The Hitchcock Conversations is an ongoing project between me and James W. Powell, in which we study Alfred Hitchcock’s filmography in chronological order. I’ll be publishing one conversation per week.
(By necessity, spoilers ahead!)
Synopsis: American expatriate John Robie, living in high style on the Riviera, is a retired cat burglar. To keep a new wave of jewel thefts from being pinned on him, he must find out who a copycat is. High on his list of prime victims is Jessie Stevens, in Europe to help daughter Frances find a suitable husband.
James: Ah, To Catch a Thief. Quite the enjoyable film, I must say. It has good action, a nice romance, and witty dialog. (Amazing how such innocent dialog can convey sexual innuendo!) It’s not my favorite Hitchcock film, but it certainly seems to have all of the elements we’ve come to love from the old guy.
Jason: I had fun watching this movie, but I have to say that it sort of annoyed me on occasion. You could say that To Catch a Thief is more about its stars and locations than about telling a good story, and that’s a kind of film that has never really appealed to me. It falls into the same category as Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s 11, and at its worst, Ocean’s 12, which is just celebrity masturbation. There’s only so much I can take of rich stars basking in money and smirking for the camera. It distances me from the narrative and therefore the film can never be much more than an empty lark. And I guess that’s fine, because a Hitchcock lark is still a good time. I, too, got a total kick out of the sexual innuendo of the dialog. I’m sure we’ll be quoting a lot of lines this time.
James: Yeah, I also thought the French Riviera location was a bit too much of a presence in the film, but I didn’t think so much about the stars. At least, not to the point at which I felt terribly distant from the telling of the story.
Jason: I know the Hitchcocks loved to travel, to roam the world with their film cameras and tell stories as they went. One of their favorite vacation locales was the French Riviera, on the Mediterranean coast, around Cannes, so this film is almost a vacation for them. To Catch a Thief is all about beautiful people, beautiful scenery, a great love story, and some light suspense. It’s “Hitchcock Champagne,” as one of these books says, and you know it’s going to be that way the moment the film starts with those travel posters showing an idyllic France. Everything feels light and frothy, as opposed to any kind of serious storytelling. Sure, this is a fun tale, but I wouldn’t have wanted Hitch to stay in this gear.
James: The travel aspect has been a part of a few Hitch films—I can think of Rich and Strange, The Man Who Knew Too Much, and Suspicion.
Jason: So, what did you think of the way the main plot is introduced? First we get those French travel posters, then we see three women screaming as they discover that their jewels have been stolen. Intercut with these discoveries are shots of a black cat slinking to and from the crime scenes, across the rooftops. To me, it all seemed sloppy. The editing seemed a bit off, affecting the rhythm of the opening shots.
James: I found the opening to be a little odd, too. I like the idea of it, but something wasn’t right. Maybe it was the editing, maybe something else. Some of the shots just didn’t seem very well shot in the first place. Very sloppy indeed.
Jason: Then we meet the infamous burglar John Robie (Cary Grant), also known as “The Cat,” and I did like the silence of these scenes, as we learn that he’s innocent of the crimes that bear his signature. These shots have that silent-film accuracy that we love in Hitch.
James: I really enjoyed the entire opening scene, as well as the chase that followed. That was well done, both the story and the shooting. I liked finding that it was Robie’s housekeeper who actually drove away from the villa, misleading the cops, as if Robie had it planned it all along.
Jason: Really liked Hitchcock’s cameo in this scene, combined with the first time Robie evades the police. Right there on the bench seat in the bus are Robie, a birdcage in which sits our favorite Hitch symbol, and Hitch himself, looking forward, deadpan.
James: Hitch’s cameo is great. I like how he’s right on the edge of the frame.
Jason: What did you think of the film’s countryside chases? I was surprised by the effectiveness of the shots from the helicopter. I read that helicopter shooting was pretty rare and audacious those days. And it was all Alma’s idea.
James: I thought the helicopter shots got a little old by the end of the film. At first, they seemed well done, but several times it just felt as if we were seeing the countryside for no real reason other than to see it.
Jason: Did you catch the chicken in the road, later in the film, that causes the crash of the car following Robie and Francie along the cliffs? More bird symbolism.
James: Oh yes.
Jason: But I think you’ve captured why this movie just doesn’t rate incredibly high with me. There are too many shots of the “beautiful French countryside” just for the sake of showing them to us in all their grandeur. You know, at times, To Catch a Thief feels like a precursor to the Bond series, featuring a “detective” on the hunt for a criminal while enjoying the high life in an exotic locale.
James: That’s exactly what I thought! And it’s one of the reasons I didn’t value this film as much as some of the others. The men on the run in previous films have represented “the average man.” They could be you or me. Robie, however, is this rich, suave ladies’-man thief. I couldn’t relate to him. Not that I need to relate to all the films’ main characters, but I just had a hard time getting into his character as I have with the other Hitchcock heroes.
Jason: That’s a really good point. Hitchcock usually tries to give his heroes an “everyman” quality, but this one is a completely different type. Nice observation!
James: How about the double meaning of the film’s title? Naturally, as in all of Hitchcock’s films, the top-level action (in this case, catching the thief) plays the background role behind the more important romance element. But I liked how the action of the story takes center stage early on, and we don’t even meet Francie Stevens (Grace Kelly) until much later, after Robie’s running from the cops and has decided to catch the real burglar on his own. The “innocent man on the run” scenario really gets the story moving at a fast clip.
Jason: Yeah, the double meaning. I caught that right away this time. Robie is on the trail of a copycat thief who’s mimicking his style from his old cat-burglar days, but that plot fades into MacGuffin territory as soon as we see that the story’s real focus is the way Francie wants to “catch” Robie.
James: I think this film uses the MacGuffin perfectly. I mean, it’s used throughout the film and it’s as if it’s the most important thing going on. But in reality, it’s almost as if it’s an afterthought in many of the scenes.
Jason: To me, this is the most interesting aspect of the film. And yes, we get the “wrong man” theme established very early on, stated clearly by Robie himself: “The police are chasing the wrong man!”
James: I have to say right now that I thought Cary Grant was wrong for this role. He certainly fits as the older Cat, but he’s all wrong for Francie. He’s too old. And too tan. It was a hard sell for me to believe that she’d fall for him, even if he is suave and rich. (No need to refute it, I already know what you’ll say, but I disagree.)
Jason: We’re going to clash a little on Cary Grant, although I agree that he looks too old for Francie. That being said, I can see her falling for this world-renowned thief if only because of his reputation. There’s something interesting about her attraction to him—she’s drawn to danger, and when she meets him face-to-face for the first time, she already knows his secret, so she wields a certain power over him. I actually like the way their romance develops, and after a while, I didn’t mind the age difference. In this case, I could see Francie going for this older chap. He’s handsome and still in good shape. He’s sophisticated and funny.
James: Well, it’s odd. I can see her being drawn to a man who’s completely different from the typical rich snobs she normally runs with. But I didn’t really buy the fact that she’d fall in love with him. Sure, it might be fun to toy with him, but in the end, Francie seems a bit too straight-laced for that. I always have this problem, actually. Not to the point of not believing the story, but it’s never truly immersive. For example, in Spellbound, here’s this woman who totally goes out of character for some man who doesn’t really fit her type. I can understand how something like that might work—this dark, daring man turning her head—but it’s too much for some of these films.
Jason: Well, maybe this film, like Spellbound, is another case of a girl’s sexual awakening. I don’t think it’s as pronounced here, but I think it is an element. At first, I was surprised by the subtle way Hitch introduces Francie, to the side of the frame at the restaurant, not speaking, just sitting there in profile. But Francie becomes more and more a part of the story as things progress, and she becomes more and more bold in her advances. I love the idea that she’s this cold, stately American woman who suddenly blossoms with sexual energy at her hotel-room door when she unexpectedly kisses Robie full on the mouth. What a great moment. And Robie’s reaction is classic. By the way, did this shot remind you of Joan Fontaine’s first kiss with Cary Grant in Suspicion? Both are played similarly to very different effect.
James: That kiss is magnificent. I didn’t make the connection to the kiss in Suspicion, but you’re right, they’re similar. This one plays better, I think.
Jason: It’s actually the first moment that made me draw comparisons with the Bond films. The look that Grant throws in the direction of the camera is a total Bond look—amused and curious and a little superior.
James: What makes the scene so great is the fact that, as you’ve pointed out, Hitchcock made sure to keep Francie almost an afterthought up to that point. She doesn’t speak much, she’s at the edge of the screen, and so on. So the kiss is totally unexpected, which makes it fun. Actually, her whole character is what makes the film fun. She’s the spark of To Catch a Thief, for sure.
Jason: I read in Hitchcock/Truffaut that Hitch loved the sophisticated blonde “lady” who becomes a whore in the bedroom. He was really interested in the cool exterior and the inner fire.
James: I can see that in this film, and perhaps a few others, but I don’t think it was really prominent in any of the others. Hmmmm, interesting theory. And I can understand that notion in real life, but in movies a little sex appeal goes a long way.
Jason: It sounded like Truffaut and Hitch really had quite a disagreement there. I also read that Hitch maintained that Kelly once kissed him at a hotel-room door just as she kisses Grant in the film. Whether that’s legend or not, he told the story a few times—Kelly giving him one fantastic smooch on the lips, then closing the door between them.
James: I find it hard to believe that Kelly did that, but who knows?
Jason: Did Grace Kelly’s quiet introduction remind you of Joan Fontaine’s entrance in Rebecca? Both are in the presence of outspoken “mother” characters and introduced to suave gentlemen, with whom they become romantically involved . . .
James: Yeah, I liked how the introduction compares to Fontaine’s. Interesting how the characters turn out to be substantially different. By the way, what are your thoughts about the mother in this film—Jessie Stevens (Jessie Royce Landis)? I liked her quite a bit. She’s a typical Hitchcock mother, so she’s a bit off the wall, but I certainly liked her character. She really plays well off of H. H. Hughson (John Williams), the insurance man, who wants her to put her jewelry in a safe.
Jason: I really liked Jessie. Yeah, she’s kooky in a good way and has some fabulous lines. Here’s a line I wrote down, when she’s talking to Robie and Hughson about her daughter: “I’m sorry I ever sent her to that finishing school. I think they finished her there.” And there’s a great off-screen moment after mom helps Robie escape the police after her jewels are stolen. Francie comes storming into the room with the cops, and as we see Robie slinking away across the rooftop, Francie says, “Mother, the book you’re reading is upside-down!”
James: What’s up with Jessie putting out her cigarette in the egg yolk?
Jason: I know that Hitch absolutely hated raw eggs. There’s also the earlier shot of Robie’s former comrades throwing an egg at the window in front of him. Hitch was also just obsessed with food. I’m not sure we’ve mentioned yet how many “dining” scenes there are in his films. He was a real connoisseur of fine food. I read that the dinner scene at the villa was inspired almost directly by an actual meal shared by Hitch and the writer, John Michael Hayes, as they were collaborating on the script, adapting the source novel by David Dodge.
James: I love the fact that many key scenes take place while the characters are eating. The villa scene in To Catch a Thief is especially well done because we learn more about the characters, we see the plot moving forward, even as they just sit there chowing down.
Jason: Another suggestive line I have written down, involving Jessie: Francie is making fun of Robie’s masquerade as a lumberman from Portland, Oregon, and his lies to her mother, and she says, “I bet you told her all your trees are Sequoias.”
James: I thought John Williams played another vital role here, after his appearance in Dial M for Murder. I wouldn’t call it comic relief exactly, but his character is a little lighter than the others. And his mannerisms are perfect. Especially over dinner with Robie, when he compliments the “exceedingly light touch” of Robie’s French cook. Robie replies, “She strangled a German general once…without a sound!”
Jason: Hughson is a terrific character, a great comic foil for Robie. That dinner at Robie’s villa is a lot of fun. You know what I found odd, though? Just preceding the meal you mention, Robie is taken into custody after a comic chase through a flower market, right? The police cart him away after some slapstick comedy. Then, immediately, we see him relaxing with Hughson at his cliffside villa, as if nothing happened. Did you find that to be a strange transition? He explains a few minutes later that he’s on “provisional liberty,” giving him 10 days to uncover the real thief, but I still found that shift confusing.
James: The transition from being caught to lounging out with Hughson was terribly done. Why bother to even have the police catch him? Seems that it would’ve been more suspenseful if the cops were chasing him the entire time.
James: What did you think of the whole flower-market chase?
Jason: Weird, flat slapstick. Didn’t care much for the entire scene. You’re right, I think it would have been much more effective for him to be on the run from the start, always just eluding capture. Or give him the 10-day deadline from the beginning.
James: I thought the scene was rather mundane, especially compared to the parade-float crash Hitch originally envisioned.
Jason: Parade-float crash?
James: One of the DVD featurettes details the original screenplay’s inclusion of a chase scene that includes Robie hiding inside the head of some float. I assume it was in a parade of some sort. Apparently, his weight in the head makes it so the float doesn’t run correctly, so it crashes. I believe it’s essentially the same story of him eluding police and finally being captured, only bigger.
Jason: Huh, that’s interesting about the float. I think that would have worked better than what’s in the film—the weird slapstick with the woman whacking Robie with the flowers. Oh, and that moment when Robie meets Hughson for the first time, and Robie is flipping that coin . . . couldn’t someone have shown Grant how to flip a goddamn coin?
James: Hahahaha. I was thinking the same thing. Boy, Grant might’ve been some Hollywood stud, but he knows nothing about coin flipping. He looked like a complete buffoon.
Jason: We could have taught him some skills.
James: What about the fireworks scene? If I remember correctly, films weren’t allowed to show anyone kiss on screen for more than a few seconds, so Hitch intersected the kissing with flashes of the fireworks. Which is perfectly hysterical since it can be taken as a sort of sexual explosion. Actually, that entire scene is one sexual innuendo after another, right from her first remark, “I have a feeling that tonight you’re going to see one of the Riviera’s most fascinating sights.” She means the fireworks, of course. Ha!
Jason: Okay, the fireworks scene. To Catch a Thief is famous for this scene. Of course, the fireworks are obvious sexual-climax imagery, so the scene is ripe with carnality. I jotted down some choice bits of dialog as Robie and Francie approach their “climax.” Interestingly, the line you quoted could have three meanings: the fireworks, the diamond necklace that Robie seems to covet, and Francie’s extraordinarily luscious body. Together with this imagery, I admired the way Hitch shot Francie in shadow so that the most prominent object in the shot is the diamond necklace—or her breasts.
James: Nice shot. And it’s interesting how Francie turns off the lights one by one in this scene, whereas Kelly’s character Lisa turns them on one by one in her big introduction scene in Rear Window.
Jason: Nice catch! I wonder if that was intended or just a happy coincidence. I like how, in the morning after the sex, Francie accuses Robie of stealing her mother’s jewelry, and the scene is again ripe with sexual innuendo. I loved when Jessie says, “Just what did he steal from you?” Hilarious, juicy dialog right there.
James: “What did he steal from you?” That’s a great bit of dialog. Perfect. And it’s almost as if Francie is a bit upset that she’s let Robie steal her cherry. Of course, it could’ve also meant that he stole her heart, but I like to think of it as her virginity.
Jason: Here’s another juicy line, from Robie and Francie’s picnic: “Would you like a breast or a leg?” To which Robie responds wryly, “You make the choice.”
James: Good one. You know, I found it interesting that Francie isn’t the only one trying to “catch” Robie’s heart. I liked the fact that Danielle, the young French girl, is also after his affection. It’s like an odd love triangle. The police and two women want Robie, but in the end, the cops get the girl who doesn’t get Robie.
Jason: The love triangle is handled very well. That whole scene in the water at the beach is filled with great dialog. “Are you sure you were talking about water-skiing lessons? From where I sat, it looked like you were conjugating some irregular verbs.” And more perfect reaction shots from Grant.
James: Did you notice Francie on the beach when Robie swims in from the boat? I noticed a woman sitting there, but I didn’t make the connection until I saw the scene again in one of the featurettes.
Jason: Yeah, I saw Francie over there, looking all regal and statuesque. She was sunning herself and seemed to be half-watching Robie and Danielle, behind her sunglasses.
James: I really liked Danielle. She was fun and young. She added a necessary mischief to the story that I thought kind of opened up the film. Not that Robie would’ve ever gone for her, but she did balance the slightly stiffer Francie character. I enjoyed their verbal catfight next to the floating dock.
Jason: Danielle has a great personality, and you’re right about what she adds to the film. She and Robie seem to have a long past. Robie mentions that he taught her English. So it’s almost believable when we learn that she’s been committing the copycat crimes. Although, by the time we learn it’s her, this part of the plot—the MacGuffin—has receded so far into the background that we don’t really care. Hey, that reminds me: Who sets up Danielle’s dad and pushes him to his death? I found that completely unclear.
James: Who did save Robie? I never figured that out. I guess I assumed it was the restaurant owner, but I’m not sure that really makes sense. It seemed as if he was constantly trying to get Robie to hit the road and leave well enough alone.
Jason: Maybe Hitch just didn’t care who pushed Danielle’s dad to his death. Or he thought we wouldn’t or shouldn’t care. But by the end, I was like, “Whaa . . . ?”
James: Could it have been the police that saved Robie? They were on hand, right? So maybe they saved him. Was it just me, or were the French thugs somewhat weaker than the Italian mafia we’ve all come to love?
Jason: You know, I cared so little about who was chasing who that I never made a distinction between the police and these thugs you’re talking about.
Jason: I meant to mention that it was during the filming of this movie that Grace Kelly met Prince Ranier of Monaco, eventually marrying him and becoming a real princess. She would later die in a car crash that’s very close to the picnic spot in this film.
James: She must have really fallen for that guy. I mean, she went from Hollywood babe to actual Italian royalty in no time. Amazing. I wonder what Hitchcock thought about it.
Jason: I think he really liked hanging out and dining with both of them, but he was sad to lose her as a leading lady.
James: Three films in a row, and then gone. Too bad.
Jason: Shall we talk about Edith Head? I think she had a huge part in the character of Francie.
James: Head made some great costumes for Kelly, who looked amazing throughout. I think the golden costume-ball gown was particularly well done. However, I didn’t think Grant’s striped shirt worked that well. Maybe back then it looked cooler?
Jason: I thought the same thing about Grant’s striped shirt. I gather that Grant chose his own wardrobe. It was pretty bland, and it looked like it almost played hell with the DVD transfer.
James: Overall, a good-looking movie, though. Nice transfer of a well-shot film.
Jason: Yeah, but did the film’s process shots bug you? I really liked the fact that we got some excellent location shooting in this film, but the occasional process shots just screamed out fake!
James: All of Hitch’s process shots look fake. I wouldn’t say the ones in To Catch a Thief are any worse than the others.
Jason: I think it’s the juxtaposition of the process shots with the great location shots in this film that made the fake shots more pronounced.
Jason: One thing’s for sure: This film is quite a change from the claustrophobic New York set of Rear Window. Hitch always seems to go for some kind of “change” from film to film.
James: Yep. You know, I wonder if we’d like To Catch a Thief more if we watched it as a comedy.
Jason: I would say I did watch this as a comedy . . . a “light comedy thriller romance.” It’s a rambling, relaxed comic caper.
James: I had seen it before, but I didn’t remember it as such light fare. When taken in that light, I think I might’ve enjoyed it more. Instead, it felt less than.
Jason: Yeah, I’ve seen it a couple times before. Fun, but forgettable.
James: I’m surprised by how little I’ve had to say about To Catch a Thief. The film seems flatter, the more I think about it. There were some high moments, but for the most part, it’s a bit of a letdown.
Jason: Moving on.