To Catch a Thief (1955)
You may have heard the movie referenced in news reports and articles, as the theft and the film seem to be strikingly similar. Very few news programs missed the chance to show Grace Kelly and Cary Grant looking gorgeous on the Riviera.
Although many scenes in the movie do take place in the Carlton Hotel, the actual robbery lacks the elegant finesse and suave danger of the movie’s heists. The recent robbery occurred in broad daylight at a jewelry show, and the thief used a gun as persuasion.
It’s all quite gauche compared to Hitchcock’s version. He films a classy cat burglar who’s neither seen nor heard as jewels disappear from wealthy tourists’ hotel rooms in the dead of night.
So here we go with another Hitchcock movie. Like Notorious (1946), this film stars Cary Grant. And like Rebecca (1940), this one also begins on the Riviera, though timid Cardigan Girl and Grace Kelly‘s character could not be more different.
This was Cary Grant’s third of four films with Alfred Hitchcock: Suspicion (1941), Notorious (1945), To Catch a Thief, and North by Northwest (1959). Grant hadn’t made a film since Dream Wife (1953), and thought it was time he retired. He was fifty years old, and the public’s fascination with a new type of actor, the Method guys like Marlon Brando and James Dean, convinced Grant that his time had passed.
But he let his good buddy Alfred Hitchcock take him to lunch to discuss his next project, anyway. Alfred mentioned that the movie would be filmed on the Riviera, and that it would star Grace Kelly. Grant changed his mind about the retirement thing. (After this movie he continued acting for eleven more years!)
Grace Kelly was arguably Hitchcock’s favorite actress, and To Catch a Thief was their third film in a row together (Dial M for Murder (1954), Rear Window (1954)). To Catch a Thief was also their last film together, though if Kelly hadn’t become Princess Grace of Monaco in 1956 and retired from movies, perhaps they might have made more. (Her last film was High Society (1956)).
To Catch a Thief begins with the credits over a tourist office window before moving to the Carlton Hotel in Cannes. It’s not happy there, at the moment, because a master jewel thief is emptying the jewelry boxes of wealthy hotel guests. Shots of screaming women, empty jewel cases, and a black cat traipsing across nighttime rooftops with that insouciance only cats possess, set the scene quite nicely. You can watch it here. The juxtaposition of cheerful tourism posters and screams of “My jewels!” is an intriguing shock.Police scurry, but seem unable to stop the thefts up and down the Riviera. Then we get some helpful context in the guise of a black cat atop an English-language newspaper. Thanks, Hitch.
I love the claw marks in the article, and I also love this exposition technique. There’s something so efficient and yet quaintly old-fashioned about inserting shots of newspapers to give us information.My absolute favorite iteration of this technique is the spinning newspaper that whirls towards the camera before pausing in close-up so we can read it. You’ll see that a lot in 1930s films, like The Thin Man (1934). Usually there are sirens and police cars and other furious activity going on in the background to really give a sense of urgency. It’s fantastic.
This newspaper doesn’t spin, but the black cat (is it the same one we saw stalking about on rooftops?) is a nice touch. We learn from this article that someone named John Robie, alias “the Cat” used to be a jewel thief before the war. He must have put his skill set to good use during the war, since it says he was a “hero” of the French Resistance. He claimed to have reformed and ceased his thieving ways, but the recent thefts are in his style…
Cut to: Cary Grant in his “French casual” outfit of stripes and polka dot scarf tending to his vineyards and flowers at his villa. He sees a suspicious vehicle, and goes stealth mode.The police have come to take John Robie into custody, but he eludes them with a clever shotgun/rocking chair trick and his still sharp roof skills. That’s why they called him the Cat!
Fun fact: In the movie, John explains that he toured Europe in an acrobatic troupe, where he honed his climbing skills, and stayed to be a jewel thief. In real life, British-born Cary Grant, then going by his real name Archibald Leach(!), came to America as part of an English acrobatic troupe, and stayed to become an actor.
John leads the police on a chase through the French countryside. Hitch got hold of a helicopter. You can watch it here.
Hitchcock’s cameo comes early in the movie when John boards a bus, outwitting his pursuers.
Hitchcock started doing his movie appearances early so that audiences wouldn’t be distracted by searching for him. In Notorious he appears by the champagne table at the party at Sebastien’s house, which comes towards the end of the movie, but by Thief ten years later it had become a game with the audience, and he’d learned to do it early.
John makes his way to Bertani’s restaurant by the sea. It’s stunning, but the whole movie is a Technicolor wonderland of scenery (and Grace Kelly).
The film was shot using Paramount’s high resolution, widescreen technology VistaVision which they’d premiered with White Christmas (1954). VistaVision is not as crazy-wide as CinemaScope, but the widescreen format works for a movie like this filmed in such a gorgeous place and packed with people. I was harsh on Daddy Long Legs‘ use of CinemaScope, but Thief utilizes VistaVision well.The sommelier and the owner, Bertani, do not seem pleased to see John. He heads for the kitchen, and those people are even less enthused about his presence. One of them throws an egg at him as he looks in the window. What is going on?
Well…we soon find out that the restaurant is owned and staffed by John’s old gang. They helped him steal diamonds before they were caught and sent to prison. During the war they got out and joined the Resistance, and were quite successful. In grateful thanks for their Resistance work, the French government granted them parole, but they’ll be sent to jail in a jiffy if they relapse into their thieving ways.The old gang is furious (which explains the egg). They think John is back to his old tricks on rooftops, risking their freedom in his quest for jewels. Bertani explains all of this to John, though the actor playing Bertani, Charles Vanel, didn’t speak English, so he moves his mouth and someone else’s voice dubs his lines. It’s weird and distracting, like watching The Little Mermaid dubbed into Spanish in school.
John tries to convince Bertani that he’s innocent, and asks for his help catching the real culprit. So long as the police think John is the jewel thief, they won’t look for anyone else. And the only way to prove that John is innocent is to catch the real burglar red-handed. So John will use his skills to track down the thief, thereby clearing his name and ensuring the gang’s continued freedom.
Unsurprisingly, the police show up at Bertani’s. Bertani squirrels John away into the wine cellar and into a boat driven by the sommelier’s daughter, Danielle (Brigitte Auber). Away they go!
Danielle is sassy in her “French casual” stripes that echo John’s and match his tightly knotted scarf. Her conversation is even less subtle: she keeps calling him “Cat” and suggests that the two of them go to South America (in her French accent “America” sounds like “A-me-wicka,” so that adds even more lightness to the scene.) She’s very honest about her feelings for John, but he treats her like a rebellious teenager.
Turns out, he’s the one who taught her English back before the war when she was just a kid, so he can’t quite adjust to Danielle the grown-up who wants to run away to South Amewicka with him. A police plane flies over them, so John hides in the cabin and gives Danielle instructions…
Now things really get going. John is put in contact with an insurance agent named Hughson (John Williams, the detective in Dial M for Murder) who is interested in helping him catch the real thief. They meet at the flower market, for no reason I can see except it is colorful, beautiful, and funny when policeman chase John and upend the stalls, sending blooms everywhere, and angering a tiny but tough old flower seller. You can watch it here.
The police catch John, but rather inexplicably let him go once he explains his plan. He says they’re hoping to catch him red-handed while he’s claiming to be looking for the real thief, but it doesn’t really matter. We need Cary Grant running around the Riviera, not in prison, so who cares?
John invites Hughson to his villa for lunch, which leads to this memorable exchange:It’s really the only detail we get about John’s Resistance days, but it works. Fun fact: in the version of the movie released in Germany, Grant’s last line was changed to something about how she caught an escaped-circus-lion with her bare hands. Which doesn’t make sense, but okay.
Hughson gives John a list of villas and hotel guests with steal-able jewelry, along with helpful details about things like sleeping patterns and servants so that John can predict Cat’s next target.
Finally we get some quality Grace Kelly time! She’s dining with her mother and Hughson at the Carlton Hotel. She doesn’t say much, but her mother is a firecracker, so Frances doesn’t have to contribute to the conversation.Warning: the Edith Head-designed costumes in this film are over-the-top-gorgeous. This blue dress with the tonal stripes and layers upon layers of chiffon, never mind the sheer wrap that she so casually tosses about her shoulder, is probably my favorite costume in the whole movie.
Hitchcock loved his ice-blondes, and he was very involved in Head’s costume design process, so it’s fun to watch his movies for the costumes. I don’t doubt that he wanted Grace Kelly to look stunning, perfect, and icy in her first major appearance in the film. Here’s a sketch of the gown, but it looks most wonderful in the film.
Jessie and Francie (a silly name for sophisticated Grace Kelly) hail from America, and were poor and backwoods until they discovered oil on their land. Jessie retains some backwoods charm, but Francie was sent to finishing schools (“I’m afraid they finished her there!” her mother opines), and she has travelled extensively, which has wiped away the country manners and accent. She later tells John that she and her mother are just “common people with a bank account,” though, so she hasn’t completely forsworn her humble beginnings.
John positions himself across the casino from Jessie and Francie and contrives a unique way to get their attention, thanks to a strapless gown and a poker chip.John drops the chip down the woman’s dress, and the poor thing is too embarrassed to pull it out and give it back. It’s exactly the sort of stunt designed to get Jessie laughing and Francie intrigued.John joins them for a drink, pretending to be an Oregonian lumberman on vacation, and Jessie is immediately his best friend. Let the games begin!
Fun fact: Jessie Royce Landis plays Cary Grant’s potential mother-in-law in this movie, and then four years later she played his mother in North by Northwest, even though she was only six years older than he was.
Francie is aloof and cool during this entire sequence, and she seems a bit embarrassed by her mother’s folksy conversation and strong opinions. She’s also wary of handsome men. She’s young, beautiful, and wealthy, so she’s been chased quite a bit by fortune hunters and hopeful suitors. But when John walks Francie to her suite…she kisses him and then calmly shuts the door in his face!She’s not as innocent or cold as she appears; the kiss suggests that she’s just bored. Fun fact: Room 623 at the Carlton, where this kiss was filmed, is now known as the Alfred Hitchcock Suite.
That night there is another robbery, but Francie seems cheerful the next morning. The quiet, prim ice-queen of the night before (pre-kiss, obviously), has vanished, and now she’s in sunny yellow and full of plans for a day with John. There are some wonderful behind-the-scenes shots (in black and white) from this movie, so get ready.
John and the rest of the guests in the lobby are stunned by her super-chic beach outfit.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t usually wear black cropped pants with a white linen split-overskirt, black wedges, a black backless halter-top, black skull cap, and white, wide-brimmed but crown-less hat to the beach. This, and the gold ball gown we’ll see later on, is perhaps the most over-the-top of Kelly’s costumes. When Francie goes for it, she really goes for it. And she’s decided to go for John.
Then jealous Danielle turns the conversation to the American girl with John, and the next thing we know, Francie has swum out to chat, too!
It’s a cozy little catfest with John and Danielle pretending (unsuccessfully) that they’d only just met, and Francie making cracks about French teenagers, and Danielle making cracks right back about old American women.
John’s head is on a swivel as he watches the women dish it out. His discomfort and confusion is very amusing. Comedy! You can watch the verbal sparring here.
Fun fact: a lot of the zingers in this scene concern how much older Francie is than Danielle, but actually Brigitte Auber was 18 months older than Grace Kelly! Movie magic. Also, Kelly was 26 when she filmed this, and Grant was 50, though in the script John was 35.
Fortunately for the romantic plotline, Francie forgives and forgets very quickly. She’s waiting in front of the hotel in a salmon pink top, scarf, and skirt, with driving gloves, a picnic basket, and a shiny blue convertible.
John made the mistake of mentioning that he was interested in looking at some villas for rent (his excuse for Cat surveillance), so Francie decides to take him villa shopping.
They drive and chat, and Francie makes it clear that she’s interested in John. And he tries to fend her off, but she refuses to be swayed from her goal.It’s all very charming, witty, and packed with double entendres. They stop at a villa and John inspects the roof and walls while trying to pretend he isn’t. At some point during filming they broke for tea and some dialogue practice.
As Francie drives John from villa to villa, policeman follow in an unmarked car. John doesn’t think Francie notices, but he suggests she speed up, just for fun. It quickly becomes less fun for John, as Francie is a wild driver and almost hits an old woman, a chicken, and a bus.
They lose the cops, though! She pulls off in a secluded spot for a picnic lunch (this is when the famous “leg or breast?” line comes into play. She’s talking about chicken, sort of.)
Then she reveals that she knows that John is the Cat, and that she’s known all along. She wants to help him with his next heist! She also wants to provoke him into losing control and kissing her. She wins. You can watch it here. Cary Grant’s mahogany tan is especially noticeable in this scene…
Eventually her tactics win the day, and John is unable to maintain his cool distance. Hitchcock cuts between Francie’s skilled seduction of John and fireworks exploding in the background, complete with surging music.
Unsurprisingly, the Production Code was pretty upset about the fireworks symbolism. It is definitely, um, overt. The Production Code Administration director told Paramount that the love scene had to end as soon as Kelly and Grant lean back into the sofa (which it does), and that the fireworks should be cut entirely, as the “symbolism…is pointed.”
Hitchcock refused, and he won that battle. I think the fireworks cut the serious seduction nicely and give the scene an amusing flair. You can watch it here. (This scene, and other iconic moments from Hitchcock’s films, was re-imagined in a 2008 Vanity Fair spread starring Gywneth Paltrow and Robert Downey, Jr. Ehh, can’t compete with the original.)
Now to the dress. Just look how it moves as Francie stalks around! The chiffon strips falling from the back and arranged around the skirt give it lovely movement. Her diamond necklace plays an important role in the scene, and the strapless white dress gives it a lovely frame.
I like these on set photos because they show how incredibly close the cameras, lights, and people are to Kelly and Grant as they perform this scene. It comes across as so private and dark in the film–movie magic!
And I like the sofa, and it’s neat to see the placement of the lights compared to the final product.
The scene does indeed end with the kiss. Cut to John Robie, sans jacket and tie, hanging out in his hotel room, and Francie sleeping on the sofa in her pretty white dress in her suite.
But uh oh, Jessie’s jewels have been stolen! Francie assumes that John took them after he left her, and her feelings are very hurt. She thought she was playing him, skillfully wrapping him around her little finger, but perhaps he was playing her! She’s furious, and doesn’t doubt his guilt for a second.Jessie doubts, though, and helps John escape the hotel. He goes into hiding, and almost catches the copycat burglar at a villa. But the suspect falls to his death. And Francie realizes she’s made a terrible mistake.
She puts on a fairly subdued outfit and finds John and apologizes, but he’s pretty over it. He doesn’t need a spoiled, headstrong American heiress complicating his life, especially because he believes that the Cat is still alive (he thinks that the person who fell was only an assistant). Then she drops the bombshell:Look at John’s reaction! Comedy! She’s desperate to help him, so they concoct a plan.
They’ll attend a costume ball at one of the villas on his list, and hope that the Cat will be there to relieve the guests of their jewels. “Grace needs a standout 18th century style ball gown, Edith! I’m thinking gold,” Hitchcock said. (Or so I imagine).
Edith Head, art directors Joseph MacMillan Johnson and Hal Pereira, and cinematographer Robert Burks did not disappoint. The whole scene is a masterpiece of excess: colors, jewels, a gorgeous villa, champagne, fun camera angles, and oh, the gowns! Guests bow to their hosts at the top of the steps and then parade down the line in a spectacle of wealth and look-at-me-ness.
Just in case we forget that the point of the ball is to catch the Cat, Hitchcock provides close-ups of priceless necklaces as though we are seeing things through the eyes of a master jewel thief, or the policeman (in costume, natch) scattered amongst the guests.
The parade of guests pauses for full appreciation of Jessie and Francie. Jessie opted for cobalt velvet and be-feathered silvery-blue wig, with everything practically dripping with diamonds. Francie went for gold: gold wig, gold dress, gold gloves, and gold birds. It’s as if King Midas touched Snow White, dressed in her Marie Antoinette costume, as she was in the midst of singing to her bird friends.
The lady in the blue Little Bo-Peep outfit is really thrilled with the Stevens’ costumes. Where’s John, you ask? Take a look at the black-masked parasol carrier behind Jessie and Francie. There’s a reason that his face is hidden, but I do wish we could see him. It’s unfair to hide Cary Grant, in my opinion.
Here’s a sketch and publicity photo of Francie’s gown: it’s exquisite and completely ridiculous.
You get a good idea of the size of the hoop skirt from these photos. I like the one of Hitchcock and Kelly on the steps.
John, Jessie, and Francie enact their plan at the ball with misleading comments and swapped identities, along with non-stop dancing, but one of my favorite parts is when nervous Jessie slugs a glass of champagne, grimaces, and asks for a real drink in her horribly accented French:Francie and John are the last guests to leave the party. They wait until the policeman following them arrive in the hallway before Francie pulls John inside her room.
Scandalous! But the policeman are pretty sure that John will be too busy to rob anyone that night…
Spoilers ahead, though I won’t reveal the identity of the Cat…The climax occurs on the villa’s roof when John corners the Cat. The whole thing is watched by police and Francie, who only paused to remove her gold gloves before hurrying back to the courtyard.
Costume sidenote: the sleeves on her dress are cleverly designed to make it look like she’s wearing shoulder-length gloves, when in fact her sleeves are elbow-length and her gloves slide beneath them for a seamless appearance.
Most of this scene is shot from the roof looking down, but thanks to the gold bubble we never lose sight of Francie. I can’t show you any of those roof shots because then you’ll see the cat (they’re on my tumblr, though.)
There’s a vertigo-inducing moment when the Cat drops a black pouch full of stolen jewelry and it smashes on the courtyard floor…will John or the Cat lose their grip and fall, too?
Once everything is cleared up, John heads home to his villa and his vineyard. But Francie chases after him, and tells him she would have been there sooner, but her dress kept getting caught all over the gear shift and steering wheel. Terrifying thought. At least she removed her wig, though it did look nice:
Surprise, it’s a happy ending. At least until Francie slips this little gem into the conversation. Again, look at poor John’s face! It also happens to be the final shot of the movie. Comedy!
To Catch a Thief was nominated for Best Art Direction (color) and Best Costume Design (color), and it won Best Cinematography (color). (Until 1967, there were separate awards for films in black and white and films in color.) It was a commercial success, though some critics thought it was too bubbly and beautiful because they expected deeper, darker themes from Hitchcock.
Queen Elizabeth II screened the movie at the annual royal command performance in 1955, and speaking of royalty, in 1956, Grace Kelly became Princess Grace when she married Prince Rainier of Monaco.
To Catch a Thief was partially filmed in Monaco, especially the driving and picnic scenes. The story goes that Kelly saw a lovely walled garden during filming, but there wasn’t time to arrange a tour. But it all worked out, because the garden was part of one of the Prince’s estates…so in a year or two, Princess Grace was able to visit the garden all she wanted.
In a sadder coincidence, Princess Grace had a stroke while driving and died in Monaco in 1982, apparently very near the spots where she drove her zippy blue convertible in To Catch a Thief.
If you’re looking for a fun thriller with beautiful places, people, and clothes, this is the movie for you. You can’t go wrong with Alfred Hitchcock, Cary Grant, Grace Kelly, and Edith Head. Throw them all together in Monaco and Cannes, add some obvious fireworks, a costume ball, and a mysterious jewel thief, and you’ve got a winner!