Week 40: ‘To Catch A Thief’ – 1955

In Vistavision Motion Picture High-Fidelity, the opening titles proudly proclaim. This is a lovely piece of Hitchcock-lite, fluffy and romantic, mildly intriguing and exciting – and a great travelogue movie set in the sunny South of France. His two stars have never looked more attractive and the whole enterprise is the sheerest of pleasures to behold.

The opening titles do that ‘posters in a travel agent window’ thing establishing where we are – the text itself very subtly angled onto the window in a neat way.

It’s a simple yarn involving a retired ‘cat’ burglar called John Robie (Cary Grant) and the authorities who are after him for a new spate of thefts. He is far more preoccupied with trying to ensnare wealthy heiress Frances Stevens (the as usual luminous Grace Kelly) than be hassled for what will transpire to be copycat robberies.

The opening sequence is a neat silent movie style – a series of fades up and down of a variety of cat burglaries on the rooftops of France, interspersed with various hysterical jewellery-lacking women. I liked the cat claw scratch marks on the newspaper in Robie’s hilltop villa, a little touch but tidy.

Robie is terribly smooth – his opening escape from the cops by having his housekeeper speed away after a random gunshot is great, wrong footing the cops perfectly.

I love this kind of sleight of hand stuff – making you believe one thing whilst something quite different is actually occurring. The car chase seems a good excuse to show the audience a bunch of wide shots of  France from helicopters but is enjoyable enough as a diversion*.

There’s an interesting mixture of back projection and genuine shots in the picture, with some very brief blue screened shots. Grant and Kelly are clearly on location in many scenes, whereas others scream trickery (the picnic scene in particular). There is also some very questionable sync (especially on Robie’s old resistance chum Bertani, played by Charles Vanel, who couldn’t speak any English at all) and Robie’s fine striped top in many scenes plays a kind of havoc with the TV horizontal lines – but all of this is small potatoes in a well crafted tale of this quality.

Robert Burks’ photography throughout is vivid and attractive – especially the flower market scene where Robie first meets H.H. Hughson (the suave John Williams from ‘Dial M for Murder’). The chase that ensues in the flower market is very well done – sleek backwards dollying resembling the fluidity of Steadicam as Hitchcock cuts between Robie and Houston and their pursuers. It all kicks off in a nicely humorous scene involving Robie being beaten with flowers by an old French lady – pretty broad, but good fun.

The vivid colour also appears magnificently in the end masked ball scene – an absolute gem of an opportunity to present multicoloured loveliness, taken full advantage of by the director and his DoP.

Robie and Hughson have lunch and, my word, does the guest get his wine glass topped up a lot – in the space of 60 seconds he has three refills and starts in on a second bottle – and there’s a third ready in the ice bucket! This despite Hughson‘s protestations of ‘not in the middle of the day’ as his glass drifts toward the proferred bottle. The lunch the pair of them enjoy is a good summary of the mood of the film – Robie serving Hughson the novelty of Quiche Lorraine and the latter saying the pastry is ‘as light as air’ – Robie then revealing that his housekeeper strangled a German general with the same hands that kneaded the dough: it’s a light scene underlined with a drop shadow.

Robie’s entrée to the circle of Frances and her chatterbox mother (played by Jessie Royce Landis, who will later appear in ‘North by Northwest’ playing Grant’s own mother) is slick – dropping a roulette 10,000 franc piece down the bodice of a French lady. The following drinks scene has a distinctive Hitchcock profile shot of Frances and features some good dialogue from the slightly tipsy Jessie, after quizzing Robie why he hasn’t made a pass at her daughter:

Mum: ‘…sorry I ever sent her to that finishing school, I think they finished her there’

And Francis’ last minute spontaneous kiss on Robie is nice and surprising – her rebelling at mom saying she is too nice. Grant’s expression of surprise is lovely also following this.

This kiss is a precursor to one of the most outrageous and camp love scenes in all of Hitchcock. Frances invites Robie to her room, determined to get him to admit his true identity (he has been masquerading as a Mr. Burns) and, of course, seduce her (although, as the scene is played out, quite the opposite happens). There follows some slinky chat from Frances and Robie holding it together for a remarkably long time, considering what’s on offer (thousands of dollars worth of diamonds laid around her svelte neck):

Even in this light I can tell where your eyes are looking’, she says, as Robie moves in close. ‘Look, John, hold them…’

As Robie and Frances kiss lingeringly Hitchcock cuts to ever increasing and more chaotic (and hilarious) fireworks until the climactic thunderstorm of explosions is perfect to express their orgasmic passion. It’s even funnier than the ‘train into tunnel’ shot from ‘North by Northwest’ four years later. Very good though.

The figure of Danielle (Brigitte Auber), daughter of Foussard (Jean Martinelli, who ends up being killed by mistake under suspicion of being the cat), is interesting and seems fairly peripheral but then becomes centre stage as she is revealed as the real imitation cat. You feel kind of sorry for her, with her boyish looks and obvious crush on/past history with Robie – him: ‘you are just a girl, she is a woman’ – she’s no competition for the vivacious Frances. The catty exchange between the two women when they first meet in the water is pleasantly bitchy ‘she looks a lot older up close’ says Danielle, then Frances retorts ‘to a mere child, anything over twenty must seem old’. There seems to be a little improv going on here – Cary Grant appearing to get the giggles at one point – all of which is very charming and attractive.

The heavily rear projected car chase sequence is playful but exciting, a sometimes crazed selection of shots using overcranked camera, rapid cutting and some distinctive Hitchcock compositions (Robie’s hands clutching his legs from above, as an example). The flirty couple eventually shake their pursuers thanks to a chicken crossing the road and then pull over for their (different) chicken and beer based picnic:

Frances: ‘Do you want a leg or a breast?’

Robie: ‘You choose’**

Say no more. This picnic is a pretty convincing eating scene, as was the earlier luncheon with Hughson at Robie’s villa. Very often in films people eating doesn’t look at all convincing but in both these cases they do seem to be actually consuming their food and drink, which is impressive given this latter scene is in a fairly long take with chicken legs/chewing/beer bottles all having to be negotiated around lengthy dialogue – both of them are top notch at doing this and it passes that food/movie test of actually making you want to eat/drink what they are having (see the mattresses/pasta scene in ‘The Godfather’ or the ‘apple pie with melted yellow cheese’ in ‘Taxi Driver’).

The climactic rooftop exposing of Danielle, Robie gripping her hand to stop her falling – forcing a confession out of her –  is pretty exciting and well done. Robie is steely and determined to clear his name from the frame, Frances finally turning up at Robie’s villa, the two united towards some kind of future together.

‘To Catch a Thief’ is an enjoyable romp, beautiful people gallivanting around in beautiful locations in a slightish story – but there’s nothing wrong with that. Grant and Kelly make a very attractive couple (even given the age difference of 26 years in reality).

It’s thoroughly entertaining and, although not in the super league of Hitchcock, a definite must see and will enjoy.

Miscellaneous notes

*And when Robie casually boards the local bus he is seated next to his deadpan director.

**Apparently this dialogue was an improvisation.

It’s often said that the car chase scene takes place on some of the same roads that, in 1982, Grace Kelly would be involved in her fatal car crash.


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