur, as well
Hitchcock ends the film on what he humorously calls "a pretty grim note." Back at Robie's villa, Frances and Robie stop sparring long enough to realize that they love each other. They kiss, and Frances remarks "So this is where you live. Oh, mother will love it up here!" A brief look of undisguised dismay crosses Robie's face as Hitchcock brings the film to a close
Neither Cary Grant nor Grace Kelly were strangers to Alfred Hitchcock by 1955, Grant having appeared in NOTORIOUS (1946) and SUSPICION (1941), and Kelly in DIAL M FOR MURDER and REAR WINDOW. Hitchcock melded their talents expertly. It is difficult to imagine anyone other than Grant as John Robie; his sophisticated charm and his genius for light comedy make him perfect for the role. Kelly, too, is superb; she brings talent as well as beauty to the role of Frances Stevens, and she works exceptionally well with Grant. Jessie Royce Landis also deserves special mention for her supporting role as Frances' mother; her irreverent, wisecracking portrayal of Jessie Stevens stands out, even in the company of Grant and Kelly
The direction, of course, is up to the usual high standards of Hitchcock. The film is expertly paced, with just enough jolts interspersed with the comedy to remind the audience that it is, after all, viewing an Alfred Hitchcock film. As Hitchcock himself has admitted, TO CATCH A THIEF is a "lightweight story," at least compared to such thrillers as STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (1951), REAR WINDOW, or PSYCHO (1960), to name a few of the film's approximate contemporaries. But a lightweight story in the hands of Alfred Hitchcock does not necessarily make for an inconsequential film. TO CATCH A THIEF is an outstanding comedy, highlighted by the acting of Grant, Kelly, and Landis, and the Academy Award-winning cinematography of Robert Burks, all guided by the incomparable hand of the master, Alfred Hitchcock.
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Newsweek: August 1, 1955, p. 77
New York Times: August 5, 1955, p. 14
Time: August 15, 1955, p. 58
Variety: July 20, 1955, p. 6
Copyright (c) Magill's Survey of Cinema by Salem Press. All Rights Reserved.
TO CATCH A THIEF., Magill's Survey of Cinema, 01-01-1994.