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To Catch a Thief (1955)
Written by John Michael Hayes
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
To Catch a Thief is an uncharacteristically glamorous affair for Hitchcock, lacking the dark psychological edge most audiences associate with his work. He always liked to have beautiful women in his cast and handsome actors, but usually, somewhere in the story, it would delve into twisted territory. But this keeps things focused on jewel theft in the French Riveria and one man trying to clear his name. It does feature mistaken identity elements, a common trope in Hitchcock’s work, but it lacks the suspense found in films like Rear Window and Dial M for Murder.
A series of jewel robberies on the Riveria leads the police to the home of John Robie (Cary Grant), an infamous retired thief who seemed to repair his reputation by serving in the French Resistance during World War II. Robie isn’t the one behind these thefts but knows he won’t convince the authorities unless he can bring them the real culprit. Robie first visits a restaurant where his old crew works to implore his advance man Bertani to give him guidance about where to go first. He’s directed to an insurance man (John Williams) and decides to get himself into the good graces of Frances (Grace Kelly) and her nouveau riche mother, Jessie, due to the valuable jewels they are traveling through the area with. Frances falls for Robie but learns about his past and believes he’s sweetening them up to steal her valuables.
After the heights of Rear Window, this definitely feels like a tonal shift that wasn’t fantastic. There’s little to no suspense until the third act. Even then, I think an astute viewer will figure out the identity of the real thief. There are only so many characters, so for it hit with any weight, you can deduce it very quickly. Instead of suspense, we get scenes of romance between our leads or pretty light action sequences. The story is paced reasonably well, and the performers are enjoyable to watch. I think if the script had played into Hitchock’s comedic talents, which he did put on display from time to time, it could have compensated for the lack of a darker story.
I feel uneven about the picture because half of it seems to shot on a soundstage while the other half is on location in Southern France. I think if the whole thing had been filmed in this beautiful setting, it might have at least been some beautiful to look out, but when we cut in a single scene between the beach and a sound stage, all of that is lost. I would definitely put this in the category of films Hitchock did for Hollywood and a paycheck. He got to vacation in southern France, which is a pretty nice deal.
I don’t necessarily think there is genuine chemistry between Grant and Kelly, with the latter being the more engaging character in the story. She has a personality and expresses multiple emotions. Grant just seems to play the entire film as aloof and calm, without a real moment of desperation. Given the circumstances Robie is under, he would have some moments where he cracks a bit. Especially in the second act, he gets cornered with no real sense of how he’s going to get out of the situation but doesn’t sweat at all. I know to some viewers that is the sort of protagonist they want, but I’d rather see someone with more dimensions.
This is confusing because John Michael Hayes was the same screenwriter on Rear Window, so I have to think that Hitch was just not the right match for this material. Even Hitchcock would admit during his interviews with Peter Bogdonavich that To Catch a Thief was a lightweight film that he didn’t consider one of his best. There was a lot of tension between Hayes and Hitchcock, with the writer going behind the director’s back to communicate his ideas with Kelly and Grant. This would be the director’s final work with Grace Kelly, who shortly after got married to Prince Ranier of Monaco and started life outside of acting. We’ll see Grant again in a much better movie, North by Northwest. However, we will be looking at Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man next time as he gets closer to making what I consider his masterpiece.