Classic Musings: Hitchcock's To Catch a Thief ('55)

Every great director has at least one departure from their film-making blueprint, an entry in their portfolio that diverts from the tones and formulas that have worked for them up until that point. This seems especially prevalent in English language directors and their drive to build a "mainstream" picture: Martin Scorsese has The Color of Money, Billy Wilder has The Fortune Cookie, and Alfred Hitchcock has To Catch a Thief. Even in their lighter fare, these directors still showcase the skills that have etched a place for them in history -- but To Catch a Thief is a matchless diversion, and something of an relaxed one from Hitchcock. It's certainly not a picture on the same caliber as his classic espionage whodunit, North by Northwest, but it's a playful one that elicits some early notes that would arise later in his stronger films.

Hitchcock introduces us to John Robie (Cary Grant), a revolutionary solder turned ex-jewel thief living on parole in his beautiful Southern French villa. His calming world would soon crumble when reports of "The Cat", his signature burglar name, start circulating in the newspaper amid some high-profile robberies in a relatively nearby resort town. Since the police seem determined to apprehend Robie as the man responsible for these recent crimes, he brings together a clump of old and new acquaintances alike to "trap" the real burglar in the act. He does so, with the help of industrious insurance executive H.H. Hughson (John Williams), by staking out some of the high-dollar suspects and analyzing the ways that the thief rips them off.

It's certainly not a picture on the same caliber as his classic espionage whodunit, North by Northwest, but it's a playful one that elicits some early notes that would arise later in his stronger films.Though there's a veil of mild suspense draped over To Catch a Thief in skulking towards the real identity of "The Cat", the romantic angle between John Robie and a closeted thrill-seeking debutant, Frances (Grace Kelly), quickly takes center stage. They meet in the middle of John's entry into his temporary secret life, all while he dazzles a jewel-encrusted lady of old money -- and Frances' mother. Played by Jessie Royce Landis, she incorporates a quirky, non-austere air to the mix that carries over into her seemingly stiff daughter. She gets their cloak-and-dagger swooning started, but the two Hitchcock veterans scoop up the fireworks and zip along from there.

The interplay between Cary Grant and Grace Kelly develops into little more than a cozy pairing, largely because of the two actors' velvety dispositions. Cary Grant's sleek aura works wonders at counterbalancing Ingrid Bergman's bent-up presence in Notorious, while Grace Kelly does an equally postured job at containing the exponentially-twitchy James Stewart in Rear Window. But instead of succeeding as a dreamy coupling between two indelible actors, their chemistry somehow feels overly easy and soft in this exotic environment. That's likely the aim from Hitchcock, as he seems to purposefully capture both of their radiant charismas in a way that approaches whimsical romance -- but the ease in their connection slurps up a bit of the electricity brewing between their naturally intriguing characters. Each handle their respective parts with sophistication, but the unfussy nature of their interchanges speak more to the quixotic side of things.

Complication just isn't To Catch a Thief's forte. Hitchcock's always has his eye on entertaining the crowd with his films, whether it's in the disturbing twists in Psycho or the satisfying dread in The Birds. With To Catch a Thief, he goes down a slightly more maudlin path by only sprinkling in graspable suspense as he sees fit. Instead of a swelling level of anticipation built within each precisely-edited frame and growingly-robust score inclusion, he only adds glimmers of each throughout all the mild twists and sweeping cinematography in a way that keeps the story lively and buoyant instead of incrementally brooding. It's not particularly thrilling, but the simplicity in the way that it orchestrates a subtle buzz between John Robie, his former French rebellion cohorts, and his new colleagues along the French Riviera carries its own nonchalant flavor.

It's obvious that Hitchcock has a blast with To Catch a Thief by the slippery sense of humor and confetti-style showering of bold colors interwoven in his picture. But he also makes certain to infuse his scheming sense of imagery and vision -- such as in a fantastic scene where he positions Kelly in this pool of light that drowns out her face and emphasizes the jewels around her neck, signifying the guided desire of a thief's eye. He indulges in a number of these, most of which gravitate around the lackadaisical chemistry brewing between John Robie and Frances. What makes these nuggets interesting is their precursory nature, many of which can be spotted in Hitchcock's later films. When looking at the bath of green light present in moonlit scenes atop pseudo-gothic rooftops and within open-windowed sitting rooms, it's impossible to not think of his use of the color in Vertigo, while many of the quirky ways he rustles up humor with Grant's character easily look forward to his tongue-and-cheek manner in North by Northwest. It's a different type of Hitchcock film, but there's plenty of the director's tricks and tableau concepts that make it distinctive.

Largely, To Catch a Thief is a playground of lavishness and picturesque tranquility within the legendary director's mind, one where he tinkers with familiar elements -- and some not so familiar -- like a batch of new toys used to create something decadently fresh instead of one of his by-the-book mysteries. With some input from Paramount, Hitchcock captured everything completely in VistaVision to gather together all of the lush palettes and magnificent landscapes in the French locale. Plant robust stars Cary Grant and Grace Kelly in the front seat, and it seemed destined to be a grand Hollywood affair filled with enchanting scenery and star-studded magnetism. Hitchcock's signature panache and painstaking focus on perfection drives To Catch a Thief to blossom into an entertaining piece of soft-edged, semi-thrilling eye candy -- and certainly a different sort of concoction from the "Master of Suspense".


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