TO CATCH A THIEF (1955) – Paramount – ★★★★
Color – 106 minutes – 1.85:1 aspect ratio
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Principal cast: Cary Grant (John Robie), Grace Kelly (Frances Stevens), Jessie Royce Landis (Jessie Stevens), John Williams (H. H. Hughson), Brigitte Auber (Danielle Foussard).
Screenplay by John Michael Hayes, from the novel by David Dodge
Cinematography by Robert Burks
Edited by George Tomasini
Music by Lyn Murray
Costumes by Edith Head
Alfred Hitchcock entered 1955 riding a hot streak, with the back-to-back smash hits Dial M For Murder and Rear Window, and that streak would continue with To Catch A Thief. The movie opens with one of Hitchcock’s typical vignettes. A black cat creeps on a rooftop. Cut to a woman screaming; her jewels have been stolen. Cut to the same black cat, slinking by a windowsill. Then another woman screaming. Finally we cut to a black cat sleeping comfortably on Cary Grant’s sofa, as he reads a newspaper article about a jewel thief named “the cat”. A simple but effective story set up.
To Catch A Thief is often cited as Hitchcock lite: a good-looking movie that offers little of the subtext or dark undercurrents to be found in many of his best movies. Actually, all of Hitchcock’s favorite themes are on display here, and while the tone is light, the movie is always entertaining, and pleasing to the palate.
First of all, we have the innocent man falsely accused, in the form of Cary Grant’s John Robie. A man who was once a jewel thief, but who now just wishes to live quietly in his villa near the French Riviera (don’t we all?) But now, someone has begun stealing jewels, using his methods, and the police want to arrest him. The difference between this movie and the many others with this theme is that the action is more static here; this is a chase movie of sorts, but without constantly changing scenery and set pieces. This all plays out in the same locale. So there is not the same sense of menace that we feel in movies like North by Northwest or The 39 Steps.
One never truly feels like Grant is in any real danger. (And yet, having said that, the rooftop finale is thrilling.)
Next we have the icy maiden as leading lady. Grace Kelly’s character has a cool demeanor, but inside she is about to bubble over. She is Frances Stevens, travelling in Europe with her rich mother, whose jewels are a target for the thief. Observe the transformation of Kelly’s character as the movie progresses, and she becomes more overtly sexual. Interestingly she is also turned on by the thought of Cary Grant’t character being a thief. She wants him to be a thief; as a matter of fact, she is willing to help him steal. Kelly had quickly become Hitchcock’s favorite leading lady, this being their third consecutive film together. And her performance here is outstanding.
How about the domineering mother? Grace Kelly’s mother is perfectly played by Jessie Royce Landis, who would later play Cary Grant’s mother in North by Northwest. Her level head and straight talk make her a polar opposite of her daughter, and provide many of the best moments in the film.
And subtle (or not so subtle) sexual humor? This film contains more double entendres than any film Hitchcock ever made. Special acknowledgment goes to John Michael Hayes, who crafted a screenplay that is full of more quotable lines than five average movies. His dialogue is witty, flirty, breezy, and never boring.
And a great climax, occuring in a high place? John Robie unmasks the real cat thief, and clears his name, on the rooftop of a French villa, which has just hosted a lavish costume party. The entire party sequence is a lovely set piece, with gorgeous costumes designed by Edith Head (of course) who once said this was her favorite movie to work on.
Above you can see the gorgeous set from the film’s finale, on a sound stage at Paramount.
Some people have delved deeper into this movie, examining themes of guilt and trust, but since Hitchcock himself said the movie was not meant to be taken seriously, we will take him at his word. But just because it is not serious does not mean it is not worth watching. It is expertly made, gorgeously shot, well acted, with a memorable and funny screenplay.
Performances: As is usually the case in Hitchcock movies, some of the most interesting performances are in the supporting cast. Of course the two leads are great, as I’ve already mentioned. But equally great is John Williams as insurance man H.H. Hughson. And Jessie Royce Landis steals every scene she is in. Her part is very well written, but she elevates the character beyond the written word. And Brigitte Auber, as the second love interest for Cary Grant, is quite good as well.
Source material: The movie is based on a novel by David Dodge. Considering it is over 60 years old, the novel reads very well today. It’s tone is light, and it breezes along, much like the movie. The main plot points were all transferred from the book directly to the movie. There are some minor changes. In the novel, Robie actually dons a physical disguise after fleeing from the police at his villa, so they will not recognize him. Robie also has a friend named Paul, a character that is eliminated from the movie altogether. This friend falls in love with Danielle, the jewel thief, which complicates things at the ending. Although screenwriter John Michael Hayes kept much of the plot, he did bring a lot of original dialogue to the movie. Dialogue was Hayes’ specialty, and this screenplay features many gems. As mentioned before, he packs the screenplay with double entendres; it’s amazing that they all passed muster with the censors.
Academy awards: Robert Burks won a much-deserved Oscar for Best Color Cinematography. The movie was also nominated in the Best Costume and Best Color Art Direction-Set Decoration categories.
Robert Burks, cameraman: Rather than a full scene deconstruction, we are going to take a look at one sequence in the movie, with particular attention paid to Robert Burks Oscar-winning cinematography. Burks was the director of photography on 12 of Alfred Hitchcock’s films. In addition to this movie, he shot Rear Window, Vertigo, North by Northwest, and 8 other titles. One could argue that he was the most important technical collaborator of Hitchcock’s career.
This is the scene where Frances Stevens (Grace Kelly) attempts to seduce John Robie (Cary Grant). She is attempting to lure him with both her body and the necklace she is wearing. In the shot above, Kelly’s face is in the shadows, forcing Robie’s (and the viewer’s) attention to the objects of desire. The green light on the curtains is a great touch as well.
The two are drawn closer together, with Grace Kelly’s character being the aggressor, while Cary Grant’s Robie is on the defensive. Look at the above shot. First, the two characters frame the window. Grant stands rigid, while Grace Kelly is relaxed, seductive. The fireworks are on display behind them. Next observe the color composition. Out the window is a deep blue. The streak of green runs through the center of the frame, with the actors standing just inside it. You can see that Grace Kelly’s hair appears green. The light has almost a pinkish tint on the right, and there are deep shadows in the top left of frame, and bottom right.
The characters are slowly drawn together, then they part. Grace Kelly sits down on the couch, and now we are seeing her from Grant’s point of view; she is bathed in a brighter, natural light, finally showcasing her absolutely breathtaking face.
Next, a cut to the fireworks out the window. This may be the on-screen birth of the now-trite fireworks as sex metaphor.
Where’s Hitch? Alfred Hitchcock’s cameo appears at about the 9:38 mark of this movie. It is one of the most self-aware cameos of his career. Cary Grant boards a bus outside his villa, and takes a seat in the very back. On the seat to his right sits a birdcage with some birds in it. He then looks to his left, and the camera pans over to show Hitchcock sitting right next to him, stoically looking ahead.
Recurring players: Cary Grant had appeared in Suspicion and Notorious, and would later appear in North by Northwest. Grace Kelly had earlier starred in Dial M For Murder and Rear Window. Jessie Royce Landis would appear with Cary Grant again (as his mother!) in North by Northwest. The inimitable John Williams had already been in The Paradine Case and Dial M For Murder. Lewis Charles (man with milk saucer in Bertanis) would later appear in Topaz. Steven Geray had earlier appeared in Spellbound. Gladys Holland (woman at roulette table), Edward Manouk (kitchen helper), Louis Mercier (croupier) and Donald Lawton (police detective) would show up briefly in The Man Who Knew Too Much remake. Barry Norton had earlier had a bit part in Strangers on a Train, and Loulette Sablon had a bit part in Foreign Correspondent. And lets not forget Bess Flowers, the most prolific extra in Hollywood history, who was an extra in this and seven other Hitchcock movies.
What Hitch said: Alfred Hitchcock had very little to say about this movie, over the years. He did call it “a lightweight story” and say “it wasn’t meant to be taken seriously.”
Definitive edition: Paramount released this movie on blu ray in 2012. This print of the movie is breathtaking. Edith Head’s beautiful costumes, and Robert Burks’ Oscar-winning cinematography are on fine display. The blu ray contains a dry-but-informative commentary track by Drew Casper, and numerous featurettes: A Night With the Hitchcocks, Film Censorship in Hollywood, Writing and Casting, The Making of, Behind the Gates, Alfred Hitchcock and To Catch A Thief, Edith Head: The Paramount years, and Interactive Travelogue. Also included are photo galleries and the original theatrical trailer. It’s a shame Paramount did not port over the commentary track from the earlier DVD release, featuring Peter Bogdanovich and Laurent Bouzereau. Their lighter tone was more suited to this movie than Drew Casper’s scholarly dissertation.