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If you’re feeling Out Of Sorts because you’re unable to visit the Côte d’Azur this winter, we know how you feel.
Idea! If we (as in, yours truly) stumble upon a winning lottery ticket or buried treasure, we’ll spring for airfare to take us both to the French Riviera. We can visit all the hot spots, rub elbows with The Rich and wear outrageously expensive jewels.
However, in the event we do not become fabulously wealthy, we’ll have to settle for a vicarious holiday. Happily, director Alfred Hitchcock provides us with such an adventure in the 1955 thriller, To Catch A Thief.
This film is set on the south coast of France and filmed in glorious VistaVision (and rightly so). The results are stunning; even the notoriously fussy reviewer, Bosley Crowther, remarked: “…Mr. Hitchcock has used that famous coast to form a pictorial backdrop that fairly yanks your eyes out of your head.”
In addition to the scenery, there are the sumptuous sets by Sam Comer and Arthur Krams and a ravishing wardrobe by Edith Head. Oh – and let us not overlook the two lead characters, played by Cary Grant and Grace Kelly.
Really, there’s so much beauty here, it’s hard to know where to look.
We could watch this film with the sound on Mute, but in case you feel a plot is necessary, you’re in for a treat. Cary Grant is a former cat burglar who lives a quiet, reformed life in the hills above the Mediterranean. He is unexpectedly tracked down by a Lloyd’s of London insurance agent (John Williams) to help stop a rash of jewel thefts in the Riviera’s respectable resorts.
Grant decides to pose as a lumber businessman on vacation from Oregon. It’s doubtful he’s fooling anyone – Cary Grant as a lumber industrialist? From Oregon? Puh-lease! – and he’s certainly not fooling Grace Kelly, who quickly pieces together his Past as a jewel thief.
Kelly plays a rich, bored American travelling through Europe with her wealthy mother (the delightful Jesse Royce Landis). Landis’ character sports jewels like they’re combat medals, but Kelly eschews such showiness. She prefers “tangible excitement”.
Kelly’s character is attracted to Grant and he becomes her full-time preoccupation. But is her attraction purely romantic, or is she shadowing him for another reason? Does her need for “tangible excitement” include stealing jewels?
When Grant starts receiving threatening notes, we realize anyone could be the thief. It’s clear the mysterious note-writer has studied Grant’s methods and knows the way he thinks.
To Catch a Thief is based on a novel by mystery/travel writer David Dodge. According to Wikipedia, Dodge’s novel-writing career took off “when he made a bet with his wife that he could write a better mystery novel than the ones they were reading during a rainy family vacation.”¹ To Catch a Thief (1952) was his greatest publishing success, mostly due to Hitchcock’s buying the film rights before the novel went to press.²
Even though this is arguably Hitchcock’s most beautiful film, it’s not just Eye Candy. The script examines how a person might make amends for previous wrongs and the difficulties in overcoming your own notoriety. In one scene, Grant says, “You don’t have to spend every day of your life proving your honesty. But I do.”
The film also touches on the nature of crime: If a crime is committed to help others, or is committed only against those who can “afford” it, how serious should the repercussions be?
We’ll save these discussions for Another Day; these are not issues we normally tackle on vacation. When on holiday, we like to discover new regions, admire the views and have a merry time.
All of which you’ll be able to do with Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief. Let this film be our Placeholder until we’re able travel to the Côte d’Azur in person.
To Catch a Thief: starring Cary Grant, Grace Kelly, Jessie Royce Landis. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Written by John Michael Hayes. Paramount Pictures, Colour, 1955, 106 mins.