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I have a feeling that tonight you're going to see one of the Riviera's most fascinating sights.

To Catch a Thief
(1955)

As lightweight and breezily enjoyable as Hitchcock's third collaboration with Cary Grant is, it is maybe a little bit too pleased with itself. With all the ingredients for success present, there’s a sense of not needing to try very hard to win the viewer over.

John Michael Hayes' script is rife with innuendo-laced (censor-baiting) dialogue, which means that all the cast has to do is show up in the Riviera (or on the sound stage) and deliver their lines. The flipside of this is that it doesn’t give credit where it’s due for making it all seem so effortless. But, really, Grant’s could play this in his sleep. Witness his leisurely conversation over lunch with insurance investigator Hughson (John Williams).

Hughson: The pastries are light as air.
John Robie: Germaine has very sensitive hands and an exceedingly light touch. She strangled a German general – without a sound.

Following hot on the heels of Rear Window (contender for the best of the auteur’s films) and with back-to-back male stars and back-to-back Grace Kelly, this is as close as the director would come to a “sure thing” period in his career. By all accounts Thief was a decent-sized hit, but his slightly mercurial tastes meant it was never certain what he would turn to next (The Trouble with Harry would follow). The talent on board is all that weighs down a film that so slight it could blow away at any moment.

We are presented with mild intrigue but little real suspense. The result is that Hitchcock amuses rather than tests himself (although, the extensive location shooting was something of a departure and he makes use of helicopter shots; needless to say he wasn't present). The film certainly looks gorgeous (Robert Burke’s cinematography won an Oscar). It was only on the language side that there were problems to overcome. Notably, Charles Vanel (as Bertani) was dubbed as he did not speak English.

Grant plays retired cat burglar John Robie, falsely accused of being back in the game, and makes a more convincing fist of it than Sean Connery would much later in Entrapment. There’s clearly a desire to make Robie a fine and upstanding former criminal; not only is he repentant but he served with the resistance during the War. And still he can’t catch a break! The former Archibald Leach was a 50 when this was released, and considering retirement (it took him another decade). The script pegged Robie at 35. As healthy as he looks, his tan is slightly scary; everyone else appears bleached in comparison. Grace Kelly [i]did[/i] retire a couple of years after making this (only a quarter of a century Grant's junior). She and Grant have a playful chemistry, although it’s difficult to believe that Grant wouldn’t come across as easy going opposite anyone. If all this age concern seems excessive, the studio didn’t think so. The film was in the can in ’54 but delayed by Paramount execs fretting over the gap between them.

The "thriller" plot is really just there to top and tail Kelly’s (Frances Stevens’) conquest of the reluctant older man, which she does with relish (“Do you want a leg or a breast?” she asks him as they picnic). Her first scene is subdued, very much the demur ice queen. But when Grant escorts her to her door she reveals herself, moving to kiss him. Later, Hitch takes delight in cutting from Robie and Frances embracing on a sofa to a succession of exploding fireworks. Post-Airplane! such scenes can never be seen as less than ridiculous, but it’s not as if Hitchcock wasn’t smirking as he gave full rein to the naughty schoolboy within.

Regarding Kelly, I have to be honest; I was more taken with Brigitte Auber's Danielle (the daughter of one of Robie's old associates). She's so much more playful and, well, fun than Kelly. (Auber’s interplay with Grant is marvelously feisty; told she is only a girl compared to Kelly, she asks Robie “Why buy an old car if you can get a new one cheaper? It will run better and last longer”). Since I’m stuck on the cast’s ages I’ll mention two more; Auber was a couple of years older than Kelly. And then there’s the older lady.

Jessie Royce Landis steals every scene she's in as Kelly's mother (no wonder Hitchcock invited her back for North By Northwest, this time as Grant's mother – there are eight years between them). A motif of the director’s, destruction towards eggs, is present on twice here. One of which repeats the particularly violent act of subbing a cigarette out in a fried egg that was last seen in Rebecca. The mother-in-law final gag (she will come and live with the happy couple) seems very familiar, but achived the desired aim of not to making the ending too blissful. 

***1/2

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