by Melissa Mazarakes
Alfred Hitchcock’s 1955 romantic thriller, To Catch a Thief, follows retired jewel thief John Robie, played by longtime collaborator Cary Grant in his third starring role for Hitchcock. In the film, Robie must save his infamous reputation from an imposter who is stealing not only his identity but using it to rob wealthy tourists vacationing on the shores the French Riviera. One of those tourists is Frances Stevens, played by Grace Kelly, also in her third film for Hitchcock, who the imposter has set his eyes on to rob since her mother has rare and expensive jewelry hidden in her room. The film has mature themes of theft, sex, innocence etc. but the tone of the story is very “lightweight” and has touches of humor between the characters of Robie and Frances, with their budding romance and especially the character of Jessie Stevens, Frances’ mother, who spends a large portion of the film in her room humorously commentating on the actions of the others. Even though the tone can be light at times, the subject matter that the film is speaking on is serious. Alfred Hitchcock was very dismissive that this wasn’t a “heavy hitting” story and did not want it to be viewed as lesser in value, since the reviews that were appearing after the premiere regarded the film as “lighthearted and clever”. Personally, I believe the tone of a film is supposed to guide you towards a feeling, not dismiss what is being said or done during the film. Even though humor is present, it does not dismiss the themes of betrayal of trust, with Frances not believing Robie when he says he is not the one responsible for the theft. Also, the theme of identity and claiming your reputation back as your own is a concurring theme throughout the film, with Robie feeling like he was robbed of something himself.
Throughout Alfred Hitchcock’s filmography, you see an endless motif of hands which recurs in almost all his films. There is even a website dedicated to all the shots of hands shown in his films over the years. In To Catch a Thief, one example of the motif is used to visualize the constant transaction of trust between the characters John and Frances, the constant back and forth if he earns her trust. Hitchcock also mostly likely used this motif because the plot doesn’t move forward unless the imposter uses his hands to acquire the tangible items; they represent greed in the film.
The theme of masquerade is used throughout the film to visualize that no one is whom they say, or they are masking their true selves. For example, in the masquerade finale, Hughson, the insurance agent, who for majority of the film remains away from theft taking place, uses a mask pretending to be Robie to fool the real burglar. This shows that Hughson, even though not involved with Robie’s plans, had a side of him unknown to others. This is a common theme throughout the film, as each character is not what they appear to be at first glimpse.
I agree that identity is a huge ongoing theme throughout this movie. For example, not only was the thief stealing Robbie’s identity, but in the end the imposter turned out to be someone we wouldn’t even expect. The masquerade was a great way to show this theme along with trying to trick not only the characters, but the viewers as well. Trust and betrayal were also portrayed well throughout the film. For example, Frances didn’t trust Robie and felt betrayed at first, but soon she was able to regain his trust and help him catch the real thief.
I agree with your belief on tone and the lightweightness of To Catch a Thief being more of a success than a failure for Hitchcock. He has a niche for allowing his audiences to feel the film while not glossing over the smaller details in between. Allowing humor caused that lightweighted feeling, but it did not take away from the film at all. It supported a balance of emotions and left a mark on his viewers. As you mentioned with the themes of betrayal and identity, I believe it was necessary to have some sort of relief and it seems his viewers believed that as well.
I fully agree with your statement about how the film “To Catch a Thief” does not dismiss the theme of betrayal of trust because you can say that for all of Hitchcock’s movies. You cannot trust anyone in these films, a good example is “Shadow Of a Doubt” in that film, Charlie calls up her Uncle Charlie because she wants to spice up her life a little bit. But, it turns out that the loving, good and harmless uncle she thought she knew and letting into her house was a lie, it turns out that Uncle Charlie is a serial killer and had taken the lives of three elderly women and robbed them. Another example would be the film “The 39 Steps” where the main character in that film was also framed for a crime he did not commit because a betrayal of trust.
To Catch a Thief is probably my favorite Hitchcock film that we’ve seen so far. It’s just so visually appealing, both in terms of composition and cinematography. I’m still reeling from the “poulet” moment during the police chase. It’s even funnier and more strategically appropriate when you consider that “poulets” is a popular slang term for police officers in France. So perhaps he was referencing that as well.
I agree with you on the shift in trust dynamics in this film, I believe Hitchcock plays with the audience. Because we never know which side to take. It’s almost as if he celebrates mistrust not only between the characters but also between the audience and the film. We never know who the true innocent person is, and just as we are settling for someone, he surprises us and betrays us over and over again. So much so that by the end of the film, we’re almost as desperate to prove John Robbie’s innocence as if it were our own.