Set a thief… To Catch a Thief

I sit on a lazy Saturday afternoon watching the beauty of Hitchcock.  Not the man (necessarily), but his work.  He is so deliberate, the master manipulator – I am putty in his hands!

To Catch a Thief never comes to mind when I consider my favorite of Alfred Hitchcock’s films – and there are many.  But in watching Thief I am reminded it is responsible for my longest, active, recurring fantasy resulting from the movies – being in the French Riviera with Cary Grant.  It started when I was about seven.  Certainly the film responsible for that deserves some of my attention.

The premise – a reformed cat burglar is suspected of returning to his old habits when a rash of new burglaries infect the French Riviera.  John Robie formerly known as “The Cat” (played by the incomparable Cary Grant) is an instant suspect.  He has paid his debt to society years before and is now an upstanding citizen.  Except, he is the only one who knows for sure the recent burglaries are not his doing.  The new cat burglar, an admirer of Robie’s talents in lifting expensive jewels, is committing the crimes using his exact MO – the style, the means, and the targets – rattling the rich in their playground of choice.  So, it seems Robie must prove his innocence or the suspicions persist and the current burglar will not be stopped.  The plot thickens.

Enter Jessie Stevens (Jessie Royce Landis) in the South of France in hopes of finding beautiful daughter, Frances (Grace Kelly) a suitable husband.  Of course, one first look at John Robie walking across the dining room in the Carlton Cannes Hotel and she knows he’s the perfect catch.  As does her daughter, though she plays it cool.  (It’s interesting to note that Jessie Royce Landis who plays Grace Kelly’s mother in Thief would later play Cary Grant’s mother in North by Northwest and was ten months younger than Grant.)

Enter Lloyd’s of London insurance agent, H. H. Hughson (John Williams) who, together with Robie come up with a list of possible victims.  Together they set a plot to use a thief to catch a thief (from the proverb “set a thief to catch a thief.”)  The rich Americans, Mrs. Stevens and her daughter, are on the possible target list, Robie befriends them and the daughter falls for him.  What ensues and the plot’s outcome are for you to find out.  I will only guarantee you will enjoy gawking at every moment.

By most standards this 1955 film is not listed among the Master of Suspense’s best.   It is a much lighter fare than the usual Hitchcock classics of so much repute and admiration.  But is it ever A BEAUTY!  It is absolutely worth gushing over, and so I must.

From the gorgeous emerald hue that surrounds the cat burglaries to its beautiful stars to the picturesque shots of the Riviera to the clothes, To Catch a Thief is a vision, a feast for the eyes.

Cary Grant and Grace Kelly.  Beauty, style and grace personified.  One never tires of looking at them.  The camera loved these two people.  Hitchcock’s camera adored them!  Never have they had such gorgeous backdrops (although the Riviera here is far from a backdrop.  It is in nearly all scenes as much a presence as the film’s stars.  Lesser stars would have been overwhelmed).

It’s not feasible to describe every single scene worthy of note.  There are too many of them.  So, let me just mention the most obvious of them.  My favorite.  Pure Hitchcock – the one I call the “elephant in the room is a brilliant necklace” scene.  There stand Francie Stevens and John Robie in her glorious suite in the Carlton Cannes Hotel.  By now the pair is “friendly” and on this particular evening they are dressed for an evening of cocktails and dinner – er…and some desert.  He is in a tuxedo only the likes of Cary Grant can carry, she, in a gorgeous white gown.  Lights are dimmed, French doors open out to the Riviera sky.  Green hue present, signaling the possible presence of the cat.

She wears thousands of dollars in diamonds (or does she?).  A gorgeous necklace is the elephant in the room.  She goes through his proposed plan, convinced she is falling for the infamous burglar – steps out of the hue and into the dark up to her neck, the necklace front and center.  And I can only shake my head.  Sir Alfred makes sure we don’t miss it.  A simple shot.  Stunning.  A cat-and-mouse of words ensues.  Both cat and mouse sure to be victors in this case.  Fireworks.  Fade to black.

Not surprisingly, To Catch a Thief won the Academy Award for color cinematography.  It couldn’t be otherwise.  Then we have the glorious costumes designed by the legendary, Edith Head – Thief being (reportedly) her favorite film.  Again, not surprising – she designed for a master with an eye for beauty, for beautiful people and had to dress a masquerade ball to boot.  Even for one without a smidgen of fashion sense, every outfit is a statement.  She simply doesn’t disappoint.  Her clothes here are as memorable as all else.

To Catch a Thief was Grace Kelly’s third, and last film with Alfred Hitchcock.  He wanted her for the lead in his next film; Marnie and she loved the part.  But a small matter of leading a nation kept her from that film.  Cary Grant had planned his retirement after completing Dream Wife in 1952, making the official announcement in February 1953.  He thought himself too old to continue acting and was angry with the industry and country at the way Charlie Chaplin had been treated by the House Un-American Activities Committee.  Hitchcock talked him into the John Robie role.  The rest, as they say, is history.

As it turns out, Cary Grant wasn’t the only one concerned about his age.  To Catch a Thief was filmed in the summer of 1954 but its release was delayed because the producers felt the age difference between Grant and Kelly was too great for their romance to be believable.  There was no need for worry, however.  Upon its release Thief was an instant hit and went on to become one of the most popular films of the decade.

Given that To Catch a Thief is such a visually stunning film, I must mention the manner that Alfred Hitchcock used to set his suspense in this film – or at least it’s the way I see it – by way of the color green.  Whenever the true cat burglar is present in a scene, the color green is present also.  Whether in a subtle hue or glorious emerald, I love to notice it every time I watch.

Finally, Thief also boasts my favorite of the famous Hitchcock cameos.  Trying to elude authorities, early in the film, John Robie goes for a ride on the rear seat of a small bus.  On one side sits birds in a birdcage.  Baffled by it and them he turns his head left to look out the window.  There sits the director.   Deadpan, looking forward, his little scene masterfully played.  What’s not to love about it all?

Before ending, an admission – if all cat burglars looked like, sounded like, moved like, or had the AIR of a Cary Grant, I’d hock everything I own in exchange for jewels in hopes of a chance encounter.

The end.

5 thoughts

    1. Thanks for stopping by. Yes, absolutely gorgeous film, people, scenery. The color green is a brilliant way to “hint” at who the suspected cat is. It’s really something to see lighter vs. darker tones used as the film progresses depending on the scene.

      Such fun.


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