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To Catch A Thief (1955)

October 20th, 2007 · 4 Comments

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31 days of October. 31 articles devoted to the screen’s maestro of suspense and the macabre, Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980). I’ll be jumping back and forth through five decades in this series. More than half of the films I’ve never seen before, but even the ones I have seen were viewed, researched and written about this month.

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When a jewel thief strikes the resorts of the French Riviera, the man everyone suspects is responsible is John Robie (Cary Grant). Once known as “The Cat,” Robie was France’s most notorious jewel thief, until he was jailed and then lent his expertise to the Resistance during the war. He now devotes his time to growing grapes and flowers at his hilltop villa, but when police come to question him, he goes on the run.

Robie is now persona non grata among his former partisans, who were granted pardons after the war and want nothing to do with a fugitive. Robie’s former comrade (Charles Vanel) – operator of a catering business – puts him in contact with an insurance agent (John Williams), who provides Robie with a list of the most valuable jewels currently in the French Riviera. In exchange, Robie agrees to catch the copycat.

The top target on the list is an American widow Jessie Stevens (Jessie Royce Landis), on holiday with her headstrong daughter Frances (Grace Kelly). Robie’s up close and personal time with Frances draws the jealousy of a French girl (Brigitte Auber) helping Robie out in the hope he’ll run away with her. Frances is suspicious of Robie as well, but attracted to him. She agrees to sneak him into a costume ball, where Robie hopes to evade police capture long enough to catch the copycat red handed.

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Production history 
To Catch A Thief was a project that director Alfred Hitchcock had developed through his production company Transatlantic Pictures. Producer Sidney Bernstein had obtained the screen rights to the 1952 adventure mystery novel by David Dodge, with a tentative agreement from Cary Grant to star. When Hitchcock moved to Paramount, he sold the story rights – which Bernstein had obtained for $15,000 – to the studio for $105,000.

The novel concerned a famed cat burglar named John Robie, alias Le Chat, who puts his criminal past behind him to aid the French Resistance during the German occupation. After the war, he retires to the French Riviera, but when a spree of burglaries ensues, he reunites with his old confederates to nab the copycat and clear his name. Intrigued by setting a film on the French Riviera, Hitchcock hired John Michael Hayes to adapt a script in early 1954.

Hitchcock notified Hayes which stars they were tailoring the lead roles for. Grace Kelly turned down On The Waterfront to go to the South of France with Hitchcock, while Cary Grant took longer to get on board. He had announced his retirement after Dream Wife in 1952 and hadn’t appeared in a movie since. Hitchcock’s promises that the film would be a return to the sophisticated comedy Grant epitomized – and 10% of the gross – brought the icon back to the screen.

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While Hayes raced to finish a script, location shooting commenced in June 1954. The script was still being tweaked over the summer as interiors were being shot on the Paramount lot. Hayes clashed with the director as he felt the film was becoming increasingly far fetched. Hitchcock didn’t mind that at all. Audiences didn’t seem to either. To Catch A Thief was almost as popular as Rear Window, grossing $4.5 million in the U.S.

The film boasts two of the most glamorous movie stars of the 20th century, but if you’ve seen Cary Grant or Grace Kelly standing around, looking glamorous, it gets tiring after about two minutes and unfortunately, there’s little to nothing else to write home about To Catch A Thief. This was a project loaded with potential to bait and switch the audience, but instead of offering thrills, it’s as sophisticated as a picture postcard, and about as flat.

If the novel featured anything about the French Resistance, jewel thieves, or double crosses, none of that made it into the script, which coasts on the charm Grant and Kelly bring to their flimsy roles. There’s some visual wit here or there, and a gorgeously lit seduction scene between Grant and Kelly with fireworks symbolically popping in the background, but the movie feels like a paid vacation for Hitchcock. It’s not bad, but it may be the most vapid he ever made.

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Terrence Brady at Dial H For Hitchcock says, “Even if you’re not a fan of the murderous story lines of a Hitchcock film, you may be surprised by To Catch A Thief. It is an enticing script, set in a utopian setting, displaying a great on-screen couple.”

“This is a lovely piece of romantic fluff full of eye-candy and chock full of enjoyment. It has just enough suspense to keep the pace moving, but nothing so speedy as to detract from the romance. The softer side of Hitchcock,” writes Lisa Skryniarz at Crazy For Cinema.

Vince Leo at QWipster’s Movie Reviews writes, “To Catch a Thief is definitely worth a look for all fans of Hitchcock and Grant, but it’s a must-see for all of Grace Kelly’s admirers, as she has never looked lovelier. Somewhere amid all of the film’s biggest assets, the story gets lost, but that’s not likely the reason someone would ever watch this, now is it?”

“The scandalous romance that shocked even the blase international set, between this restless thrill hunting American heiress and the notorious man of mystery the French underworld called The Cat.” View the 1955 theatrical trailer.

© Joe Valdez

Tags: Based on novel · Heist · Interrogation

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Damian // Oct 21, 2007 at 6:03 pm

    I finally saw To Catch a Thief recently and thought it was quite charming and enjoyable. It may be one of Hitch’s “lightest” efforts, but I found myself thinking that if I hadn’t known it was Hitchcock film, I probably wouldn’t have been able to tell… which, I guess, is itself sort of an achievement in style.

    As always, nice piece, Joe. My good friend Tucker wrote a brief but interesting post on the movie a few months back over on his blog Pilgrimakimbo.

  • 2 Megan // Oct 23, 2007 at 12:35 pm

    I do enjoy this movie but I wish Cary Grant didn’t look like just he stepped out of a bad tanning session. It’s hard for me to see him in color, I guess!

    Kudos galore to Edith Head for the costume design.

    More from the book angle (sorry, can’t help it!) – my mom recently tracked this one down for us. Less romance, more of the Resistance angle…it was quite good.

  • 3 Joe Valdez // Oct 23, 2007 at 3:08 pm

    Damian: Thanks! Almost all of the reviews I’ve read echo your sentiments. I don’t know, I find that most movies that fall into the category of lighthearted fun, like Ocean’s Eleven, I can’t shake off as being lazy and stupid. And between Grace Kelly and jewel thieves, I wanted to like this movie.

    Megan: I’m all for actors, even movie stars, looking like real people, but I don’t know if Cary Grant ever had to play one of those before. And from the synopsis I dug up on David Dodge’s novel, I agree with you, it sounded cool, with more World War II intrigue and less glamour.

  • 4 The Massie Twins // Mar 11, 2009 at 8:28 pm

    Excellent review! We find the most interesting aspect of To Catch a Thief to be the dialogue between Grant and Kelly. Fun stuff!

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