Friday, 11 November 2016

Film Friday: "To Catch a Thief" (1955)

This week on "Film Friday," I am honoring Grace Kelly's 87th birthday, which is tomorrow, by telling you a little about what is arguably one of her most iconic films. This was also the picture that gave her a first glimpse at her future realm.

Original release poster
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, To Catch a Thief (1955) concerns John Robie (Cary Grant), a former world-famous jewel thief known as "The Cat," who now lives in the French Riviera. Although he insists he is retired, having repented for his crimes during World War II, he nevertheless becomes the chief suspect when a series of robberies take place. Realizing that the only way to prove his innocence is by catching the thief himself, Robie seeks the help of his old friend, restauranteur Bertani (Charles Vanel), asking him for information about his wealthy customers. Spotted by police detectives as he is leaving the restaurant, Robie manages to escape with the assistance of Foussard (Jean Martinelli), one of Bertani's workers, and his flirtatious teenage daughter Danielle (Brigitte Auber).

Later on, Robie receives a telephone call from Bertani instructing him to meet insurance investigator H. H. Hughson (John Williams), who provides him with a list of the most expensive jewelry owners currently on the Riviera. Topping the list are American widow Jessie Stevens (Jessie Royce Landis) and her refined daughter Francie (Grace Kelly). Pretending to be an American industrialist, Robie connives to meet both women while they are gambling at a casino. At first, Francie seems indifferent to his charms, but a romance soon develops between the two. Meanwhile, Jessie discovers that her jewels have been stolen and Robie is once again the prime suspect. To catch the new Cat, Robie stakes out the villa where he expects the burglar will be next. As he waits, he is grabbed by two attackers, one of whom falls from a cliff in the ensuing struggle. The dead man happens to be Foussard, who is identified by the police as being The Cat. Robie, however, knows that Foussard cannot be the burglar because he had a wooden leg. Continuing with his search for the real thief, Robie asks Francie to arrange his attendance at an upcoming masquerade ball, where he believes The Cat will strike again. Without Francie noticing it, Robie sneaks out to the roof and finally catches the thief, who turns out to be Danielle. She confesses to the police that she and her father were involved in the robberies and that Bertani was the leader of the gang. Back in his hilltop villa, Robie is reunited with Francie, who convinces him that she has a place in his life and home.

John Robie: You know as well as I do: this necklace is imitation.
Francie Stevens: Well, I'm not.

A former Certified Public Accountant, David Dodge began his writing career in the mid-1930s as a playwright for an amateur theatre group based in San Francisco, California. After the publication of some of his plays, he made a bet with his wife that he could write a better mystery novel than the ones they were reading during a rainy family vacation. Drawing on his professional experience as an accountant, Dodge developed Death and Taxes, which was published by Macmillan in 1941 and produced three sequels featuring the same protagonist, tax expert and reluctant detective James "Whit" Whitney. Upon being discharged from the U.S. Naval Reserve at the end of World War II, he left San Francisco and set out to Guatemala by car with his wife and five-year-old daughter. Their experiences along the way inspired Dodge to create another series character, Al Colby, an expatriate working as a private detective in Latin America. Following the release of the last of three Colby novels in 1950, Dodge decided to abandon series characters and shift his focus from detective mysteries to suspense adventures set in exotic locations around the world. His first effort was To Catch a Thief, the story of John "Le Chat" Robie, a retired jewel thief living in a luxurious villa on the Côte d'Azur, whose peace and quiet is disrupted by a copycat burglar. To Catch a Thief appeared first in Cosmopolitan magazine in December 1951 and became a great success after its publication in book form by Random House in 1952.

Meanwhile, British director Alfred Hitchcock signed a three-movie deal with Paramount Pictures. His first film under this new contract was the hugely successful Rear Window (1954), starring James Stewart and Grace Kelly, who had previously worked with Hitchcock in Rope (1948) and Dial M For Murder (1954), respectively. For his second project at Paramount, Hitchcock chose To Catch a Thief, which he had purchased from Dodge for $15,000 right after its publication in Cosmopolitan. In adapting the novel to the screen, Hitchcock collaborated with John Michael Hayes, who had penned Rear Window and would go on to writee The Trouble with Harry (1955) and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) for the director. Hayes later remarked, "On To Catch a Thief he [Hitchcock] got involved in the script work every day, which had not been true of Rear Window. The work was a pleasure for most of the time. What made us a good team was that he had such brilliant technique and knowledge of the visual, and ego and conviction; and I think I was able to bring him a warmth of characterization."

Grace Kelly and Cary Grant
When time came for casting, there were two people Hitchcock envisioned for the roles of John Robie and his love interest Francie Stevens: Cary Grant and Grace Kelly. Kelly immediately accepted the offer, but Grant had to be persuaded. Since Dream Wife (1953), Grant had turned down all film offers for the sake of his marriage to actress Betsy Drake, who preferred her husband stay at home with her and explore the adventure of their private life together. However, out of respect and admiration for Hitchcock, who had directed him to great success in Suspicion (1941) and Notorious (1946), Grant agreed to a meeting with the director. Hitchcock outlined the plot for Grant, who agreed to at least read the script, and then he added, "It might help you as you're reading, Grace Kelly has agreed to play the girl and a good part of the picture will be shot on the Riviera." With that, Grant was fast to accept the offer.

In an interview decades later, Grant declared Kelly his favorite leading lady, stating: "I think the most memorable and honest actress I've ever worked with was Grace Kelly. Don't misunderstand. I appreciated Ingrid Bergman, Audrey Hepburn, Deborah Kerr, Irene Dunne, Kate Hepburn, and all the women I worked with. Grace had a kind of serenity, a calmness, that I hadn't arrived at at that point in my life - and perhaps never will for all I know. She was so relaxed in front of the camera that she made it look simple. She made acting look as easy as Frank Sinatra made singing appear. Everyone thinks they can sing after an evening at the theatre listening to Frank, but to create that sense of ease takes a tremendous amount of knowledge and experience and talent. Grace was astonishing. When you played a scene with her, she really listened. She was right there with you. She was Buddha-like in her concentration. She was like Garbo in that respect."

Cary Grant and Grace Kelly on a break from filming
In May 1954, cast and crew of To Catch a Thief sailed to the French Riviera for location shooting. They filmed in Cannes, including the Carlton Hotel and the Goldman villa; Tourrettes; La Turbie; Eze; Gourdon; Nice; Cagnes-sur-Mere; Speracedes; and Monte-Carlo, including the Hotel Metropole. During shooting in the Riviera, Kelly spied a beautiful, walled garden she wanted to tour, but arrangements with the owner, Prince Rainier III of Monaco, could not be made in time. Within two years, Kelly would marry the Prince and be mistress of that garden. For the high-speed chase scene, she was required to do her own driving, even though she was not a confident driver. In 1982, she would die from injuries sustained in a car crash in a similar winding Riviera road.

To Catch a Thief did not open for almost a year after shooting was completed, because Hithcock had to work on his new television series while editing the film. It finally had its "world premiere" at the Paramount Theatre in New York on August 4, 1955. Despite all the fanfare and promotion, the film received mixed reviews from critics. The Hollywood Citizen-News wrote, "To Catch a Thief is not the thriller it could have been." Variety agreed: "While a suspense thread is present, director Alfred Hitchcock doesn't emphasize it, letting the yarn play lightly for comedy more than thrills." Bosley Crowther of The New York Times was more favorable: "The script and the actors keep things popping, in a fast, slick, sophisticated vein. [...] To Catch a Thief does nothing but give out a good, exciting time." In defiance of all the doubts, however, the film was massive commercial success, eventually becoming the biggest hit of the first half of the 1950s. The popularity of To Catch a Thief caught the attention of Queen Elizabeth II, who chose the film for screening at the annual royal command performance in September 1955. Shot in Technicolor and the widescreen process VistaVision, the film won an Academy Award for Best Cinematography (Color) and was nominated for Best Art Direction (Color) and Best Costume Design (Color).

Cary Grant: A Biography by Marc Eliot (2009) | Grace: A Biography by Thilo Wydra (2014) | Hitchcock's Stars: Alfred Hitchcock and the Hollywood Studio System by Lesley L. Coffin (2014) | TCMDb (Articles) |   TCMDb (Notes) | The New York Times reviewVariety review

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