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Even Masters of Suspense sometimes need a vacation. After his success with Rear Window (1954), Alfred Hitchcock found a unique way to go on holiday, traveling to the beaches of Southern France to make his next movie, To Catch a Thief (1955).
However, the trip and movie had to pay for themselves. Hitch already had box-office gold in Grace Kelly, making her third consecutive appearance in one of his films. The gold would go to platinum, however, if he could nab the perfect actor for the lead, Cary Grant.
Grant, unfortunately, had just announced his retirement from acting. For Hitchcock, though, he would at least hear him out over a poolside lunch. The director outlined the plot for the star; a jewel thief who became a hero in the French Resistance is suspected of taking up his old ways when a series of robberies plague the wealthy set. To keep the gendarmes off his back, he has to track down the real bandit. Grant agreed to read the script although he warned Hitchcock not to get his hopes up. Hitch kept the bombshell until the end of the meeting. "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." Cary Grant may have been set on retirement, but he was only human. Who could turn down a job offer like that?
For the screenplay, Hitchcock collaborated with John Michael Hayes, who had penned his previous film, Rear Window. Hayes remarked (in The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock by Donald Spoto), "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." As a result the dialogue was extremely playful and witty, particularly memorable for its many sexual puns and double entendres. For example, there's the picnic scene when Kelly offers Grant some cold chicken, "Do you want a leg or a breast?"
Grant: "You make the choice."
Kelly: "Tell me, how long has it been?
Grant: "Since what?"
Kelly: "Since you were in America last."
Or the famous fireworks scene where Kelly approaches Grant in her sexy, strapless evening gown and says, "If you really want to see fireworks, it's better with the lights off. I have a feeling that tonight you're going to see one of the Riviera's most fascinating sights. I'm talking about the fireworks, of course."
Other memorable scenes from To Catch a Thief include the elaborate costume ball which Hitchcock wanted to film merely to showcase Kelly's shimmering gold gown and Grant's unmasking of the thief on the rooftop. "John Michael Hayes recalled that, during the filming of the final rooftop sequence, Hitchcock summoned him up to the high scaffolding. "Look at them all down there," the director said to his writer. "They think we're discussing something important or profound. But I only wanted to find out whether you're as frightened of heights as I am." (From The Dark Side of Hitchcock).
As expected, there was a potent on-screen sexual chemistry between Grant and Kelly. But while Grant may have been tempted by his co-star off screen she was definitely off limits. Besides, Grant was accompanied by his wife Betsy and Kelly by her boyfriend Oleg Cassini. However, Kelly's future husband was an off screen presence. During shooting in Monaco, Kelly spied a beautiful, walled garden she wanted to tour but arrangements with the owner, Prince Rainier, could not be made in time. Within a couple of years, Kelly would marry the Prince and be mistress of that garden.
Kelly's marriage was a boon to Monaco's royalty but a loss for movie acting as Grant learned during filming. "She reduced acting to its simplest form. Grace made acting look easy, the way Joe Louis made boxing look easy, so simple. Sometimes you see an artist work and you say, 'Oh, I could do that.' It's only those who have worked the hardest and longest who can make it look that simple."
Grant's praise could extend to To Catch a Thief as well. Critics, searching for deep meaning and themes in Hitchcock's work, were put off by this movie's effervescence, all beautiful people in elegant costumes delivering sexy, suggestive dialogue in lush, Technicolor surroundings. It all looks so easy but Grant and Hitchcock both knew that such ease could only be achieved by masters who know their craft very well.
Producer/director: Alfred Hitchcock
Writer: John Michael Hayes based on the novel by David Dodge
Cinematographer: Robert Burks
Editor: George Tomasini
Music: Lyn Murray
Cast: Cary Grant (John Robie), Grace Kelly (Frances Stevens), Jessie Royce Landis (Jessie Stevens), John Williams (H.H. Hughson), Charles Vanel (Bertani), Brigitte Auber (Danielle Foussard).
C-107m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Brian Cady