Every week, Film School Rejects presents a movie that was made before you were born and tells you why you should like it. This week, Old Ass Movies presents:
To Catch a Thief (1955)
If there was one thing I had to work at avoiding with covering movies from before 1960, it was featuring a Hitchcock film every single week. What some might call an unhealthy obsession with the man’s work, I call a totally normal need to watch one of his films every hour on the hour and make cross-country trips to check out the filming sites. However, my passion for all things Hitch aside, To Catch a Thief is probably one of his most popular films, and if not his best, it’s definitely the most accessible.
In the picture, Cary Grant plays John Robie – a famous cat burglar inventively nicknamed The Cat – who has to run from police when thefts baring his signature style start up again all around the south of France. He finagles his way into getting a list of the most valuable jewels in the region from an insurance representative stuffily named H.H. Hughson (John Williams). At the top of the list are Jessie Stevens (Jessie Royce Landis) and her beautiful diamond necklace-encrusted daughter Francie (Grace Kelly). After help and awkward rekindled flirtation from freedom fighter Danielle (Brigitte Auber), and the shaky alliance with Francie (and Francie’s lips), The Cat hatches a plan to catch the new burglar in the act – clearing his name once and for all.
What’s not to love about this movie? It’s shot gorgeously in some of the most beautiful tourist areas of Europe – the vistas of southern France overlooking the Mediterranean, the sprawling vineyards, the decadent mansions and hotels of the area. Even with the sound off, the movie plays out like a detailed postcard from friends vacationing in Europe. Those friends just happen to be the scene-soaking Cary Grant and the ethereally beautiful Grace Kelly.
That combination is the key to the success of the film. Few other actors could embody the idea of a leading man more than Grant – a man’s man who isn’t afraid to get into a fight for his lady’s honor, but who is more inclined to swagger around saying witty things and being far cooler than any other human in the room. But instead of giving him the entire film, Hitchcock casts a formidable on-screen partner in Kelly – an actress who could read a VCR instruction manual and get an Oscar nomination. She brings a classy version of sexy to the screen and goes head to head with Grant, making him all the more likable as we see a strong woman get the best of him.
And the scene that perfectly displays that connection takes place on the first night that Robie and Francie meet in her hotel. As he fumbles his way around cordial formalities in seeing her back to her room, Francie leans right in and kisses him before slamming the door in his face. He’s smoother than any other man alive, yes, but she’s still smoother.
Of course the story is the backbone that all the scenery and beautiful dialog hangs from. Getting away from the usual psychological thrills, Hitchcock shapes To Catch a Thief as more of a broad-based action adventure. This is mostly owed to John Michael Haynes’ screenplay adaption of David Dodge’s original novel. Haynes was also responsible for Rear Window and The Man Who Knew Too Much (as well as the panned Hitch comedy The Trouble With Harry) – showing a wide range and bringing some of the best elements of those works together for this movie. At its core, it’s another version of the lone detective working outside the system to solve a crime, but Haynes and Hitchcock weave those mystery elements with action sequences (Robie evading the police at his villa, Robie getting attacked during the stakeout) and psychologically tense moments (like Robie and Francie’s drive through the mountains). Each plot point builds just as any good mystery should, increasing the tension heading into a drastic climax at a lavish party.
All of this is packaged nicely with Hitchcock’s signature visual style. Working with frequent collaborator Robert Burks (who scored an Oscar for Best Cinematography), the film somehow manages to blend the sun-soaked splendor of the beach with the dark shadows where crime and mystery live. Earlier in his career Hitchcock made a short film where a woman walks through a dark alleyway as an ominous score swells. Tension builds to a breaking point where she emerges into the sunlight, and the music calms as we realize she’s made it through safe. She’s then, of course, promptly stabbed to death in broad daylight. Hitchcock extrapolated that broad-daylight danger into To Catch a Thief while making the film widely accessible by toning down the macabre. It’s decidedly less morbid than, say, Psycho. Still, the danger is very real, and the alliances are never totally set even if you have your heart set on Robie and Francie falling in love by the end.
There are so many memorable scenes and lines. The kiss in the hallway, the car ride through the mountains, the passive-aggressive cat-fight between Danielle and Francie in the Mediterranean, Robie’s escape from the police from his villa, the huge costume party, every darkened scene on the rooftops of the mansions. Plus, even if Francie has the upper hand on Robie the entire film, he still gets his share of comebacks. When she says she’s in love with him, he responds with, “Now that’s a ridiculous thing to say.”
In a way, this film is like a mainstream version of Hitchcock where the director got to maintain all of the style he wanted. There’s no one working today that comes close to Hitch’s proficiency or skill, but the closest analogy I could make would be if David Fincher was given a large budget and told by the studio to make a general audience caper film with Brad Pitt starring. That’s at least a good start to understanding how good this movie is – a master craftsman making the best of his tools available to the widest audience possible. It showcases a truly thrilling story, razor-sharp dialog delivered by two of the best movie stars of all time, and the stunning visual style of an Academy Award-winning cinematographer. It’s debatable whether it’s Hitch at his best, but damn if it isn’t a fantastically outstanding film.