Hidden Gem: “To Catch a Thief” (1955)

By Syd Slobodnik

Many filmgoers who appreciate and study film seriously tend to assume that most of Alfred Hitchcock’s films were exceptional examples of the art form. While many of Hitchcock’s films were masterpieces, like “Rear Window,” “Psycho,” “Notorious” and “North by Northwest,” several of his later films weren’t very good at all.  Somehow Hitch significantly missed the mark with “Torn Curtain” (1966), “Topaz” (1969) and “Family Plot” (1976).

Yet, the many Hitchcock films that fell somewhere between these extremes are often overlooked, while they are fascinating to explore and discover. One such film is his 1955 “To Catch a Thief,” this week’s hidden gem. This stylish mystery featured the elegant Cary Grant, a former jewel thief John Robie and Grace Kelly as an elegant American socialite, all set on the French Rivera.  

In his famous 1967 interview book, French filmmaker Francois Truffaut asked Hitchcock to assess “To Catch a Thief,” and Hitchcock dismissed it as “a lightweight story.” While it’s not as psychologically thrilling as some of his pantheon films, I think it is one of his most stylishly elegant whodunnits. The film’s narrative, adapted by John Michael Hayes from a book by David Dodge, spends more time on character development than intricate plotting. It is also one of the few Hitchcock films to win an Oscar. His cameraman Robert Burks won the Academy Award for cinematography in 1955.

John Robie is an American expatriate living a life of simple retired luxury in the south of France. Years before, he was known as “The Cat,” a famed jewel thief, but that’s all in his past.  As the story begins, several wealthy people have been victims of a burglar, and Robie is immediately suspect by the police. 

Hitchcock quickly returns to one of his most common themes of a wrongly accused protagonist struggling to prove his innocence. Robie approaches an official offering his expertise to track down the actual jewel thief.  Robie meets H. H. Hughson (John Williams), a British insurance agent, who agrees to share a list of clients whose jewels are covered by his company. The local police remain very suspicious of Robie, tracking his every move.

Hitchcock goes a bit further with characterization and elaboration on more complicated circumstances to his main character. Robie acknowledges he was a former acrobat. When Hughson asks why a man of such good taste would take up stealing, Robie replies, “Oh, to live better, to own things I couldn’t afford … to acquire the good taste which you now enjoy and which I should be reluctant to give up. I only stole from people who wouldn’t go hungry.” Hughson also notes, “I take it you’re sort of a modern Robin Hood; you gave away most of the proceeds of your crimes.”

 Soon Robie meets one of the potential victims, the wealthy middle-aged American widow Jessie Stevens (Jessie Royce Landis) and her adult daughter Frances (Kelly). Pretending to be a successful lumberman from Oregon, Robie gains the Stevens’ confidence, and Frances quickly shows a romantic interest in this charming, handsome man.

Despite the age difference, the chemistry between Grant (who was 51) and Kelly (who was 26) is neatly finessed by Hitchcock taking advantage of yet another of his ideas about achieving screen sexuality — subtlety. Both handsome leads are stylishly dressed in fantastic looking outfits, appearing in fancy outdoor settings while talking in a discretely romantic manner.  In one of the film’s iconic scenes Robie and Frances embrace in a dark room while colorful fireworks light up the night’s sky outside their Rivera window. Hitchcock noted, “Sex on screen should be suspenseful, I feel. If sex is too blatant or obvious, there’s no suspense.”

Eventually, Mrs. Stevens and others become victims of the new burglar, while Robie’s expertise helps the ever-suspicious police corner the actual thief in an exciting rooftop cliff hanger.

 “To Catch a Thief” was one of four successful films Grant made with Hitchcock. Although Grant died in 1986, after he retired two decades earlier at the ripe old age of 62 with “Walk, Don’t Run” (1966), Grant’s fascination still goes on like never before. Last year’s popular Grant biography by Scott Eyman examined his lasting appeal and his effect on moviemaking. Of course, filmgoers continue their fascination with the works of Alfred Hitchcock.