PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

To Catch a Thief: The Centennial Collection

This is not really about how to nab a cat burglar, but rather about beautiful people in beautiful places.

To Catch a Thief :The Centennial Collection

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Cast: Cary Grant, Grace Kelly, Jessie Royce Landis, John Williams
Distributor: Paramount
MPAA rating: Unrated
First date: 1955
US DVD Release Date: 2009-03-24

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.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.


15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.


Sixteen Years Later Wayne Payne Follows Up His Debut

Waylon Payne details a journey from addiction to redemption on Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, his first album since his 2004 debut.


Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.


Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.


Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.


Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.


The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.


British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.


Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.


​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.


The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.


Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.


How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.


Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.


CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.


Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.


While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.