There’s little doubt that To Catch a Thief is Hitchcock at his breeziest and with the once-in-a-lifetime pairing of Cary Grant and Grace Kelly the picture could coast on looks and charm alone. Not simply based on the attributes of its stars either but the extensive on location shooting boasting Cannes shorelines colored in VistaVision and sumptuous flyovers of the winding Riviera, villas and all. It’s a scintillating getaway and a fine departure following the nerve-wracking confinement of pictures like Dial M for Murder (1954) and Rear Window (1954).
Thankfully while it is supremely light entertainment there’s something else to it as well. A rash of copycat crimes has taken place all across the Riviera leading the local police commissioner to suspect reformed cat burglar and French Resistance hero John Robie (Grant). Though the slinking and perfectly executed jewel heists bear the mark of “The Cat,” he’s the best one to acknowledge his own innocence.
Still, that doesn’t stop the police from questioning him nor his old war comrades working at a French cafe to begrudge him for what they deem as an affront to them. They want nothing to do with him. And so with things as they are, Robie must try to exonerate himself by verifying his innocence. John Williams proves the perfect accomplice as a generally agreeable chap from Lloyd’s of London who has vested interest of his own in catching the real culprit in order to recover his client’s assets.
Their introduction could not be more memorable culminating in a tussle in the flower market in Nice with bouquets flying every which way, the local authorities in hot pursuit. From there Robie floats away from the police soaking in some sunbeams as he devises his plan of action. But already we see the dangers as he must essentially play the thief, casing the joint, getting close to the jewels and their owners but all in the name of personal vindication.
What follows is a fortuitous meeting around that whirling pickpocket — the roulette wheel — where Robie makes a dashing entrance. Actually, make that a purposefully inept showing dropping a chip down a lady’s front. What follows is a fairly haphazard routine as Oregon lumber magnate Conrad Burns trading pleasantries with his newfound acquaintances.
Jesse Royce Landis knocks her scenes out of the park allowing Grant and the others to laugh along amusedly due to her affinity for bourbon and straightforward speech. Her daughter Francie (Kelly) tries to maintain her own dignity as an aloof beauty bred on finishing school.
However, she’s more forward than she lets on leading with a wordless smooch in the doorway on her way to bed that begins the chase. What becomes rapidly apparent is the fact that she knows what she wants and doesn’t waste any time pursuing it. First, there’s a jaunt on the beach, then a picnic, and numerous other little romantic getaways perfectly constructed for romancing.
By now the double entendre of the title comes into full relief. On one level Robie is trying to catch someone and Francie is trying to catch him. Charade (1963) would provide a similar dynamic with the woman becoming the huntress out for love. But it’s true that the ravishing gal has a jackpot of admirable qualities which Robie nevertheless tries his best to avoid. Just as he tries relatively unsuccessfully to dodge her flurry of probing questions before finally resigning himself to beer and fried chicken.
I’m the first to admit I’m the least fashion-conscious person around but there’s little denying the iconic nature of Kelly’s coral top during the picnic scenes with Grant. Again, the outfit realized by renowned costumier Edith Head is only rivaled in my admittedly meager estimation by Audrey Hepburn’s Little Black Dress (conceived by Hubert de Givenchy) in Breakfast Tiffany’s (1961) during her early morning window shopping.
The country road car sequence is a fine summation of the film’s general balancing act of John Michael Haye’s scripting with Hitchcock eye for the visual. It’s broken up by the glib interplay between our stars and yet proves silently comedic with knowing gazes and the dodging of pedestrians and roosters as the police tail close behind Francie’s sporty Sunbeam Alpine.
Though the same scene is underlined with a bit of morbidity as Princess Grace would die in a car crash years later as Princess of Monaco brought on by a sudden stroke which occurred not far from where the film was shot. It’s a tragic moment that left a dark blot the world over.
But for now, the picture is effervescent only bounded by fireworks with the impetuous blonde intrigued by this man who she easily pinned as “The Cat” despite his constant rebuttals. She wants to be a part of his game too, all the while entrapping him with her divine loveliness.
Now’s as good a time as any to marvel at the character of John Robie who must have been made for Cary Grant precisely. At first, it’s easy to surmise that he’s supposed to be a Frenchman who can barely speak any of his native language. However, that would disregard the randomly assorted tidbits scattered throughout the film. For one, he’s said to be an American on multiple occasions. Except as Francie notes, “you’re like an American character in an English movie.” Robie even notes he once toured Europe with a troupe of acrobats, not unlike a young Archibald Leach.
The picture is also littered with what can only be termed touches of Hitchcock whether tops of umbrellas, policemen playing hacky sack on the job, or cigarettes stubbed out in eggs instead of ashtrays.
But back to the action. The final game of cat and mouse is proposed to trap the clandestine specter who has been absconding with all the jewels. It comes down to a decadent Louis 15th extravaganza frequented by the social elite and costumed policemen milling about amid the guests. Robie is waiting to pounce and takes to the rooftops to have it out once and for all!
We think we’re in for one last perfunctory car chase instead Grant and Kelly receive their final rendezvous at a villa which proves far more thrilling. The plot generally took a backseat to the stars anyways even for a Hitchcock movie. We leave them as they embrace with Francie exclaiming, “Mother will love it here!” and Grant’s quizzical look barely visible past his costar’s shoulder. That’s priceless. How could we have more fun than this?