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25 February 2013

To Catch A Thief (1955)

Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock
Starring: Cary Grant, Grace Kelly, 
Brigitte Auber, Georgette Anys
Charles Vanel, Jean Martinelli, 
Jesse Royce Landis
It was while watching Roman Holiday and wondering idly whether I would have preferred Cary Grant in the lead (For the record, no. I liked Gregory Peck quite well, though the role had the Grant imprint all over it.), that I realised I needed to review a Cary Grant film soon. I had been on a Cary Grant kick since November, what with The Bishop's Wife, Charade, and Notorious making an appearance on my blog; the others were awaiting their turn. 

The question was which film do I review first? Then I realised I had never reviewed a single Grace Kelly movie, even though Dial M for Murder was one of my favourite Hitchcock films. To Catch a Thief had the cachet of being a Hitchcock film, so the choice was made for me.

As the film opens, a series of well-executed robberies are taking place; the thief is quick, the work is clean, and all that is left behind are the screams of the many anguished women who wake up to find their jewellery gone.
The modus operandi reminds the exasperated Commissaire de Police of a notorious cat burglar nicknamed, well, The Cat (Le Chat).

The Cat is exasperated as well. Not quite for the same reasons, though. John Robie (Cary Grant), now retired, is living rather well, but quietly, on the French Riviera, tending his vineyards. Robie is not very pleased that there is a copycat criminal on the loose, and has no intention of letting the Sûreté arrest him before he finds out who it is. A clever ruse allows him to escape.
Once he gives them the slip, Robie makes his way to his old comrades, who are none too happy to see him. Ex-convicts all of them, they were granted parole for their part in the French Resistance on condition that they steer clear of their old lives. Now, with the spotlight on The Cat, they - Bertani (Charles Vanel), Foussard (Jean Martinelli), all of them - are under suspicion. 
If they break their parole they will all be back in jail. Robie is furious. If he broke his parole, they would throw away the key! Besides, how did  this thief imitate him so perfectly? It had to be someone who knew every detail of his technique. If the police caught him, Robie and the others would be off the hook, but they are busy chasing the wrong man. Someone had to begin chasing the right one!

Bertani is not convinced, but for old times' sake, he decides to help Robie. A man had come into the restaurant some days ago, asking about crime and jewels. Perhaps he is the new Cat? As they ponder over this, the police arrive, and Bertani gets Robie out of his restaurant. Foussard's daughter Danielle (Brigitte Auber) will take him to Cannes. 
Robie and Danielle had had a fling before, and she is mischievous enough to tease him about it. Not only that, she makes it quite evident that she not only believes he is committing these robberies, but, unlike the others, she is also not furious with him - she just wants him to take her to South America with him - she knows how to cook, she tells him, and to keep quiet, and to peddle stolen jewels.

Once at Cannes, Robie is told by Bertani to go to the flower market at Nice - the man he talked about would meet him there. The man is HH Hugheson (John Williams), an insurance agent with Lloyd's of London. Lloyd's is tired of paying off claims; officially, they cannot be associated with a burglar. Unofficially, however...
The men from the Sûreté are still on his heels and amidst the fracas at the flower market, Robie manages to escape from the police, only to be caught on the wrong foot.
He's given ten days to come with evidence to prove his innocence. Even more reluctantly does Mr Hugheson give him the list of jewellery owners who are insured with Lloyd's. The first names on the list are an American woman, Jessie Stevens (Jessi Royce Landis) and her beautiful daughter, Francie (Grace Kelly). Robie sets his plan in motion - they are to be the bait who will bring the copycat to the trap.

He strikes up an acquaintance with the mother and daughter without seeming to be doing so. In fact, the mother - 'Call me Jessie' - is more than interested in furthering his acquaintance - with her daughter!
The evening ends rather unexpectedly for Robie. Happily, but unexpectedly.
And it ends unexpectedly for Hugheson. Unexpectedly, and sadly. One of his clients has just lost jewellery worth $35000 dollars. Hughes has come to entreat Jessie to place her jewels in the safe, but she is not very cooperative. What will I wear when I want to go out, she asks. The safe?

Francie, on the other hand, seems to be pursuing Robie with a vengeance, much to Danielle's dismay. 
She is in Cannes too, and she warns Robie that his old friends from the Resistance are willing to kill him if it would mean they wouldn't go back to prison. Robie is less than thrilled - the police want him in jail, his old pals want him dead, and The Cat (the imposter) wants him out of town. Francie is not as demure as she seems either, and Robie soon finds out that he'd much rather be chased by the police than be caught in the middle of a catfight between the two women.   

Francie is definitely more than she seems to be. She chases Robie unapologetically, can be a speed fiend (enough to make Robie's fingers curl on his knees while she drives), is not beyond dangling her jewels (and herself) in front of him, and, much to Robie's discomfiture,  makes it very clear that she knows exactly who he is.
She offers to be his accomplice, is not ashamed of her attraction to him, and even blackmails him into having dinner with her in her suite.
Her smug complacency is shattered the next morning when Jessie's jewels are discovered stolen. Angered by the feeling that she had been taken advantage of, she calls the police, only to find that her mother doesn't share her certainty. In fact, so sure is Jessie that Robie is not the thief that, much to her daughter's chagrin, she helps him escape. In fact, Francie is just angry, says her mother, because Robie "didn't roll over and play dead" when he met her!
 
But it means that Robie is on the run again. And the police are mad. Mad enough to round up every single one of the old gang and put them into prison.

Meanwhile, Robie's put his nose out of water to enlist Hugheson's help. Robie had been watching one of the villas on Hugheson's list and has spotted a prowler three nights in succession. He's also had a note warning him off, and is sure the villa is going to be the next target. He wants Hugheson's help in getting the police there at the right time.
Hugheson is sure it is a trap, and he is proved right when Robie is attacked. In the wild melee that follows, the attacker falls over the wall onto the rocks and dies. The Commissaire is overjoyed - here lies the new Cat! It is the burglar, and he is dead. 
The news is announced, and Jessie is quite pleased to inform Francie that she now needs to practice her apologies - in two languages. Meanwhile, Robie is not convinced at all. In front of Hugheson, he offers the Commissaire proof that Foussard could not be the new Cat. Foussard had a wooden leg; he couldn't climb roofs!

Robie is now sure he knows who the burglar actually is, but he needs proof. He decides to go to Foussard's funeral where Danielle, overwrought by her father's death accuses him of being his murderer. When Francie apologises to him outside the cemetery, Robie convinces her to let him escort her to the masquerade ball at the villa where he is sure the cat burglar will attack next.

Soon, they are all assembled there. Francie and Jessie and Robie (completely unrecognisable in his costume); the police who are hovering around, also in costume and wigs, forgetting that since they do not have ladies hanging on to their arms, they are totally recognisable; Bertani, who is catering the ball, along with Danielle and all of Robie's old pals... 
Is Robie's guess right? All this while, Robie has been on the run, the police one step behind, and the cat burglar one step ahead. He has been very clever, this copycat, and thus far, luck has been on his side. Will he ever be caught? Will Robie ever clear his name? Or has this all been an elaborate charade? 
Based on a novel of the same name by David Dodge, To Catch a Thief  was Alfred Hitchcock serving up a light-as-a-cloud romantic comedy with an undercurrent of eroticism and very little mystery. That he succeeded so well was because of the scintillating chemistry between his two goodlooking lead actors.

There is much to like about the film. Monte Carlo had never been shot so lovingly before. Place Grace Kelly on the French Riviera and you have two impossibly beautiful things to look at simultaneously! It was like taking a tour of Monte Carlo with Grace Kelly as your guide. 
Cary Grant was Cary Grant, suave and sophisticated, handsome and charming, dashing and witty; add a soupçon of sexual innuendo to the banter between his and Grace Kelly's characters, and their romance smouldered. (Yet, when Francie tells him that she is in love with him, his retort is "That's a ridiculous thing to say!" Grace looks very young and uncertain in this scene - and as always, beautiful. ) Grant was 50 when he did this role (John Robie is 35 in the book), having come out of retirement only a couple of years previously. Grace was 26.
Scriptwriter John Michael Hayes handed Jessie Royce Landis the droll lines, and you knew there was only one thing to do - sit back and enjoy the film! If you are in the mood for a light, romantic comedy that is fuelled by starpower, I guarantee you will enjoy this film.
 
Trivia:  
  • This was Grace Kelly's last film with Hitchcock. Immediately after this, she finished shooting for High Society in 1956, and took up her last and final role as the Princess Grace of Monaco. Hitchcock wanted her for Marnie but the people of Monaco resented their princess going back to her past life.   
  • The sequence where Francie leaves the police behind while she speeds away, was shot on the winding roads of Monte Carlo - years later, Princess Grace would die in a car crash on these very same roads.  
  • Alfred Hitchcock did his usual cameo in the film, sitting pretty beside his leading man. 
  • In a scene early in the film, Robie, an American expatriate, tells Hugheson that he had been in a trapeze group that travelled around Europe. Before Archibald Leach became Cary Grant, he had been part of an acrobatic group that travelled around Europe. Only, Leach was English.

17 comments:

  1. One of the Hitchcock films I love to like. Mainly because I always forget the plot of this one! Thanks to that I can always watch this one as I am watching it for the first time.
    The roofscape of Nice and the chase gave the film its German title "Über die Dächern von Nizza" - On the Roofs of Nice. Sounds like A Cat on the Hot Tin Roof but sounds much better in German.

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  2.  I remember the first time I saw the movie I was not impressed too much. But your ovely review makes me go back to the DVD sitting in my collection.

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  3.  It does sound very nice in German, Harvey. Laughing at you forgetting the plot every time. :)

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  4.  It is a very nice film, SoY. And despite having seen the film before, i was impressed with the way  the tension was maintained.

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  5. Gregory Peck and Cary Grant movies back to back?  Drooling time, indeed!  Great review of a good movie, but I had read the book first, so I was a little disappointed when I saw the movie, but Grant and Grace Kelly made up for it.  I just loved the scene on the rooftop - the nighttime shadows, the chase - but I did pause to wonder how a man in his fifties is supposed to be so fit and agile, and wouldn't a younger actor have been more convincing there?

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  6.  I was just answering comments when you popped up. :) Yes, Gregory Peck and Cary Grant back to back. Droolworthy indeed. :)

    but I did pause to wonder how a man in his fifties is supposed to be so fit and agile,

    In the book, isn't Robie 35? But Grant was fit - take a look at him in the beach scene; he was, err... let's just say he made me forget I was a married woman.

    Grant was persuaded out of retirement to do this role, you know. And he was very bothered about the age difference between him and Grace (that is the reason he didn't do Roman Holiday either). Which is why, like Charade, which came after this, he ensured that it was the woman who did the chasing.

    And who can blame the women, quoth she...

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  7. Ah, so. Coincidence, coincidence. :-)

    I somehow - despite my love for Cary Grant, Hitchcock, and even Grace Kelly - didn't much like this film. I suppose it was at a time when I'd been watching some of Hitchcock's best - stuff like Rear Window, Frenzy, Family Plot, Shadow of a Doubt and The Trouble With Harry - and compared to those, films like this one or Torn Curtain sort of disappointed me.

    But your review tempts me to give it another try!

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  8. Sounds interesting but I somehow have not seen many English movies. Some years ago we had a channel called "TNT" where we had some lovely old english movies & I saw some of them. Do you like "Arsenic and Old Lace"? I loved it. Maybe you will review it sometime.

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  9. Yes! I saw your latest post and silently mouthed 'Wow!' and then you tell me you were reading a historical novel and it just solidified the happenstance club. :)

    I agree that To Catch a Thief is nowhere close to the films you mentioned, but it still is engaging, and I loved the way the scenes played out.

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  10. Anu, this post made me nostalgic about the time when Bigflix - Indian version of Netflix - used to be a very good service with home delivery and pick up of DVDs. I saw most of my classics - Hitchcock, Bergman, Fellini, Godard while it was working. A year back it switched to streaming and the quality of its collection took a nosedive. I feel soooo jealous each time you or Dustedoff review any such movie. The video libraries in Chandigarh ususally don't have a good collection.

    'To catch a thief', however, was one movie i did see along with 'North by Northwest', 'Vertigo' and 'Rear Window'. It would take the last place in this list. I was a bit bored towards the end, as a result I don't clearly recall who was the real culprit. The bonus of such forgetfulness is that I can now see it again with the help of your excellent review and enjoy it. Let's hope I am able to get hold of a DVD. If any other reader of your blog knows about a good DVD library in Chandigarh, please tell me about it.

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  11. "very little mystery" is the master stroke of Hitchcock in the film, indeed a subtle one, in that he seems to have given a hand to try out lighter comedy as the foreground for thinly veiled mystery.
    And he succeeds he does, like a classic Hitchcock film. Cary Grant is his more than usual Cary-grant-of-a-Hitchcock film.
    And, review is as good as the film!
    Believe me, this not meant to just a praise (!) to please, because the movement of the story is quite slick for a flowing narrative.

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  12.  Subodhji, Netflix is doing the same here. Streaming is just not as good enough. I looked online to see if it was available for free viewing, and realised that Amazon charged less for the DVD (about Rs250) than YouTube charged for viewing the official version. (Rs500) :(

    I was never as enamoured by North By North-West even though it is almost always referred to as a classic. I agree that To Catch A Thief isn't in the same league as Rope for instance, or

    Rear Window.

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  13. Thank you, Ashokji. :) You've put a smile on my face.

    I agree with your that this is a light romance playing out against the background of an even lighter thriller. It is definitely worth watching.

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  14. Came across your blog by following your comment on Blogical
    Conclusion. Enjoyed reading your blog and especially this post. Though I’ve
    seen the movie ages ago, I’m looking forward to seeing it after reading your post!

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  15.  Welcome to my blog, Gargi, and thank you for those kind words. They are what keep me going.

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  16. I think I will always love Grant best in his screwball comedy rolls . . . yet, he's undeniably the definition of charming here. I think this film leans a lot more toward the humor than a lot of other Hitchcock fare . . . and it's one his only films (that I can think of) where you never get too worried about the possibility of a happy ending and can just sit back and enjoy the madness.


    Francie's mother and Danielle consistently make me cackle like a fool . . . with their weirdly sensual and flirtatious one liners. "Why do you want an old car when you could get a new one cheaper? It will run better, and last longer." (Grant just has the full gamut of female interest, young--old--and in-between interested in him in this film, doesn't he? I suppose that's probably the most realistic aspect of the whole thing.) My only problem with this film? Grant's very, very distracting tan. ;)
    ~Miranda

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  17. Grant was 'very, very distracting' in many, many ways, not just because of his tan. :) Welcome to my blog, Filmi-Contrast. I hope you will like it enough to stay.

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