To Catch A Thief: there’s fluff and then there’s fluff, Hitchcock-style

Alfred Hitchcock, “To Catch A Thief” (1955)

A clever light-hearted comedy crime caper set in southern France, this was one of Grace Kelly’s last films before she married Prince Rainier of Monaco and settled permanently in that part of the world, and Cary Grant’s “comeback” movie after he had declared his retirement from making films in 1953. Grant plays retired cat burglar John Robie aka the Cat, enjoying life as a vineyard owner on the Cote d’Azur. Enjoyment is short-lived though as a series of jewellery burglaries with the hallmarks of the Cat’s style lead the local gendarmes to suspect Robie’s gone back to his old occupation. He calls on his old friends with whom he fought in the French Resistance in the 1940’s (and with whom he swore never to return to crime) to pull in some favours but they’re suspicious and upset that he’s apparently gone back to his old ways.  He escapes the police only with the help of Danielle (Brigitte Auber), the daughter of his friend Foussard. Danielle is infatuated with Robie and suggests they flee to South America together but Robie refuses.

His reputation under a shade, Robie decides to clear his name by catching the copy-cat (ha!) in action so he enlists insurance agent Hughson (John Williams) to help him. Hughson introduces him to rich American socialite Mrs Stevens (Jessie Royce Landis) and her daughter Frances (Grace Kelly) who happen to be top of a list of likely victims for the thief. Initially Frances is attracted to Robie (and eventually falls in love with him), guesses his identity and becomes enthralled with his presumed life-style, at least until mother loses her jewels to the thief.

Robie stakes out the roof-tops to try to catch the thief but ends up struggling with an attacker who turns out to be Foussard. Foussard falls from the roofs into the harbour and drowns. The police later announce that Foussard was the copy-cat thief but Robie points out to Hughson in his office that Foussard had a prosthetic leg and couldn’t be the thief. Later at Foussard’s funeral, Danielle sees Robie in attendance and accuses him of murdering her father so he has to leave. On exiting the cemetery, Robie meets Frances who has read about Foussard’s death in the papers. She apologises to Robie and confesses that she loves him.

In the evening Robie attends a masquerade ball with Frances and by doing a costume swap with Hughson, manages to evade the police and stakes out his position again on the roof-tops, determined to catch the real copy-cat thief …

The film is beautifully shot in what was called VistaVision at the time: Hitchcock revels in bird’s-eye view and aeroplane shots of colourful French Riviera coastal scenes with picturesque villages, long snaking roads through mountains and luxurious holiday resorts for the rich. The rich colour of the setting is echoed in the lavish masquerade ball in the last quarter of the film. Even the roof-tops at night exude an eerie, almost radioactive-bright green colour. The most colourful highlight of the film though – and the most overtly sexual – is the fireworks scene, interspersed with scenes of Robie and Frances alone together in a darkened room, trading witty sexualised repartee and doing more besides while the camera concentrates on the pyrotechnics.

There is a lot of sexual innuendo in the film and much of it, like the fireworks display, isn’t necessarily verbal: even the car-chase scene, where Frances hits the gas to escape the cops and Robie is forced to be her unwilling passenger, could be construed as a kind of “seduction” (read: rape, sort of) scene. Then there are obvious gags like Danielle showing off her legs to a police plane on the floating jetty. The physical setting itself carries cultural baggage as a place for holiday romance and seduction – no doubt fictional British spy James Bond spent many days and nights on the Cote d’Azur and in Monaco with gal pals too numerous to mention – and the colours of the masquerade, and the masquerade itself with its late 18th-century costume theme, recall the sensual decadence of the period of French queen Marie Antoinette’s court.

It becomes clear that the film’s crime caper plot is secondary to its raison d’etre which is the romance between Grant and Kelly’s characters. Robie may be the thief trying to catch a thief but the real thief is Frances who catches him and steals his heart. The denouement in which Frances gazes around Robie’s property and comments on how her mother will love the place, Robie’s priceless expression at the comment and the doomy sound of the church bell tolling at the same time is a hilarious Hitchcock piece of black humour and a small showcase of how well Grant and Kelly worked together despite the huge difference in their ages (at the time, he was at least twice her age). I haven’t seen Cary Grant in a movie before but his acting here suggests that “To Catch A Thief” was a cakewalk for him: he glides well-dressed through his scenes, seems very relaxed and barely creases his forehead even when danger threatens. No wonder he was an early candidate to play James Bond. Kelly, playing an assertive and intelligent young socialite who, uncharacteristically in a 1950’s film, is the active suitor to Grant’s character who plays hard-to-get, would have made an ideal Bond girl if she had been born half a century later. It’s likely that Kelly and Grant improvised a lot of the sexual banter within the scene paramaters set up by Hitchcock. The ad-libbing would highlight how well they clicked together on the screen. The predictable screen romance becomes more interesting and I can truly believe Frances will be more than a match for the lounge-lizard Robie.

It’s interesting that in this film and “Rear Window” at least, Kelly plays a sophisticated, wealthy ice-queen socialite with nerves of steel and daring who will defend and preserve not only her own life but the lives of others, with the aim of snaring a man who’s less of a “man” than she is. I’ve not yet seen “Dial M for Murder” but I understand that in that film, Kelly plays the same kind of character. Like Lisa in “Rear Window”, Frances assumes characteristics associated with male heroes of 1950’s films while the male co-star is forced to adopt a passive feminine role or the characteristics associated with such a role: she saves Robie from being detained or shot by the police on two occasions while he is either helpless or trapped. In a period when most movies portrayed blonde women as empty-headed, ditzy sex bombshells, Kelly and other blonde actresses who featured in Hitchcock’s films must have been thanking their lucky stars to have come across a director consistently offering them challenging work. The popular conception of Hitchcock has always been that he was a misogynist and treated his actresses badly, but this conception could be based on his complicated relationship with Tippi Hedren, star of “The Birds” and “Marnie”. I’d say Hitchcock’s relationship to his lead actresses must at least have been as complicated as, say, Danish director Lars von Trier’s relationship to the lead actresses in the films he directs: von Trier draws performances from his lead actresses that can be great as well as emotionally draining for them in films that have been construed as demonstrating a misogynist viewpoint. But I suspect von Trier  likes turning traditional (or maybe not-so-very traditional) Western views of women on their head in ways that challenge and confront audiences about their own beliefs and the possibility that at some level, we are still influenced by old notions about how “good” women should behave versus how “bad” women usually behave. In like manner, Hitchcock may have enjoyed turning ideas about “good ” women and “bad” women on their head. I’m sure modern audiences watching Kelly in “To Catch A Thief” might be just as amused or surprised as audiences were 50-plus years ago seeing her character pursue Robie aggressively and flaunt her sexuality at him in the darkened hotel room during the fireworks display.

For a film that’s regarded as Hitchcock at his fluffiest, I managed to write a fair amount but this demonstrates that even fluff, when done by Hitchcock, still retains a lot of the rich, subversive and layered quality of the Hitchcock universe. Deception is everywhere in this film wherever viewers look and might be considered a major theme. Perhaps Robie’s look of horror at the end of the film is its real climax: he realises the depth of Frances’s deception and that her “love” for him was really a way of snaring more real estate and wealth for her family. Who’s the real thief? Yep, there’s fluff and then there’s fluff, Hitchcock-style.

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