A Fine Romance Friday: To Catch a Thief

I’ve become a stress wraith. It’s the beginning of summer, I still have two weeks to work before my kids are done with school, I’ve been writing more than I have in years…and I’m feel like I’m about to shatter. It’s the situation in the world, I know, and looming deadlines and goals (all self-imposed), but my nerves are raw, exposed, and frayed.

When I get like this, it’s hard to read. I can’t seem to make my mind to settle long enough to digest prose. Even concentrating on a movie is hard because the things I should be doing keep exploding into my head. I find myself re-reading and re-watching both because those acts require less concentration but because I know what I’m getting into. The emotional pleasures of the re-watch are guaranteed.

So when I saw it was on Netflix, I instantly pressed play on Alfred Hitchcock’s 1955 romantic heist To Catch a Thief.

If somehow you haven’t seen it, our story is fairly simple: John Robie (Grant) spent many years as a notorious burglar known as The Cat. He’s retired to the French Riviera, but when jewelry starts to go missing, the cops come after him. Robie has to unmask the real thief before either the authorities jail him or the old members of his criminal gang take matters into their own hands and silence Robie for good.

Into this tangle comes Frances Stevens, played by an absolutely radiant Grace Kelly. She’s a cold, restless American heiress whose mother owns diamonds the unknown thief is stalking. Frances sees Robie as an interesting distraction, and intrigue and sparks fly.

The pleasures of To Catch a Thief are several fold. First, in my opinion, it’s tied with Notorious as the sexiest Hitchcock film. (ICYMI, I wrote about Notorious here.) Hitchcock’s treatment of romance and sexual attraction/obsession is often either deeply creepy, as in Psycho or Vertigo, or isn’t entirely convincing, as in Rear Window or North by Northwest.

Admittedly, romance isn’t Hitchcock’s main thematic interest, so the love plots are often secondary to the suspense ones, but it is a persistent theme for him and Hitchcock films sometimes end with what look like happily ever afters. I would argue that Rear Window, for example, is far more interested in Grace Kelly’s problem than in Jimmy Stewart’s. After all at the conclusion, they’re engaged and he now has two broken legs. She’s gotten what she wanted; him, not so much. But I digress.

To return to my first point, To Catch a Thief works for me as a romance and not just because the ending is happy. Robie and Stevens have goal-motivation-conflict arcs. He wants to use her mother’s jewels to catch the new cat; she and the authorities keep getting in the way. She’s wants to use him and his problem to entertain herself, but he keeps resisting her advances. She slowly proves herself to him and at the end of the movie, he finally lets her catch him.

In the fireworks kissing sequence, we also have probably the most explicit (though figurative) scene in Hitchcock’s oeuvre. I can’t find it online, but if you haven’t seen the movie, it’s worth watching for that alone. Who says studio-era Hollywood was absolutely chaste?

Additionally, Grant is his normal suave self, but it’s Kelly’s character I want to linger on. Specifically, I think Frances Stevens enters a dialogue about the “American girl abroad” that begins with Henry James’s 1878 novella Daisy Miller. I’m going to go ahead and spoil it for you: Daisy is a rich and naive traveler who meets the bored American Winterbourne at a Swiss hotel. They engage in a flirtation, but they cannot form a true romantic connection though he’s intrigued by her. When they meet several months later in Rome, she’s carrying on a love affair with an Italian. Winterbourne and her mother try to convince Daisy to break things off with the Italian, but she won’t, and after an “inappropriate” late-night visit to the Colosseum, she contracts a fever and dies.

Daisy and Frances aren’t identical. Daisy feels far emotion more than the “ice queen” Frances does. Additionally, Daisy is delighted by Europe and isn’t at all self-conscious, while Frances is embarrassed by her mother’s lack of sophistication and feels nothing but ennui about the places they’ve been. Daisy has trouble seeing herself as others do and frankly doesn’t care about the opinions of others, while everything Frances does is about self-presentation and performance.

But despite those differences, I can’t help but read Frances’s sexual expression and happy ending as a revision of the tragedy and cautionary tale of the earlier work. Hitchcock suggests that American women are no longer innocents abroad who will be corrupted and destroyed by greater experience with the world. It’s a welcome development.

Finally, the costumes and glimpses into the mid-century Riviera are great. Kelly is at her absolute best here in terms of her performance and beauty, but a sequence in which she drives Robie to a picnic and loses police who are chasing them is also impossible to watch given her death on Riviera roads almost thirty years later. But the cinematography (all the shadows! the oversaturated colors!) are gorgeous throughout.

If somehow you haven’t seen it (and maybe even moreso if you have), I commend this sexy heist to you. It’s the perfect way to refresh your mind on a summer night.

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