Has there ever been another director who made their craft appear as effortless as Hitchcock? The master of the thriller was also capable of success in pretty much any genre he chose to play within, and in 1955’s To Catch a Thief, he’s playing in a lot of them. This film is very hard to classify; it has elements of suspense, comedy, and romance. Viewers are treated to exciting car chases, beautiful French vistas, and romantic interludes that rival the great love stories of film, but this is all balanced by murder, suspicion, and an impending sense of dread that our characters might not survive.
To Catch a Thief stars Cary Grant as a reformed burglar, John Robie. When we meet him, Robie has been sentenced for his crimes and swears he has given up the criminal lifestyle. When a series of robberies that follow his old MO start to occur on the French Riviera, Robie becomes suspect number one by local authorities. He vows to discover who the real thief is so he can clear his name, but the suspicion lingers among both the authorities and us, the viewers, that he may actually be up to his old tricks. Further complicating things are a wealthy American girl, Francine Stevens (Grace Kelly) and her mother Jessie Stevens (Jessie Royce Landis). Francine pretends to be cool and distant, but fireworks ignite (literally) when she’s around John Robie. The interplay between Cary Grant and Grace Kelly is worth the price of admission.
His co-star, Grace Kelly, was almost completely the opposite. She had such a brief career that we mourn how few movies she actually starred in. Officially, she appeared in 11 movies, and three of those were for Alfred Hitchcock. She famously married the Prince of Monaco in 1956, less than a year after this film opened, becoming Princess Grace and never working in Hollywood again. It’s hard to watch her in anything and not wonder what might have been. Grace Kelly is FANTASTIC. She’s beautiful, elegant, and filled with the kind of confidence and star quality that some veteran actors hope to achieve in their third or fourth decade of acting. She was a true natural, and watching her act opposite Cary Grant is one of the great pleasures of this film.
One of the reasons things work so well is because the screenplay itself is fantastic. One of Hitchcock’s best screenwriters, John Michael Hayes, adapted the story from a novel by David Dodge. Hayes is the same guy who wrote the scripts for Rear Window (1954), The Trouble with Harry (1955), and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). His script for To Catch a Thief is electric; The repartee between Cary Grant and Grace Kelly is the kind of stuff that makes you lean forward in your seat so that you can follow every single word. It’s clever, witty, and acerbic. There’s a scene in which they picnic on a mountainside overlooking the Riviera, and Kelly takes out some chicken and asks Grant “Breast or leg?” Grant quickly replies “Your choice.” Even ancillary characters get cracking dialogue, such as Grace Kelly’s mother, who gets to deliver lines like “Sorry I ever sent her to finishing school. I think they finished her there.” Hitchcock makes sure that the lines are delivered rapid-fire, in the style of characters from some noir film. This gives these scenes a game-like quality as his leads try desperately to stay one step ahead of the other.
To Catch a Thief absolutely feels timeless, and because the film frequently bends genres, it’s one of those movies that you can watch any time, no matter your mood. It feels dangerous, exciting, and romantic, but more than anything, it feels fun. I’m not sure how often fun is a quality that we ascribe to Alfred Hitchcock, but he certainly knew how to imbue his films with qualities that keep us coming back again and again. When we mention Hitchcock, I suspect most of us think of Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho, and The Birds. In 1955, Hitchcock had yet to make any of those movies, meaning his greatest achievements were still ahead of him. But his smaller successes, such as To Catch a Thief, still shine like the diamonds they are. Smaller, maybe, and less praised, but diamonds nonetheless.
Read more of Heath Holland's writing at his blog Cereal at Midnight!