To Catch a Thief - The Prototype James Bond Film?

Hitchcock's North By Northwest is often called the 'first unofficial Bond film' in that its blend of action and sophisticaton and dapper leading man helped inform what James Bond could be like on the big screen. Another film directed by Alfred Hitchcock though also has strong claims to have influenced the Bond series - and even had the same leading man as North By Northwest. To Catch a Thief is a 1955 film based on a 1952 novel by David Dodge. The impossibly suave John Robie (Cary Grant) lives in a plush villa on the French Riviera and is a retired international jewel thief who was once known as "The Cat". Robie, a former circus acrobat, hasn't pilfered any gems for years and earned a pardon for his colourful past when he joined the French Resistance during the war. However, when a spate of jewel thefts occurs in the area Robie suddenly comes under suspicion - especially as the robberies bear all the hallmarks of his work. "I can't understand how this thief can imitate me so perfectly," muses a puzzled Robie. "It's someone who knew my technique, maybe somebody in the police. He picks perfect victims and the right stones. Goes up walls, over roofs, leaves no clue and disappears in the night."
The police decide to arrest Robie but he manages to give them the slip in the hills and takes a bus to Cannes. Robie decides he can only clear his name by finding the real culprit and looks up some of his French Resistance connections - who let it be known that they think he is probably guilty and feel let down. The innocent Robie is now a wanted man but a meeting with insurance agent Hughson (John Williams) gives him a good idea of where the jewel thief might possibly strike next. The wealthy American socialites Jessie Stevens (Jessie Royce Landis) and her daughter Frances (Grace Kelly) look the most likely candidates and - posing as a rich lumber baron and prospective suitor for Frances - Robie becomes friendly with both of them in order to be very close when the real jewel thief makes his next move.
One of Alfred Hitchcock's fluffiest films, To Catch a Thief is still great fun, not least for the sight of the ultra sophisticated Cary Grant and Grace Kelly swanning around the French Riviera as they banter in suggestive innuendo laden fashion, drive sleek convertibles along little winding hillside roads, sip champagne and share picnic hampers which they eat alfresco under the sun with a backdrop of slanted rooftops and blue waters. "Why did I take up stealing?" explains Robie to Hughson when asked. "To live better, to own things I couldn't afford, to acquire this good taste that you now enjoy and which I should be very reluctant to give up."
Yes, this all very James Bond as vintage cars drive around lovely locations and the stars venture forth witty (and suggestive) banter. There is definitely a lot from these Cary Grant/Hitchcock films that Broccoli and Saltzman picked up on when they launched the Bond franchise with Sean Connery. It's little wonder really that Cary Grant was courted for the part of 007 by Broccoli although, as the star conceded himself, he was probably a little long in the tooth by the early 1960s to seriously consider accepting the part. It was a shrewd decision in the end to go for a much younger and lesser known actor to play Bond in Dr No. The elements in To Catch a Thief that seem to anticipate the Bond films naturally include - of course - some lavish and colourful casino sequences where Cary Grant dons a tuxedo.
The sprawling vineyards and Grand hotels of southern France make a fitting playground for Cary Grant's urbane Robie and a wonderful backdrop for the film as a whole. The story in To Catch a Thief perhaps isn't the most inspired or complex to ever feature in a Hitchcock film and subsequently the picture is generally regarded to be one of his lighter and less important offerings. This is somewhat unfair though because you get the impression that Hitchcock just wanted to have some fun and present a mystery in a more relaxed and playful way. The witty exchanges between the stars are always enjoyable and the pretty locations make you feel like you are on holiday yourself with these characters.
I quite like too how Hitchcock takes us from the sun-drenched exteriors into shadowy interiors when intrigue surfaces in the film. You may or may not work it all out for yourself before the film is over but the central mystery is glossy fun and it's hard to resist any film that has Cary Grant playing a retired jewel thief who is pressed back into action. There is style and sophistication to spare here with Grant, who must surely be one of the greatest film stars ever to grace the screen, soon catching the eye of socialite Jessie Stevens - who immediately decides he might make a good suitor for her daughter Frances. "Sorry I ever sent her to finishing school," says Jessie. "I think they finished her there."
Cary Grant is his usual elegant self in To Catch a Thief and makes George Clooney look like David Thewlis. He resembles a mature James Bond in his tuxedo and is one of the few people who can get away with a cravat or red neckscarf. There are some notable scenes revolving around food in To Catch a Thief that are worth a mention. Frances drives Robie high up in the hills - evading the French police in the process - and then produces a hamper for an alfresco lunch overlooking colourful bougainvilleas and the sparkling sea. "Do you want a leg or a breast?" she asks after producing some cold chicken. "You make the choice," replies a deadpan Robie. To Catch a Thief is like an incredibly sophisticated Carry On film in its more risque moments.
There is a food related scene in the film I love (because it has been rendered very amusing by the passage of time) where Robie serves Hughson a cultured and poncy lunch that impresses his guest a great deal. "What's this?" asks a baffled Hughson. "Ah, this," replies Robie proudly. "It's called a Quiche Lorraine. You'll like it." The ethereal Grace Kelly is more than a match for Grant with a range of expensive outfits and a slyness lurking just beneath her icy reserve as she dispenses numerous suggestive lines and asides while playing cat and mouse with Robie - the point being you are never quite sure who is the cat and who is the mouse.
To Catch a Thief is reminiscent of what the James Bond films used to be like in the sixties with a heightened sense of style and reality and attractive, cultivated people living the high life in exotic locations. The costumes, cinematography and playful score by composer Lyn Murray are all great strengths of the picture too. The only flaws that tend to stick out to modern eyes are some dated back projection work during driving scenes (ironically also a flaw of the early Bonds) and a few bits where we are obviously in a studio rather than outdoors. The dubbing of of Charles Vanel as Bertani, one of Robie's old French Resistance muckers, is rather obvious too. These elements are more than offset though by the witty script ("From where I sat it looked as though you were conjugating some irregular verbs") and some memorable sequences - like the lavish costume ball where all the women are wearing expensive jewellery and a famous fireworks sequence during a romantic moment. To Catch a Thief is a highly entertaining and stylish distraction with two wonderful leads.
- Jake


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