Nostalgic Cinema: To Catch a Thief (1955)

What would be considered a Hitchcock classic? Psycho? Rear Window? The master of suspense and thrillers, the fat silhouette so synonymous with that dark genre played often in a light manner, tried his skills at combining mystery and comedy in the ‘classic’ romance with an edge of crime- To Catch a Thief (1955), the first of Hitchcock’s pictures to be made with VistaVision- ‘Paramount’s answer to cinemascope,’ using horizontal frames instead of vertical.

Set half on location in the south of France and half in Paramount studios, the story follows the retired jewel thief John Robie as he attempts to clear his name and reputation in light of recent cat burglaries, one who manages to mimic his technique perfectly.

All exteriors are shot in France, and what exteriors they are- a perfect juxtaposition for the nature of the film, namely being both a romance and crime thriller set in France, something that Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988) replicated thirty four years later, though the latter was more comedic than actual thriller.

Hitchcock and his crew, enamoured with the surrounds, only partially filmed interiors of existing places, such as the Carlton Hotel. The villa in which Grant’s character John stays was the second choice for the crew after a fog blew into the coast a few miles from Cannes and obscured the initial location of what Hitchcock’s editor claims was a more beautiful villa that looked over the Mediterranean, now mysteriously faded into the mists of time.

It is unsurprising that Robert Burks, the director of cinematography, won an Academy Award for best colour cinematography; the colour is exquisite- the enigmatic green glow of the parks and the roofs that the cat burglar runs across, and of course in the infamous ‘lovemaking’ scene in which the fireworks act as a perfect metaphor for what could not really be filmed in ‘those days’. With deliberate sexual undertones between Robie and Kelly’s Francie, the room is softly tinted with a dark green while the fireworks display continues and Kelly’s necklace sparkles in the darkness. She demurely but coquettishly remarks: ‘Even in this light I can tell where your eyes are looking.’

When we first see Grace Kelly, accompanied by her mother, the humorous Jessica Royce Landis, she is wearing a soft powder blue dress, and we see a sort of shy, reserved character, who is instantly transformed into a brazen temptress when she kisses Robie goodnight. The next morning, she has become the enigmatic and playful heiress that Robie falls for. Her third film for Hitchcock, after Dial M for Murder (1954) and Rear Window (1954) – the latter of which is supposedly the only film in which she was not romantically linked in real life to her male lead- it is easy to understand Hitchcock’s fascination with Kelly. Far from playing the ‘dumb blonde’, Kelly embodies the necessary counterpart to the dark and devious male role. Rather than being a direct opposite, however, Kelly becomes a fusion of light and dark with her peppery wealth alongside a fascination for sinister excitement, hence her attraction to Robie. Her mother on the other hand, far less fanciful and with a greater dose of pragmatism, acts as a sort of comic relief. Upon playing dumb after Robie escapes out her window, Kelly tells her mother, referring to her attempt at being naïve about Robie’s whereabouts: ‘Mother, the book you are reading is upside down.’ This humour is carried all the way to the end, as Kelly’s Francie embraces Robie and exclaims: ‘Oh, mother will love it up here,’ to which Grant’s Robie returns a less than satisfied look of worry.

Despite the murder that takes place and the suspense for the identity of the cat, the entire film, and the mystery and investigation that takes place throughout, feels like an elongated courtship between our two protagonists. With sexual jealousy between Danielle and Francie, Grant’s leathery skinned Robie is on the prowl himself, and captures his jewel in the end as they kiss atop a bluff in the most romantic of settings. The film works well as a Hitchcock thriller but even greater as a Hitchcock romance- a priceless jewel.

For a Hitchcock fanatic, not to be missed is Australian writer Matthew Asprey’s obsessive and comedic story ‘Villa des Bijoux’, in which one determined and audacious Hitchcock fan and devotee travels through the south of France in an fanatical search for the very villa inhabited by John Robie throughout the film, Quiche Lorraine and all. The story can be found at:


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