The panoramic allure of To Catch a Thief—its blatant reveling in the beauty of lush settings and glamorous movie stars—has often led critics to downgrade its place in Alfred Hitchcock’s oeuvre. Indeed, the director himself encouraged a view of it as little more than a frothy diversion: A “vacation movie,” he told an interviewer, yet from the very beginning (a shock-cut from a touristic pamphlet on a display window to a woman shrieking into the camera) it’s clear that the Master has packed his obsessions along with his luggage. John Robie, a.k.a. “The Cat” (Cary Grant), is an ex-jewel thief who, upfront about his ill-gotten riches (“frankly dishonest” is how he’s blithely described to John Williams’s anxious security agent), savors retirement in a home overlooking the French Mediterranean coast. A series of diamond robberies places him as the main suspect, and, with both the police and his former Resistance comrades on his trail, he sets out to trap the real burglar. The innocent man on the run is an unmistakable Hitchcock trope, yet the culprit’s identity is his least urgent MacGuffin, less a thrust for suspense than a reason to get John to the French Riviera and into the hands of Frances (Grace Kelly), the lovely daughter of a wealthy American widow (a rich caricature by Jessie Royce Landis).
Hitchcock and screenwriter John Michael Hayes posited voyeuristic spectacle as the essence of cinema in Rear Window; in To Catch a Thief they validate their thesis with plenty of spectacle to be voyeuristic over. Simply as a sample of Hollywood refreshment, it’s a smashing product, with acres of sensation on display for audience consumption—from Cary Grant’s bronzed, middle-aged elegance to a dozen travelogues’ worth of paradisiacal French vistas. Yet it is also more. Taking off from Lubitsch’s great metaphor of stealing-as-sex in Trouble in Paradise, Hitchcock uses the teasing, innuendo-laden romance growing between John and Frances to explore the various masks people wear in relationships (Landis complains about the “cold diamonds” against her warm skin), a view acknowledged in the glitzy costume ball which culminates the intrigue. Just as the cat burglar fits his smooth amorality into a tuxedo, so does the classy ingénue’s chilly poise hide intimations of assertive, kinky desire, and you can practically hear France’s soft moan of disappointment when she learns of John’s innocence. Delectably embodying the film’s fire/ice schism, Kelly is perhaps Hitchcock’s ultimate glacial blonde, drifting sexily with an amused appreciation for the director’s risqué gags, both verbal (“I bet you told her all your trees were sequoias”) and visual (her seduction of Grant intercut with the fireworks ejaculating outside). Like the film, she’s a svelte confection with perverse depths.