I recently caught To Catch a Thief at The Prytania, New Orleans’s oldest operating cinema. It was an early morning matinee where the theater’s ancient, adorable operator introduced the Hitchcock thriller with half-remembered stories about cameos & eggs and promises of complimentary coffee & cake after the screening. I knew nothing of the picture before I arrived to the theater except its stars, Cary Grant & Grace Kelly, as advertised on the poster. Before Rene Brunet’s introductory story about Hitchcock’s hatred of eggs, I didn’t even know who directed it. What followed was a Technicolor dream of gorgeous visual indulgences in simple pleasures like flowers & fireworks, beautiful people exploring even more beautiful locales, and a nonstop assault of witty, but juvenile sex jokes. I’ve certainly been more impressed with Hitchcock as a visual craftsman & a generator of suspense in more prestigious pictures like Psycho or Rear Window, but I’ve had never had more fun watching one of his films as an all-around entertainment experience. It was the exact exhilarating feeling of seeing high art visual craft married with the genre film pleasures of a trashy heist plot people have been gushing over Baby Driver for (even though I didn’t quite enjoy that Edgar Wright work myself). That’s why it deeply saddened me after the screening to learn that To Catch a Thief is widely considered to be a “lesser Hitchcock” and a dismissible, frivolous picture.
Cary Grant starts as a retired jewel thief known in the papers as The Cat, thanks to the gymnastic stealth needed to pull off his heists. Hanging up his cat burglar’s costume in the years since World War II, The Cat is attempting to live a quiet life outside of crime. He’s not quite a Robin Hood figure; he kept all the money he stole before the war. He did make a point only to steal from “those who wouldn’t go hungry,” though, which does have a sort of nobility to it. His peaceful retirement is interrupted when a copycat thief begins to stage crimes that fit his exact M.O., raising police suspicion that The Cat is back on the prowl. Grant’s handsome, ex-criminal protagonist decides to catch the new burglar himself (recalling OJ Simpson’s mission to “find the real killer”) with the help of an insurance agent who might be able to predict the next victim based on his clients’ claimed jewelry. This leads him to a Cannes Beach Club where he’s shamelessly flirted with by a young debutante played by Grace Kelly, whose mother’s jewels are in imminent danger of being stolen. The mystery of who the copycat jewel thief is doesn’t feel as complex or as suspenseful as the central mystery of most Hitchcock films, as the answer is fairly obvious earlier than it likely should be. This doesn’t matter in the slightest. The lush colors, playful mood, and overly stylized production value of To Catch a Thief make for a film so fun it feels like an outright comedy while still holding claim to some of the most striking imagery Hitchcock ever produced.
To Catch a Thief plays with the same lush production design & Technicolor lighting that made Douglas Sirk’s 1950s “women’s pictures” like All That Heaven Allows feel like high art despite their shameless indulgence in melodrama. A foot chase through a flower market, a swim on a French beach, or a picnic on the edge of a cliff, all in proudly-boasted “VistaVision”: you can tell this was an expensive production, made with Major Studio pride. What makes it such a delight, however, is that Hitchcock perverted those Sirk sensibilities with the tawdry jokes about boobs & Grace Kelly’s virginity. This clash is most glorious in a hotel room scene where Kelly’s young flirt is seducing Grant’s retired criminal, only for their attraction to be consummated with a Technicolor fireworks display. It’s scene that encapsulates everything To Catch a Thief is in its best moments: funny, sexy, gorgeous, and crude. A more sophisticated palette might better appreciate the tightly controlled tension of a Rear Window, but give my raccoonish taste buds the pretty colors and cheeky sex jokes of To Catch a Thief any day. Hitchcock’s perverted humor usually lurks in the corners of his best respected thrillers, but here it runs wild, swimming in its skivvies on gorgeous French beaches and sneaking across rooftops looking for hearts & jewels to steal through bedroom windows. It breaks my heart to hear that kind of immediate pleasure isn’t better respected.
I don’t mean to imply that there’s no tact or taste to To Catch a Thief’s humor. An early montage of a black cat sneaking across roofs to steal jewels, a literal cat burglar, feels a lot like the director’s peak form as a humorous craftsman. There’s also an early chase scene involving several fake-outs that’s almost Friedkin-esque in its clear staging of cat & mouse police pressure. Going in expecting the typical meticulous hand the director brings to his work might be a mistake, however. To Catch a Thief seems to be entirely a result of Hitchcock letting loose, having fun with the romantic & mysterious set-ups of his easygoing narrative. Even the double meaning of the film’s title (as both Kelly & Grant are attempting to catch a thief of their own) suggests that the whole thing is a kind of off-hand joke. Watching a world-class craftsman afford that joke the visual care & lusty passion that should likely be reserved for a more refined work makes it feel like jokey genre fodder elevated to the heights of fine art. If the world has room in its heart to praise the much lesser Baby Driver for achieving that exact kind of heist film elevation, I’d hope there’d also be room for an undervalued Hitchcock title to retroactively receive that same treatment.