To Catch a Thief (1955) Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Cary Grant, Grace Kelly, Jesse Royce Landis (106 min).
The Master of Suspense’s breeziest caper pits a retired jewel thief against a cool beauty. Black cats prowl and double entendre rules as Grant and Kelly spar, breezing along the Riviera in a sapphire blue Sunbeam Alpine. “A bubbly and effervescent Alfred Hitchcock romantic-suspenser that finds the Master in a relaxed and purely entertaining mood” (TV Guide).
To Catch a Thief was based on a 1952 novel by David Dodge, his eighth. Dodge said that the story was based on a real series of Riviera robberies, but it also owes a debt to one of the “Raffles, the Amateur Cracksman” stories by E.W. Hornung from the late 19th century. As is so often true in Hollywood adaptations, by the time Hitchcock and John Michael Hayes had finished with it, only the title, some of the character names and the bare bones of the plot had survived. The author lived part time on the French Riviera, one of Hitchcock’s favorite places, and the setting, and the chance to film there, enticed the director. Hitchcock loved shooting on location for six weeks, and putting delicious French cuisine on the studio tab. Hayes had never been there, so Hitchcock arranged for Hayes and his wife to spend a couple of weeks doing “research,” but it was also a reward for his stellar work on Rear Window.
Hayes knew which actors he would be writing for, and tailored the characters to their screen personas. Although the director’s wife, Alma, was more interested in her grandchildren than filmmaking, she was sufficiently excited by the car chase scene to outline it shot by shot in a meeting. Before it would reach the screen, there would be many adjustments, in budget (an expensive carnival scene was deleted) location (VistaVision camera limitations proved a headache) actors (some of whose English was poor) and, most of all accommodating the objections of the Production Code to the racy dialogue.
Cary Grant had not made a film since 1952 and said he was retired from the screen. He turned down Roman Holiday, Sabrina, A Star is Born, Guys and Dolls and Bridge on the River Kwai. “I’d love to get back to those comedies I used to do. But, where can I find one? Writers take themselves too seriously these days. Also, really polished dialogue is hard to write. It’s much easier to write crude, everyday speech and writers can make a lot of money doing it” he griped. But, Hitchcock, with whom he had worked before, insisted he wasn’t too old, and promised him Grace Kelly as his costar. “There isn’t a thing wrong with you, old man, that a first rate screenplay won’t cure” Hitchcock told him (Morcambe and Sterling 198-99). In fact, this final phase of his career was in many ways his most successful, at 56, in 1960, he was #1 at the American box office.
He thoroughly enjoyed himself on the set, and Hitchcock had complete faith in him. “Cary is marvelous, you see. One doesn’t direct Cary Grant. One simply puts him in front of the camera” (DeRosa 113). The admiration was mutual. “Hitch and I had a rapport and understanding deeper than words. He was a very agreeable human being, and we were very compatible. I always went to work whistling when I worked with him, because everything on the set was just as you envisioned it would be. Nothing ever went wrong. He was so incredibly well prepared. I never knew anyone as capable. He was a tasteful, intelligent, decent and patient man, who knew the actor’s business as well as he knew his own” (Morcambe and Sterling 202).
Grant had been impressed with Grace Kelly on screen in her two previous Hitchcock films, and she would now become Grant’s favorite leading lady as well as Hitchcock’s. Their rapport was so perfect that many of the racier flights of dialogue in the film were supposedly improvised by the actors, themselves. “Hitch told us to improvise some of our dialogue, and so Cary and I did just that. We rehearsed it first with Miss Auber, whose English was not so fluent. We all had terrific fun trying to see what we could get away with, because we knew Hitch wanted us to go as far as we could. Cary and I shared the same warped and sometimes risqué sense of humor, so it was a great deal of fun for us” (Spoto 173). Kelly glowed in her teasing love scenes with Grant. “I was awed by her. We all loved her very much” Grant said later (McGilligan 497).
Illusion and reality.
Kelly was flattered that Hitchcock wanted her for another film after Dial M for Murder and Rear Window. Of course, if he had his way, she would have been in very film he made for the rest of his career. Her most recent films, The Country Girl and Green Fire had been emotionally draining, and she looked forward to a more lighthearted part. “It was a comedy, but it was also romantic—and rather daring for its time, too, but always with the sophisticated Hitchcock touch. Francie is eager to be a thief, she’s out for kicks and thrills, and she thinks it’s exciting to join up with a man she believes is an outlaw. She was all set to climb over the rooftops with him” she said twenty years later (Spoto 171).
Kelly was always reticent about her private life, but while To Catch a Thief was being filmed, she was in love with designer Oleg Cassini, a playboy who had once been married to Gene Tierney. But, in spite of his ardor, he was not interested in marriage, and Kelly’s Catholic family was not keen on her marrying a divorced man, and eventually their relationship fell apart. Cassini spent a lot of time with Kelly in Cannes during filming and had his own sharp opinions about Hitchcock. “He was a complete autocrat. He believed anyone on a film (except him) could be replaced. I argued the opposite, the importance of individuals, especially the unique chemistry generated by stars like Cary Grant and Grace Kelly. They could not be replaced. Hitchcock believed, though, that he could make anyone a star. He was wrong, and would spend the rest of his career searching for an actress who could replace Grace Kelly” (Spoto 184).
On one day off, Kelly, writer Hayes and Cary Grant’s wife Betsy Drake did some sightseeing. Outside the Grimaldi Museum, Kelly hoped for a chance to look at the famous gardens. It was necessary to get the permission of the Prince of Monaco for such a tour, and time didn’t permit. The following year, Kelley made an acclaimed appearance at the Cannes Film Festival and she met Prince Rainier, who gave her a personal tour. Years later, now Princess Grace of Monaco, she invited Hayes and his wife to the palace. “Now, I can show you the garden” she said. (DeRosa 114). Of course, she remained as Princess Grace of Monaco for the rest of her life, until her death in 1982. While driving the same stretch of road that you see her driving with Cary Grant, she had a stroke, blacked out and her car plunged over the edge. She was just 52.
Sapphire Blue Sunbeam Alpine
Paramount insisted he use, VistaVision, their wide screen process, a look that dominated Hollywood films in that era. The problem was in the close-ups, the lenses made it impossible to keep backgrounds in focus while filming them. The studio sent telegrams to Hitchcock from California telling him to shoot background shots to use for rear projections, then close ups could be made in California. He considered it an insult, since usually the second unit’s job, but he did what he was told. This artifice inadvertently became a part of his visual style.
Like Cary Grant, Brigitte Auber had once worked as an acrobat. Hitchcock had spotted her in a Julien Duvivier film, Under the Paris Sky. He had trouble with another French actor, Charles Vanel, whose work he had admired in The Wages of Fear and Diabolique. Hitchcock didn’t realize that he could not speak English, and dialogue had to be written and extensively dubbed when he could not be understood.
Edith Head recalled working on the film with pleasure. “When people ask me who my favorite actress is, who my favorite actor is, and what my favorite film is, I tell them to watch To Catch a Thief and they’ll get all the answers. The film was a costume designer’s dream” (DeRosa 112). Hitchcock allowed Kelly and Head to confer on the costumes before presenting their ideas to him, a rare privilege. Hitchcock liked Head to be on the set when she was working for him, so she, too, was flown to the Riviera. Head and Kelly shopped in Paris, spending lots of money on gorgeous gloves at Hermés. Hitchcock wanted her in cool colors, and the chiffon dress in varying shades of blue is a lovely touch as her ice princess façade is shown to be a ruse. The Bal de Biarritz is also in the book, but is not nearly the big set piece as it is in the film, with Kelly radiant in billowing gold lame. The ball scene was the most expensive the designer had ever done. Head was nominated for an Oscar, but lost to Charles Le Maire’s Love is a Many Spendored Thing, a romance set during China’s Communist revolution. She was quite sour about her Oscar loss, saying that Le Maire could have bought all his costumes in Chinatown.
Head and Kelly shopping in Cannes
Head’s eye catching beach ensemble.
Spectacular gold lamé ball gown.
Grant, however, chose his own wardrobe. “Edith (Head) dressed the women, but she didn’t design my costumes. I planned and provided everything myself. In fact, I bought everything in Cannes, just before we began shooting. She didn’t go with me when I purchased the clothes, nor did she approve anything. I was the only one who approved my clothes. Hitch trusted me implicitly to select my own wardrobe. If he wanted me to wear something very specific, he would tell me, but generally, I wore simple, tasteful clothes—the same kinds of clothes I wear off screen” (DeRosa 113).
To Catch a Thief blended romantic comedy with a heist film. As in his other Hitchcock films, Suspicion and Notorious, Grant’s character’s attitude towards his leading lady is somewhat ambivalent. This was adapted from the book’s character, but having Grant more interested in the copycat crimes than the beautiful Kelly added to the comedy. Hitchcock surprisingly won many battles against the censors who tried to cut the double entendre dialogue. The “fireworks” scene survived when Hitchcock rejected sexy saxophone music for it, a more conventionally neutral score allowed the embrace to pass the censors.
Hayes said he wrote a dozen endings, but he, Hitchcock, Grant and Kelly could not agree on the right one. The film did not get enthusiastic reviews, but was a gigantic hit, one of the year’s top grossers. If you were to go back and read contemporary reviews of Hitchcock films, you would be shocked as how often they are dismissed as minor entertainments. Films in Review wrote “While Alfred Hitchcock’s latest is running off, everything is so ginger peachy only a churl would be inclined to find the time to remark how much the story resembles Limburger cheese—in that it is full of holes, is quite smelly (intellectually) but is wonderful during ingestion” (FIR 345) In the same issue, they disdained both Night of the Hunter and The Seven Year Itch. The public made Hitchcock’s amusing caper an enormous hit.
Hitchcock’s birthday party on set.
So many times I have had the experience of watching a familiar film with an audience and enjoying it in a tremendous new way. The sold out crowd at the North Carolina Museum of Art loved the film, which was breathtaking in a 35mm print, and in a strange VistaVision aspect ratio…not quite wide screen. Afterwards, one audience member said to me, “I always considered this film a B+, but after seeing it like this, it is definitely an A.” “While Rear Window continues to inspire serious analysis and to support Hitchcock’s artistic reputation, To Catch a Thief remains unabashedly escapist. The fabulous scenery, the deceptive humor, the romantic alchemy—the director somehow pulled it all off, conjuring a film that begs comparison to the work of Ernst Lubitsch” (MGilligan 502).
Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light by Patrick McGilligan, The Complete Hitchcock by Paul Condon and Jim Sangster, Hitchcock/Truffaut, Writing with Hitchcock by Steven DeRosa, “To Catch a Thief” August September 1955 Films in Review, Cary Grant: A Bio Bibliography by Beverley Bare Buehrer, Cary Grant: In Name Only by Gary Morecambe and Martin Sterling, High Society: The Life of Grace Kelly by Donald Spoto, Grace Kelly Style by Kristina Haugland , Edith Head’s Hollywood by Edith Head and Paddy Calisto, Edith Head by David Chierichetti, Edith Head by Jay Jorgensen.
Shopping photo and ball gown portrait from Haugland, beach ensemble from Chierichetti, Kelly on Riveria from Spoto.