To Catch a Thief - The Prototype James Bond Film?
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."
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.
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."
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.
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
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."
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.
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.
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.