To Catch a Thief is unique among Hitchcock films. It’s the only Hitchcock film produced by Paramount to remain distributed by Paramount. The rest reverted to Hitchcock and are now distributed by Universal. More than that, however, the film feels remarkably “light” as measured against some of his other work. It feels almost like Cary Grant and Grace Kelly are just supporting players, with the French Riviera serving as the headlining star of the film. That not to dismiss To Catch a Thief entirely – it’s still a beautiful and well constructed piece of cinema from a master director, just one that feels a little shallow compared to his better work.
“Shallow” feels like a good word. Even with the charisma of Cary Grant and Grace Kelly, John Robie and Frances Stevens feel more like archetypes than characters. He’s a flashy former thief who must now employ those shady skills to prove his innocence, while she’s a rich American heiress looking for adventure in a foreign land. Naturally, their romance is all but assured. The charm and chemistry of the leads, as well as Hitchcock’s sure direction, help keep the flirting and bantering engaging, but – ironically enough – there never seems to be any suspense. It’s all safely predictable.
I can’t help but feel like the movie might have been a bit stronger if we knew a little bit more about John Robie. A master thief who joined la resistance during the Second World War, Robie has since seen the error of his ways and lives his life as a lay-abiding citizen. In fairness, he gets a nice scene with insurance broker H.H. Hughson where he explains his logic. Hughson steals in his own way, by taking stuff from hotels or claiming expenses that don’t exist. “You’re a thief,” Robie insists. “Only an amateur thief, of course, but it will help you to sympathize with us professionals.”
The movie does avoid giving its lead a Fruedian excuse, or trying to rationalise his behaviour. Hughson is quick to suggest a noble motivation for the thief’s crimes. “You know,” his guest offers, “I thought you’d have some defense, some tale of hardship – your mother ran off when you were young, your father beat you, or something.” Hughson suggests, almost hopefully, “I take it you were a sort of modern Robin Hood? I mean, you gave away most of the proceeds of your crimes…?” Robie denies it, conceding he was “an out-and-out thief.” I respect the film for not taking an easy approach towards Robie’s life of crime, or trying to offer some excuse for what he does. However, this ultimately raises more questions than it answers.
Despite the fact that Robie is presented as an avowed thief, giving him a bit of an edge as an anti-hero, the film tries to have it both ways by explaining he’s not an out-and-out thief anymore. The problem is that we get little real reason for his change of heart. He joined la resistance against the Nazis in France, so he already has solid heroic credentials, and there’s the faint hint of atonement around Robie’s decision to go straight. “I joined up because I wanted to make up for some of the things I’d done.”
The problem is that is doesn’t necessarily ring true. For one thing, Robie seems remarkably proud of his earlier life, and is never apologetic for it. While he admits to being an out-and-out crook, he still seems to believe it was an entirely reasonable course of action. “For what it’s worth, I only stole from people who wouldn’t go hungry,” he tells Hughson. One wonders, for example, how Robie seems to fund his lavish life in France without a source of income to support it.
Robie has a nice house with a maid and a car, but no discernible source of income. He admits that he’s still living off the proceeds of his crime, which stands at odds with the claim that he wants to make things right. Asked why he stole, he explains, “To live better, to own things I couldn’t afford, to acquire this good taste which you now enjoy and which I should be very reluctant to give up.”I spent most of the movie trying to understand how or why Robie had gone straight, only to realise there seems to be no tangible reason for it.
I know it’s a light film, but even Hitchcock’s lighter fare usually have some measure of psychological complexity about them, and it seems completely absent here. Set in a truly beautiful holiday hotspot, it seems almost like To Catch a Thief is relaxed about itself. It assumes that Cary Grant and Grace Kelly are charming enough that it doesn’t need any of Hitchcock’s trademark sophistication. However, I simply couldn’t get past that one hurdle – I never believed in Robie as a character, he was never fully formed to me, he never seemed to make sense in the way that most of Hitchcock’s protagonists do.
It’s a shame, because there’s a lot of fun stuff here. In particular, I like the way that Hitchcock explores excitement as an aphrodisiac, suggesting that the exotic mystery of Robie was what draws Frances to him, and that he is enjoying coming out of retirement to do that one last job. There’s a thrill to be found in all that danger, and Hitchcock plays it up perfectly. When Frances is reluctant to join her mother in the casino, her mother dismisses her protests. “Everyone likes to gamble,” Jessie Stevens tells her daughter, and To Catch a Thief is full of characters recklessly gambling, taking massive risks to life and fortune, all in a manner that could go horrible wrong.
In that respect, it feels like more of a classic Hitchcock film, as it suggests that people are inherently attracted to risk. Frances knows who Robie is, and what he’s accused of, and she welcomes him into her life. Robie knows that his attempt to pose as a thief to catch a thief could put him in prison quicker than protesting his innocence, but he does it anyway. Even Hughson seems positively excited by his involvement in this clandestine scheme, even though – as an insurance agent – he has the least to lose. At one point, Frances and Robie treat dangerous driving as foreplay.
Notwithstanding the disappointingly shallow characters, the script bristles with wonderful dialogue. The exchanges are perfectly acerbic, as Grant and Kelly banter back and forth at one another. I’ve never been wholly convinced that Grant and Kelly were superb actors in their own rights (for me, Jimmy Stewart is the best Hitchcock leading actor by a considerable distance), but they have a nice chemistry that makes their interactions easy to watch. Kelly’s delivery of Frances’ somewhat shrill response to the young lady filtering with Robie is brilliantly wry.
Of course, everything seems to play a supporting role to the French Riviera. Shot in “VistaVision”, the movie beautifully captures the French countryside, creating the impression of something quite close to paradise on Earth. Even with a flawed script, Hitchcock is a confident director, and some of the movie looks absolutely stunning – particularly on the recent blu ray edition of the film. The famous sequence where Robie and Frances exchange dialogue while watching the fireworks is as impressive now as it ever was.
“I have a feeling that tonight, you’re going to see one of the Riviera’s most fascinating sights,” Frances tells Robie as the lights go down. “I was talking about the fireworks.”Naturally, the line positively drips with raw sexual tension, but Hitchcock actually manages to film a Riviera that competes with Grace Kelly’s stunning and timeless beauty.
Also of note are the scenes filmed on the roofs of the villas and hotels. I’m a sucker for those consciously stylistic set designs, locations that very clearly aren’t real, but evoke the place perfectly. As Robie dances around the roofs of the Riviera, it’s very clear that he’s on a constructed set, but I’d argue the movie actually looks much stronger for it. It’s a shame that we don’t see too many sets like that in modern movies, because I like the sort pseudo-reality of it all.
To Catch a Thief isn’t Hitchcock’s best work. I’d argue it’s quite far from the top tier of his work. It lacks a requisite psychological realism, instead feeling relatively light and breezy without any substance beneath it. Still, it’s an enjoyable film in its own right, and there’s no denying that “light and breezy” certainly have their place.
Filed under: Non-Review Reviews Tagged: | alfred hitchcock, arts, Cary Grant, film, france, French Riviera, Grace Kelly, hitchcock, John Robie, Movie, Movies, non-review review, review, Robie, To Catch a Thief