The opening credit shot in To Catch a Thief perfectly captures Alfred Hitchcock’s finely-tuned sensibilities as a maker of popular films. Rather than introduce the principal characters, or the actual locations, he chooses to show a travel agent’s storefront, adorned with posters for destinations in France, a model cruise ship, and replica of the Eiffel Tower. As the credits come to a close, the camera moves in on a poster with the slogan, “If you love life, you’ll love France”.
This sequence has no direct relationship to what transpires after, but it does signify what a movie like To Catch a Thief represents to its American audience: an opportunity to visit beautiful and exotic locations at the cinema. Hitchcock had a rare understanding of glamour as a reason why people go to the movies, a quality also reflected in how well he uses the stars that populate his Hollywood films.
The stars and the landscapes were and, even more so, are the best reasons to watch To Catch a Thief. The story is slight, and from a contemporary perspective, the action unfolds in a pedestrian way.
Cary Grant is John Robie, a long retired but notorious jewel thief, “The Cat”, living on the French Riviera near Cannes. Suddenly, to the outside, he appears to be back, stealing from wealthy tourists along the coast. He decides the only way to clear his name is to catch the actual thief, a plan that he executes in conjunction with British insurance exec, H.H. Hughson (John Williams), and, he thinks, with the help of a friend from the French Resistance during WW II, Bertani (Charles Vanel).
His first mark is an American mother and daughter, Jessie (Jessie Royce Landis) and Frances, “Francie”, Stevens (Grace Kelly). Posing as an Oregon timber baron, “Conrad Burns”, Robie attaches himself to the two women. Despite mutual deceptions, he and Francie fall in love, and the quartet, John, Jessie, Francie, and Hughson, hatch a plan to capture the imitation Cat, which they do.
In order to tell the stories he wanted to tell and make the films he wanted to make, Hitchcock often pushed the limits of existing technology and technique. From a contemporary perspective, there are scenes in To Catch a Thief that look fake or plodding, especially the car chases, which depend, rather obviously, on rear projection for their sense of movement. There are also scenes that take place in grand but all too clearly constructed, sets.
In addition, narratively, there are a host of nits to pick: all that is shown of the allegedly impeccable thieving is a few shots of rooftops and hands reaching into jewelry boxes; Robie’s plan is not executed with much urgency or actual planning; the French police are lazy bunglers; you can spot the real cat burglar almost from the moment they are introduced, etc.
Of course, such retrospective criticisms, however true or fair, are also testaments to the film’s value as entertainment. If much of To Catch a Thief seems worn or dated, it’s only because the basic outline, likable criminal, fantastic locations beautifully shot, love and romance, is built on elements that are tried and true, and for that reason they have, technically, at least, been improved upon in the intervening years.
What Hitchcock’s movie has that few of its successors can claim is the star power of Grant and Kelly, although to my mind, this is one of Grant’s weaker performances. He certainly looks the part but he is, perhaps, too retiring. Robie, we are told, is not only clever, but also ruthless, capable of inspiring fear and anger, even in those who would also consider him a comrade. Grant conveys little of this edge, even dulled by age and years of gardening instead of stealing.
Kelly, on the other hand, is at the height of her powers, convincingly playing Francie, in short order, as an aloof and spoiled daughter, a femme fatale, and a smitten young woman. She owns the middle third of the film, as Francie baits Robie into letting her in on what she imagines to be his exciting life.
Her shift to a more conventional love interest in the last act is the weakest part of the performance, but that seems more to do with the requirements of the script than with Kelly. The turn to true love may also lack verisimilitude because Grant/Robie is altogether too old for Kelly/Francie. It is one thing to accept her as a bored young American looking for a thrill, but quite another to accept her as someone ready to settle down with the aging thief, however dashing he might be, and especially not in such a fast turn of events. Indeed, even though it is played for a joke, the idea that Robie should be more interested in the elder Stevens woman seems about right.
The new two-disc “Centennial Collection” edition DVD is Paramount’s third release of To Catch a Thief. Disc one has the film and a commentary from Drew Casper, currently the Alma and Alfred Hitchcock Professor in the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California (the prior, “Special Collector’s Edition”, includes commentary from filmmakers Peter Bogdanovich and Laurent Bouzereau). Casper’s track is wide-ranging and informative, providing close readings of individual shots and scenes, insight into the production of the film, and discussion of the movie’s broader contexts.
Disc two includes a set of four, self-explanatory, short features that are common to all three DVD versions of the movie: “Writing and Casting To Catch a Thief”, “The Making of To Catch a Thief”, “Alfred Hitchcock and To Catch a Thief: An Appreciation”, and “Edith Head: The Paramount Years”.
Unique to the Centennial Collection are: A Night with the Hitchcocks, a video recording of USC’s “Hitchcock Class” featuring a panel discussion with the director’s daughter and granddaughter and moderated by Casper; Unacceptable Under the Code: Film Censorship in America, a primer on the Motion Picture Production Code with special reference to Hitchcock and the script for To Catch a Thief; Behind the Gates: Cary Grant and Grace Kelly, a discussion of the appeal and careers of the two stars; and an interactive video gallery of the movie’s location. The new edition also includes a stills collection and a vintage theatrical trailer.
To Catch a Thief is unlikely to figure into many debates over Hitchcock’s best or deepest or even most exciting film, but it is his most glamorous. The inevitability of the two leads, of Grant and Kelly on The Côte d’Azur, ending up together is assured by the physics of that glamour. Title aside, To Catch a Thief is not really about how to nab a cat burglar, but rather about beautiful people in beautiful places. And on those terms, the movie remains a classic.