To Catch a Thief
How a Prince Stole Hitchcock's Favorite Leading Lady
Alfred Hitchcock is a legendary director who did some of his best work in the 1950s with films like Rear Window and Vertigo. Sandwiched in between his major masterpieces are fine films that are less well remembered. To Catch a Thief is one of those lightweight films by a heavyweight director that comes off more as a romantic comedy with a sinister twist than the usual Hitchcock thriller.
Made in 1955, the film stars Cary Grant as John “Cat” Robie, a retired jewel thief, and Grace Kelly as Francie Stevens, an American tourist traveling through Europe. Hitchcock said he regretted making To Catch a Thief because it was on the set of this movie that Grace Kelly met Prince Rainer of Monaco and abandoned her cinematic partnership with Alfred Hitchcock for a life of royalty.
The film takes place on the French Riviera, mere miles from the principality of Monaco. There are eerie moments in the movie showing Francie driving wildly along the hairpin turns in the mountains in the south of France. Grace Kelly would die in an accident on similar roads in 1982.
The film is visually lush from the dazzling beautiful Kelly in the kind of evening gowns that no one wears anymore to the glorious Mediterranean beaches and the cypress trees lining the hairpin turns through the mountains. From Francie’s reckless driving to a foot-chase scene in a flower market, this is a picture-postcard kind of visual movie. And while overshadowed by the monumental works of the Hitchcock corpus like Psycho and Vertigo, To Catch a Thief is fun. You sort of want to join Cat and Francie at their Riviera hotel, a feeling I never had about the Bates Motel.
The story is simple. Cat was a jewel thief who went to prison, did his time, and came back to live in South France as an honest man. The film opens with the police paying him a little visit because it seems like some jewel thefts using his exact MO have occurred in town. But before they can round up the usual suspects, Cat embarks on an effort to catch the copycat thief himself. It’s a pretty standard film character—an innocent man trying to solve a crime of which he has been unjustly accused. Sounds like The Fugitive. Along the way, Cat meets a young American woman who falls in love with him and is strangely helpful in his quest to solve the jewel robberies.
The Hitchcock element in this film is that we are never quite sure who to believe. Cat claims to be reformed, but is he? Francie plays the naive American girl, but is she? Francie claims to be in love with Cat, but is she? And Cat claims to not be interested in Francie, but do we believe that? This is a classic Hitchcock film in which the surface plot of jewel thefts is window dressing on the real mystery. To quote Aretha Franklin from a different context: who’s zooming who? And it’s a Hitchcock classic in another way, in that he makes his signature cameo, this time on a bus seated next to Cat.
The dialog is as much ear candy as the visuals are eye candy. Film critics have stated that the sparkling and rapid-fire double-entendre-laden dialog between Francie and Cat was sometimes ad-libbed. Whether scripted or not, the dialog is funny and witty without being overbearing. The growing sexual tension occurs between a middle-aged man and a grown woman. This is no kid’s love story. And Hitchcock handles a lot of this sexuality by metaphor and staging. One of my favorite scenes shows Francie and Cat in a dark hotel room, one on each side of the frame, with a large floor-to-ceiling window between them. Out of the window, viewers see that time-worn metaphor for sexuality, fireworks. Except it seems fresh in this context, not contrived. The fireworks explode in the dark night sky while Francie, in a spectacular gown, and Cat, in a black tuxedo, frame the window. It’s the dichotomy scene: dark and light, black and white, man and woman, fire and ice, guilt and innocence, crime and calumny. Even people who are not good with subtlety or metaphor will get this one.
See for yourself, in a short clip of the fireworks scene.
The movie is not very long, but most of the time, you will know exactly what is going on but be perplexed by the characters. At face value, it is a romantic comedy with some car chases and a few jewel heists. That’s why people can dismiss this film as a lightweight. But look deeper and it is a film about the masks people wear. Is John really the thief? Is Francie really in love with him? And, if she is, is she in love with him because she thinks he’s the thief or because she thinks he is innocent? The Hitchcock touch emerges when we find out the real identities of these characters at a costume party. It is not until Cat puts on a mask to attend a gala hotel event that we finally see who everyone really is. Except I’m still not sure about Francie. The real mystery isn’t who is stealing the jewelry of the upper crust on the Riviera, it’s who are John Robie and Francie Stevens and what do they really want?
This film from Hollywood’s golden era was a showcase for one of Hollywood’s most beautiful stars. Back in the 1950s, people like Grace Kelly dressed to be beautiful. Her wardrobe is spectacular, but she even looked good in a plain bathing suit. In fact, Grace Kelly was so gorgeous in this film, they made a special edition Barbie doll of her. It’s not a Grace Kelly version of Barbie, it' was a To Catch a Thief Barbie doll of Grace Kelly.
To Catch a Thief was released in 1955 and Grace Kelly married Prince Rainier of Monaco on April 18, 1956. She was probably the most promising young actress in the world, and she gave it up to be a princess. They married quickly because Prince Rainier had his certain political motives for needing a wife pronto. There was some obscure treaty dating back to 1918 that said that if the Prince of Monaco did not produce a male heir, the country of Monaco would revert back to France. Rainier needed a wife to bear a son. Kelly accepted the proposal and saved the sovereignty of Monaco with the birth of Prince Albert Alexandre Louis Pierre in 1958. (They had three children in total, two daughters and one son who kept the country a sovereign nation.) Kelly never made another picture for Alfred Hitchcock after To Catch a Thief, although Hollywood folklore says that Hitchcock offered here the lead in Marnie.