Filmsite Movie Review
To Catch A Thief (1955)
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Background

To Catch A Thief (1955) is a Hitchcock-directed, lush, entertaining comedy/thriller concerning jewel heists by "The Cat" on the French Riviera. Although the polished caper film contains a typical amount of mystery and suspense, its light-weight, relaxed plot lacks some of the profound psychological depth and complexity of his other works.

Filmed in widescreen VistaVision, its leisurely tone is decidedly European, with pictorial exotic settings (i.e., The Hotel Carlton on the Riviera) and fashions, snatches of French, witty (but risque and naughty) double-entendres-laden dialogue, and an elegantly-orchestrated romance. The film's title, To Catch a Thief, was based upon the ancient proverb: "Set a thief to catch a thief," with double meanings regarding a double-chase.

It was Grant's third (of four) film for Hitchcock (after Suspicion (1941) and Notorious (1946)), and Kelly's third and final film for the famous director (after Dial M For Murder (1954) and Rear Window (1954)), soon before she left her film career forever and married Prince Rainier of Monaco. The romantic-thriller was much imitated at the time, e.g., Charade (1963) and Arabesque (1966). A modern-day remake planned to transplant the French setting to Miami, although it would keep the main storyline about a reformed jewel thief who attempts to clear his name when accused of a robbery.

The American expatriate hero (a falsely-accused former cat burglar) has to catch the real cat burglar (a 'she-cat') during a rash of robberies before he is caught himself, while the heroine is on a quest to 'catch' him - first as the burglar, and then as a husband. The infamous MacGuffin in this Hitchcock film is the identity of the thief. The stylish film's screenplay, by John Michael Hayes (in his second project with Hitchcock), was based on the novel of the same name by David Dodge. Hitchcock's film was nominated for three Academy Awards: Best Color Art Direction-Set Decoration, Best Color Costume Design (Edith Head), and its sole winning category - Best Color Cinematography (Robert Burks).

The Story

As the credits roll above, the camera focuses on the window-front of a travel service that advertises dream vacations to France. When the titles are finished, the camera tracks over to a poster on the right that reads: "IF YOU LOVE LIFE, YOU'LL LOVE FRANCE." But in the next startling instant, there is a closeup of a middle-aged woman (with her face coated in cold cream) shrieking as she notices her empty jewelry case in her French Riveria hotel room: "My jewels! I've been robbed." She runs out to her balcony overlooking the Mediterranean to yell for police. To emphasize the motif of a stealthy, prowling jewel thief (cat burglar) that has committed the crime, a black cat crosses a slatted, tiled rooftop at night. Inside a room, a black-gloved hand removes a pile of valuable jewels. And then the black cat crosses back over the roof. The short montage continues with another woman's scream: "My diamonds! They're gone," and another traversing of the roof by the black cat and the theft of jewels from under a sleeping person's pillow.

At the Commissaire de Police's office, an alarmed Commissioner Lepic (Rene Blancard), the head detective, mobilizes his police force to send out a black car down the coast road to question prime suspect John Robie (the "Cat") (Cary Grant). Robie is a reformed former jewel thief - a bachelor now living in a mountainside villa overlooking the sea on the South of France's Riviera. Robie is first introduced in the form of his own black cat that lounges on his sofa next to a paw-scratched edition of the HERALD TRIBUNE, with a report of the series of new thefts of the wealthy in Cannes. The rash of crimes match Robie's modus operandi:

EUROPE'S LIGHTER SIDE
by Art Buchwald

The Cat Prowls Again?

Is it true, or just a rumor - that John Robie, former cat burglar of Paris before the war, is once again on the prowl? Fashionable resorts on the Riviera are being regularly looted by a skillful jewel thief. Robie, once a hero of the French Resistance Army, was said to have reformed - however, the style of this new crime wave is certainly his. Even if he's innocent, he'll need all his old adroitness escaping the suspicious opinions of a doubtful police.

Robie, wearing a black and white horizontally-striped shirt and a red kerchief (resembling a cat collar) is cutting roses in his outside garden - he is semi-retired, cultivating grapes and flowers. After hearing the screeching tires of an approaching police vehicle with five officials inside, he quickly runs upstairs to his bedroom. When the police arrive and surround his home, his maid Germaine (Georgette Anys) calls for him - he effeminately walks down the stairs where a few officers greet him, describe their accusations, and command him to go with them to Nice for questioning. When he returns to his room to change his clothes, he locks the door, fixes up a shotgun, and fires it. As the men break down the door, his car is heard roaring away - but he is on the roof looking down at the scene. When the police finally catch up with his car after chasing him through spectacular scenery [a similar car chase returning to Robie's villa symmetrically ends the film], and both cars are blocked by a herd of sheep, they realize that they have been diverted - Germaine is driving his car.

With his house devoid of detectives and cleared for escape, Robie boards a bus to Cannes and sits in the rear seat. He watches through the back window as the detectives return to his villa. He is squeezed on the bench seat between a cage containing two fluttering birds (enticing to a cat) and a portly passenger. [This is director Hitchcock in his customary cameo. Grant turns and is startled to see him. Hitchcock stares ahead and ignores his star.] In Cannes, he strides down stone steps into a coastal restaurant on the French Riviera owned by restauranteur Bertani (Charles Vanel), one of his old colleagues from the war. When the wine steward Foussard (Jean Martinelli) (with a white streak in his hair and a limp in his stride) first notices Robie, he prematurely pops the cork on a bottle of champagne and it bubbles over. The restauranteur's staff, other ex-accomplices of Robie's, are suspicious and wary of him as he peers into the glassed-in kitchen area. As Robie glances away for a second, a raw egg splatters on the glass pane in front of him - obliterating his face and expressing their furtive hostility.

After avoiding the brutish advances of one of the staff, Robie turns and speaks to Bertani - he claims ("insists") his innocence and that he had nothing to do with the robberies: "I haven't stolen a piece of jewelry in fifteen years." A skeptical Bertani "perhaps" believes that he hasn't returned to his former job. (It is revealed that Robie was an American who had been imprisoned, alongside Bertani and some of his kitchen staff, during World War II and the Nazi occupation of France. When the Germans bombed the prison and they all escaped, they served in the underground Resistance movement. When they were paroled-rehabilitated after serving in the Resistance, Robie remained in France and gained notoriety as a former jewel thief, claiming that he never stole again.) The kitchen help (his former comrades), however, assume that Robie is "responsible" for the robberies that bear his mark. (They also may envy his wealth and life of ease.) They angrily believe that he "let them down" and is jeopardizing their freedom. Robie responds: "And now if there's any crime on the Riviera, we're the first to be suspected by the police." Although retired from the burglary business, he can't understand how the crimes bear such a striking, copy-cat similarity to his own methods. [Bertani is filmed from below, while Robie is filmed from above.]

To clear his name, Robie realizes that the only way to prove that he ISN'T the Cat is a very dangerous proposition. He has to investigate by himself (as a very skillful policeman) and find the real thief who is imitating his crimes. By putting himself into the thief's perspective, by imagining and identifying himself as the Cat burglar, and by anticipating and outdoing the copy-cat burglar's next move, Robie will use his burglary experience to ultimately unmask the real culprit:

What I can't understand is how this thief can imitate me so perfectly. It has to be someone who knew every detail of my technque. Maybe somebody in the police...He picks perfect victims and only the right stones. Goes up walls, over the roofs, down through the skylights. Leaves no clue and then disappears in the night...If somebody caught this imitator, we'd all be off the hook, wouldn't we?...No one believes me, but the police are chasing the wrong man. Someone's got to start chasing the right one...I've got to catch this imitator myself...I can anticipate him, try to figure out his next move, and then get there ahead of him and catch him with his hands right in the jewel case...The biggest problem is time. I've got to hit this copy-cat before he hears I'm after him. To catch him in the act, I need better information than he has, the kind that takes months to dig out.

He asks for Bertani to help him, especially to find out more about possible targets - rich people who own jewels: "Where they live, which room they keep the stones in, what time they usually go to sleep, how much they drink, whether they have dogs, guns, servants, insurance." Bertani presents him with the business card of a man who recently came to the restaurant and asked many "strange questions" about "crime and criminals," and "about the jewels (my) clients wear." Robie is alerted that the police have trailed him to the restaurant, so he is helped to escape by the smitten young, blonde daughter of the wine steward, Danielle Foussard (Brigitte Auber). [Coincidentally, she is wearing a similar, look-alike shirt - with red and white horizontal stripes - an obvious hint that she is in his identical line of work!].

Robie is to be whisked away by speedboat (a boat named "Maquis Mouse" - a deliberate play on Maquis (the French Underground) and Mickey Mouse) to the Beach Club in Cannes, where he is to await Bertani's phone call. In the wine cellar as they leave, Danielle teasingly labels Robie "Mr. Cat," and then asks when he expresses upset: "Did I brush your fur the wrong way?" The detectives spot the speedboat departing and pursue Robie by plane to his destination. During the boatride, water splashes on Robie, and Danielle again toys with him: "It must be true what they say. Cats don't like water." She suggests that a "man should never regret his past." She remembers how he taught her English in her childhood, and she views his current easy life filled with "excitement, danger, affluence" (by living on his earlier profits). Bitter but not angry, she doesn't believe that he is innocent. Even though he's probably responsible for the recent robberies, she still propositions him to marry her and go to South America to escape the police:

Danielle: I was just thinking about you, imagining you in your expensive villa enjoying life, while we work like idiots for a loaf of bread.
Robie: I work for a living too raising grapes and flowers.
Danielle: And rubies, and diamonds, and pearls...I've always dreamed of going to South America. People say it's a virgin country. I can cook, sew, keep my mouth shut and peddle stolen jewels on the black market...

Before arrival at the Beach Club, he changes into red-plaid swim trunks, and is deposited near the shore. On the beach, he reclines on the sand in front of a beautiful, lanky blonde (Grace Kelly) in a turban and sunglasses who is applying sun-tan lotion. A lechorous, male beach attendant [a police informant?] stands menacingly above Robie with a message about a phone call from Bertani, with additional information about the man who asked questions in his restaurant about jewels: "He will wait for you at the entrance of the flower market in Nice. He will find you. I told him you will be tossing a coin in the air." As the beach attendant does pull-ups, he strains to overhear the phone conversation.

At the Nice flower market, Robie is met by a well-dressed, proper and respectable man - an insurance company agent from Lloyd's of London named H. H. Hughson (John Williams). His company is in the business of insuring the jewelry of wealthy clients. Robie (now using the alias of "Smith") guiltlessly makes an "intriguing" and "unorthodox" proposition that resembles gambling: "a little help in return for some of your losses." He requests a list of Lloyd's of London's most prominent, richest clients ("the top half-dozen names...the addresses, habits, whatever you've got, descriptions of the stones and settings") - those who will be the Cat burglar's next victims. Hughson realizes when he tentatively agrees, that he's taking a risky "big chance":

Robie: What happens to you if I'm caught?
Hughson: I might be embarrassed, even censured officially.
Robie: They could put me away for good.
Hughson: You made a bad choice of professions.
Robie: Then, let's come to an understanding. I'm doing you a favor. I take all the risks. You get all the jewelry back.
Hughson: Mr. Smith. It strikes me that only an honest man would be so foolish.
Robie: Thank you.

After their bargain is sealed, the police catch up with Robie when he tumbles over large baskets of flowers and angry female flower-sellers in the market detain his escape.

In the next scene after being led away by police, Robie has returned home, where he sits on his veranda with Hughson and drinks wine before a lunch of Quiche Lorraine. Still on parole, he has been given a brief reprieve ("provisional liberty based upon insufficient evidence") for ten days. During their meal's conversation, an impatient Robie is anxious to get the list of rich clients from Hughson, so that he can investigate, catch the real burglar, and prove his innocence. He must have evidence that is "pretty convincing for the examining magistrate." He also admits, to Hughson's consternation, that he killed 72 people in the war ("not one of them was insured"), and that his maid once strangled a German general "without a sound."

They discuss the motivations for Robie's past crimes and career as a thief, and how he transferred trapeze artistry skills to burglary. Explaining why he steals, Robie also candidly denies being a self-less Robin Hood, and then forces a moral comparison between his occupation and Hughson's thievery in his own petty business:

Hughson: How did you - I mean, why did you...?
Robie: Why did I take up stealing?...To live better, to own things I couldn't afford, to acquire this good taste which you now enjoy and which I should be very reluctant to give up.
Hughson: Oh, you mean you were frankly dishonest.
Robie: I tried to be.
Hughson: You know, I thought you'd have some defense, some tale of hardship - your mother ran off when you were young, your father beat you, or something.
Robie: Naah, no. I was a member of an American trapeze act in the circus that traveled in Europe. It folded and I was stranded, so I put my agility to a more rewarding purpose.
Hughson: You have no other defense.
Robie: No. For what it's worth, I only stole from people who wouldn't go hungry...
Hughson: I take it you were a sort of modern Robin Hood. I mean, you gave away most of the proceeds of your crimes.
Robie: Kept everything myself. Well, let's face it, I was an out-and-out thief, like you.
Hughson: Steady, old man.
Robie: No, no, wait a minute. Have you ever taken an ashtray from a hotel or a towel?
Hughson: Souvenirs, they expect that.
Robie: You're given an expense allowance to pay for all the meals you eat on the job. Right? But this meal is free. Now, are you going to deduct the price of a lunch from your expense account? Well, of course you're not. It would be stupid. Do you agree?
Hughson: Yes.
Robie: You're a thief. Only an amateur thief, of course, but it will help you to sympathize with us professionals.

Robie concludes by asserting that when items are stolen from hotel rooms, "they don't come looking for you." He also notes, however, that when a diamond bracelet disappears in France, they shout: "John Robie, the Cat!" By contrast, Hughson doesn't have to justify his honesty to anyone:

You don't have to spend every day of your life proving your honesty, but I do. Well, let's get down to business. (He extends his hand.) The list?

Concerned about the success of their bargain, Hughson reluctantly gives in and entrusts Robie with the detailed list of heavily-insured clients - each with a detailed notation of the jewels they possess. He also informs Robie that the police have been informed about their plan and "they thought it a splendid idea because they hope you'll make a mistake and provide them with the evidence they need against you." One of the clients includes Robie's "first bait" - the affluent, nouveau riche American widow, an oil millionairess named Mrs. Jessie Stevens (Jessie Royce Landis) who is traveling with her beautiful blonde daughter Frances Stevens (Grace Kelly). They are staying in Cambre 541 at the Carlton Hotel in Cannes. The Stevens' have principal pieces of jewelry insured for and valued at $280,000.00. When asked if Hughson knows the Stevens, he mentions that he is having dinner with them the next evening.

At the hotel during dinner, Hughson advises the blunt, feisty, red-haired Mrs. Stevens to safeguard her jewels in the hotel's safe, but she retorts unperturbed: "I didn't buy these things for my old age. I bought them to wear." She accentuates the fact that she will pay for his dinner: "Put your money away, Hughson. You can cheat a little on your expense account." She also complains about petty tipping. Walking across the far end of the room, a "handsome" Robie attracts Mrs. Stevens' attention. She calculatingly tells her cool, reserved, and quiet daughter, who wears a virginal and icy blue gown, that she would like to buy him:

I wouldn't mind buying that for you.

On their way from dinner to the casino, Mrs. Stevens - who is husband-hunting for her daughter - also counsels her about gambling (for men!): "When the stakes are right, you'll gamble." In the lobby of the hotel, they overhear Robie mentioning to a jewelry salesman that he is an American from Portland, Oregon.

On opposite sides of the roulette wheel table in the casino, Robie and Mrs. Stevens gamble. While Robie plays with his gambling plaques in his hands, the chips are precariously placed above the deep cleavage of an elegant French woman (Gladys Holland) - a closeup shows the sexy view from his perspective. He non-chalantly drops a 10,000 franc gambling plaque down the front of her dress between her breasts. She gasps and clutches at herself as he apologizes - and then she lightly dismisses the 'accident.' Rather than let him retrieve the chip, she pays him off with an equivalent amount of chips from her stack. When he adds: "I trust you too. I won't count it," Mrs. Stevens laughs amusedly.

Robie (using the alias of "Mr. Burns") contrives to meet Hughson and the Stevens' - and he is invited to share drinks at their table. Frances sits very erect and quiet in her seat at the table - and is often seen in profile. Mrs. Stevens regales them with humorous stories of her late husband, a down-to-earth, home-town man named Jeremiah [she later calls her husband a "swindler"]. Their oil ranch was discovered only after he died - she became a lonely millionaire overnight:

He never realized how valuable the ground was he had his feet on...We had a ranch. It wasn't a very big one. No plumbing. A little thing out back. Poor Jeremiah, he'll never know how close he came to twenty million barrels of oil.

She complains, after becoming half-drunk on bourbon, that nobody calls her 'Jessie' anymore. [The actress' name is Jessie Royce Landis!] After asking that the men call her "Jessie," she also forthrightly promotes the availability of her daughter (improperly educated and made phony at a "finishing school" in her opinion) for 'Mr. Burns' as a prospective suitor - after all, he's a successful lumber businessman:

Mrs. Stevens: How come you haven't made a pass at my daughter? (To Frances) And don't say, 'Oh, Mother!' to me. Mr. Burns, I asked you a question.
Robie: Very pretty, quietly attractive.
Mrs. Stevens: Yeah, but too nice. Sorry I ever sent her to that finishing school. I think they finished her there.

She compares her impersonal, cold, and lifeless jewelry to the warmth of her late husband:

And so to bed where I can cuddle up to my jewelry...as rare and wonderful as they are, I think I'd rather have a hundred thousand Jeremiahs.

Robie escorts both women to their separate hotel suites - first Jessie, and then Frances. To his complete surprise, and to prove her mother wrong, Francie unlocks her door, turns - and then after a warm glance into his eyes, she places her arm around his shoulder and passionately kisses him. After she shuts her door, he slowly turns toward the camera with a smile on his lip-stick stained lips.


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