Alfred Hitchcock Visits the Continent “To Catch a Thief”

1 12 2010

“It was a lightweight story. It wasn’t meant to be taken seriously. I didn’t want to end up with a completely happy ending. That’s why I put in that scene with the tree, when Cary Grant agrees to marry Grace Kelly. It turns out that the mother-in-law will come and live with them, so the final note is pretty grim.” — Alfred Hitchcock

Sometimes, Mr. Hitchcock, lightweight stories have a way of translating into wonderful movies. Such is the case with “To Catch a Thief,” released in 1955 and starring Cary Grant and Grace Kelly, two stars who are like twin diamonds in this dazzling movie, undoubtedly the most glamorous Hitchcock every made.

Grant plays John Robie, formerly a jewel thief called “The Cat,” now living in the south of France. When a new string of robberies resembles his work, the police are quick to assume that Robie is once again up to his old tricks. They attempt to corner him at his villa, but Robie escapes their clumsy efforts. He finds his old gang from the French Resistance, all working at a restaurant run by another of their number, Bertani, who gives him some clues and sends him off to elude the police with the help of beautiful Danielle Foussard. Although young, Danielle is infatuated with Robie; she’s also convinced he really is the thief, and even tries to get him to make her his apprentice.

Bertani’s clues send Robie to H.H. Hughson, played by John Williams. Hughson is an insurance man, and Robie gets his help in concocting a plan to catch the Cat in the act. While Hughson dines with his wealthy American clients, Jessie and Francie Stevens, at a posh hotel, Robie joins them, charming Jessie, the mother, but arousing Francie’s (Grace Kelly’s) suspicions that he intends to steal their jewels.

After spending a romantic evening with Robie, kissing while fireworks explode outside, Francie awakens to find her jewels stolen. Robie goes on the run again, hoping to catch the thief in action again the next night. Instead, he is attacked, but in the struggle his attacker falls to his death. It is Mssr. Foussard, father of Danielle, who blames Robie for his death. The police decide that Foussard must have been the thief, although Robie points out that he had a wooden leg.

Francie and Robie make up and formulate their next move after a high speed car chase with Francie at the wheel – a scene that is more than a little reminiscent of the drunken drive Ingrid Bergman takes Grant on in “Notorious.” They decide that the Cat is sure to strike again at the upcoming masquerade ball that Francie and her mother are attending; the two women, dressed in spectacular gowns, are accompanied by Robie in full disguise as a moorish servant. Robie gives away his identity to the watching police, then slips away momentarily, coming back moments later to dance with Francie. Of course, this is Hughson in Robie’s costume; Robie is now on the roof, awaiting the Cat.

Before long, the Cat arrives – and it is young Danielle, who admits under duress that she worked with her father, under the orders of restaurateur Bertani. Later, back at Robie’s villa, Francie and he profess their love, and Francie tells him how much her mother will love Robie’s home.

There is so much to admire in “To Catch a Thief,” which is like Hitchcock’s homage to France. The beaches, the villas, the marketplaces are all lovingly photographed in widescreen in warm, sun-drenched color and cool shadow, all of which helped cinematographer Robert Burks win an Academy Award that year. You can almost smell the flowers when Grant and Williams are chased through the marketplace, in a very funny scene. And then there’s the spectacular color of the masquerade ball…

Grant and Kelly share a rare chemistry on screen; it’s a shame this is their only film together. Danielle, played by Brigitte Auber, is portrayed as a young woman, barely more than a girl, although she is very attractive. Francie is more mature, and more of a match for Robie. The scene in which they swim at the beach club in Cannes is delightful, as Danielle playfully suggests they find shallower waters so she and Francie can compare physiques. The screenplay, by John Michael Hayes, handles this racy suggestion as an innuendo. The script is full of these bon mots, such as when Jessie suggests that Robie stole more than diamonds from Francie – meaning not her heart, but her virtue.

The costuming by Edith Head also plays an important part in the film. Grace Kelly carries off her elegant wardrobe like no one else could, especially a black and white outfit that turns heads in the hotel lobby, and then in the famous gown that Hitchcock asked to have designed so she would look like she’d been wrapped in gold. Grant, meanwhile, picked out his own wardrobe, making smart choices for his casually elegant former thief.

Hitchcock appears early in the film, sitting at the back of a bus Grant has boarded; Grant gives him a look, but Hitch seems not to notice. Now fifty-one years old, Grant is well into his dour, later years, although he does turn on the charm during his early scenes with Francie and Jessie Stevens.

Here’s a look at the trailer for “To Catch a Thief,” capturing a bit of the French scenery:

Next, Edmund Gwenn returns, along with newcomer Shirley MacLaine and John Forsythe, for the black comedy “The Trouble with Harry.”

The famous birthday celebration where Hitchcock's secretary said, "Mr. Hitchcake would like you all to have a piece of his cock."

 

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