Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest has been often interpreted as his version of a James Bond picture. However, To Catch a Thief is equally worthy of consideration for the crown. Cary Grant’s John Robie (a former cat burglar) has to go undercover with a fake alias in an exotic location (the French Riviera) and catches the eye of a beautiful woman- Frances Stevens (Grace Kelly). Kelly’s character has a Bond nickname of sorts. She prefers that everyone calls her Francie. Okay. It’s not a cringe-worthy name that resides in innuendo town, but it’s cute. Barring a world domination plot, an egomaniacal villain who likes to monologue, and a gimmicky henchman whose primary occupation is scowling: To Catch a Thief is a pleasant and witty primer to the Bond franchise.
Like the famous spy franchise, it’s an appealing travelogue with the lush French Riviera taking centre stage. However, unlike the franchise, it’s a heightened fantasy with much more humble ambitions. Instead of presenting an appealing lifestyle filled full of adventure, intrigue and hedonist fulfilment, Thief is about the moment to moment delights.
This comes from John Michael Hayes’s screenplay that’s filled with such wit that you could feel the writer hugging himself after each zinger. It’s intentionally catty (particularly between Stevens and her mother). But it’s also filled with joyful curiosity. The dialogue is used as a tool to tease and unmask, particularly illustrated in Robie’s and Steven’s combative but flirtatious relationship. In this way, To Catch a Thief is about the power of the encounter, meeting someone, figuring out their motives and trying to unpick them with sharpness.
Cary Grant has always come across as the affable reluctant hero. He’s also someone who’s on the cheerier side of Humphrey Bogart in portraying his cynicism and annoyance at his plight. However, his performance in Thief is striking for its flickers of humanity. These come in moments where he’s protesting his innocence, hinting at a quiet desperation for people to understand him. But his best moment is when Stevens and a French girl he meets called Danielle Foussard (Brigitte Auber) are trading barbs and he’s caught in the middle. Stevens asks him- “Enjoying yourself, Mr Burns?” Nearly every Bond actor would have played that moment like an amorous Cheshire cat. But Grant’s facial expressions hint at a relatable awkwardness.
Grace Kelly is impressive in portraying a sense of nonchalance and scepticism that make her character intriguing. But her later moments of elation at discovering Grant’s character make the actress particularly impressive. She balances a sense of girlish glee and seductiveness in wanting to be complicit as Robie’s partner in crime.
Nowadays, we often think of Hitchcock as a cinematic auteur whose films contained strange and interesting subtext of his predilections towards his actresses (among other things). However, before this French revisionism of his work (courtesy of François Truffaut), the British director was thought of as a populist who made light fare. To Catch a Thief is an encapsulation of this pre-Truffaut mindset.
Hitchcock’s direction is playful. There’s a sense of wryness going on behind the camera, particularly in the opening robbery that’s juxtaposed with a slinking cat. Even Hitch’s trademark tension has this quality. A shotgun is set up and used as a prank to fool the audience as well as the French police that Robie is attempting to escape from.
To Catch a Thief may not hold a candle to other Hitchcock films, it’s nevertheless, spirited, enjoyable and embodies the director as a skilled craftsman of well put together features. Its screenplay and main actors lead the way in making the film charming. Along with North by Northwest, the film deserves recognition in inspiring the Bond franchise.