Amiable, sexy, witty, lighthearted entertainment, Alfred Hitchcock’s romance on the French Riviera, To Catch a Thief, nevertheless contains elements that stress this description of it. The principal element of this kind has to do with the past of John Robie, whose inconspicuous retirement from notorious jewel thievery is interrupted by a series of “cat burglaries” that duplicates his old modus operandi. But that is not the element of Robie’s past to which I refer; for, before becoming a jewel thief, Robie was a member of the French Resistance during the Occupation. Robie’s parole, as well as that of confederates in the Resistance who also turned to crime after the war, acknowledged his status as national hero.
I am not sure why this aspect of Robie’s past is so often overlooked, but it means everything to me. John Robie is not French; perhaps he is American. When in the film he assumes a false identity, he claims to come from Portland, Oregon—the birthplace of John Reed, who as a journalist covered the Mexican and Bolshevik Revolutions, and who, committed to its cause of social justice, closely involved himself with the Bolshevik government. However, Robie’s wartime activism more strikingly resembles that of Americans who fought in the Spanish Civil War against Franco’s forces.
The opening shot is of the store window of a travel agency; it is adorned by posters advertising France. I feel it may be somewhat condescending to attribute Hitchcock’s making the film to his love of foreign travel. His desire to visit the French Riviera coincides with the graver reason to relocate to a foreign country that his protagonist’s past reflects. Hitchcock the artist, even here, trumps Hitchcock the tourist.
The film, it seems to me, asks us to consider the fate of such wartime heroes as the current and former criminal characters in it demonstrate. Their lives and activities were ones of terrific risk; what “second act” was then possible? A suggestion of causality arises; John Robie became “The Cat” to revive the riskiness of his wartime activities for which, with the end of the war, he had become nostalgic. Indeed, the plot he pursues to prove his innocence of the current rash of hotel and palatial home jewelry heists revives the old spirit of danger. He feels alive again, focused, purposeful; but a shift in times may also shift allegiances, and one-half of the danger he faces—the other half of it comes from the police—comes from old confederates in what was once their common cause.
As Peter Bogdanovich points out in his often brilliant commentary for the DVD of To Catch a Thief, Hitchcock, preferring suspense to surprise, generally disdained “whodunits”—and, no doubt about it, To Catch a Thief is a whodunit. However, its being so perfectly suits the thematic material at hand. To Catch a Thief is very much a film about identity, about false identity and usurped identity—about “knowing” who you are when, absorbed in momentous or pressing activity, you don’t have time or the inclination to think about it, and suddenly not being so sure of yourself in another time, in other circumstances. Keep in mind that Robie’s “retirement” has been forced upon him by officialdom. In an imaginative sense, Robie is responsible for the new crime wave because it speaks to his heart’s desire to be emphatically himself again, and it provides the opportunity for his reconstitution and re-integration. Yes, yes, the film is charming and delightful beyond measure, one of Hitchcock’s most entertaining movies, but it isn’t just that.
Robert Burks won an Oscar for his gorgeous VistaVision color cinematography, which achieves its deepest, loveliest results on rooftops at night when either or both the burglar and, in pursuit of the burglar, Robie are prowling like cats. (There is even an actual black cat that also is shown on the hotel roof.) (Perhaps it is the coincidence of my recent film-viewing chronology, but these dreamy, borderline fantastic scenes remind me of the dark, spacious room in which the solitudinous Queen, moving slowly like a cat, confronts her Magic Mirror in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, 1937). Abetted by Burks, Hitchcock thus finds the visual means of conjuring an eerie and even melancholy realm where identity is hidden, lost and pursued.
Cary Grant and Grace Kelly are both breathtakingly beautiful, each in more than one way, in the lead roles. Indeed, Kelly, as Bogdanovich points out, steals the movie, as a sophisticated, opinionated socialite from Philadelphia (where else?). Her mother, played wonderfully by Jessie Royce Landis, is the kind of rich widow that Uncle Charlie dispatched in Hitchcock’s own favorite among his films, Shadow of a Doubt (1943)—but here she is viewed largely sympathetically. Hers is the character, though, that extinguishes a cigarette in a breakfast egg yoke, as a not-so-sympathetic woman extinguishes a cigarette in a jar of cold cream in Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940), whose first movement opens on the French Riviera.
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