If North by Northwest was a roller coaster ride, then To Catch a Thief was a slightly more sedate roller coaster in a ritzier neighborhood. About as inconsequential as a movie can be, this third collaboration between Alfred Hitchcock and Cary Grant succeeds effortlessly on wit, scenery and star power.
John Robie (Grant) is a reformed jewel thief with a colorful past, living in style on a French vineyard. He earned his parole from prison fifteen years earlier by agreeing to fight for the Resistance in World War II. Now there is a jewel thief imitating his method in a series of thefts along the French Riviera. Naturally, the police think that Robie, who was known as “The Cat,” has gone back to his thieving ways.
Robie evades arrest long enough to contact his old Resistance cell (and fellow parolees), who now run a restaurant, but they don’t appreciate the attention they’re getting from the police. About the only one who will help him is Danielle (Brigitte Auber), who is the daughter of an old comrade and has a bit of a crush on him.
The ex-thief figures that the only way to prove his innocence is to catch the new thief in the act, by attempting to guess the thief’s next move and be waiting. To that end he works a contact in the insurance industry (John Williams) to find a list of the most tempting targets.
On the top of that list is Jessie Stevens (Jessie Royce Landis, who would go on to play Grant’s mother in North by Northwest), the widow of an American oil millionaire, who’s in Europe to find a “proper” husband for her daughter, Frances (Grace Kelly).
Frances sees through Robie’s cover story as an American businessman on vacation. She figures out who he is and, like everyone else, assumes that he’s guilty. Rather than turn him in, she thinks it would be a laugh to know a “real” jewel thief (in the Biblical sense) and maybe even be his accomplice.
The whole plot of this film is just an excuse for us to watch Cary Grant being witty and Grace Kelly being Grace Kelly, and that’s all it really needs to be. To Catch a Thief is a perfect vehicle for two actors who were among the biggest stars in a time when we still had proper movie stars. Grace Kelly was not only beautiful but she could take headstrong, brash, and frankly unladylike (for the time) and make it seem wholesomely all-American. I look out at even the biggest names among today’s top actresses, and I don’t see her equal.
It’s a good thing the star power carries the film, because the plot only works if you don’t think about it at all. Even if you just think just a little, you realize that there about a thousand ways for Robie to accomplish his goal that are 1000 percent easier and safer, but then he would not have gotten to spend 100 minutes juggling the attentions of Grace Kelly and Brigitte Auber. Life’s rough, Grant. Life’s rough.
The only thing that really mars this film are scenes with Bertani, Robie’s old resistance cell leader, played by french actor and director Charles Vanel. The actor apparently spoke no English or not enough for the role, and the English dubbing in his scenes is not just bad, but embarrassingly bad. It probably would have been much more effective to have Vanel learn his lines phonetically, like Bela Lugosi did for Dracula.
But that can’t detract too much from the gorgeous scenery, Oscar-winning cinematography and the pure unadulterated pleasure of watching Cary Grant and Grace Kelly remind us what it once meant to be movie stars.