Set against the backdrop of the French Riviera and filled with azure blue seas and panoramic vistas of Nice, Cannes and Monte Carlo, To Catch A Thief is one of Hitchcock’s most glamorous films. By shooting in VistaVision – Paramount’s answer to Cinemascope – Hitch and cinematographer Robert Burks captured a nostalgic snapshot of the region, less hedonistic and debauched than Fitzgerald’s Tender Is The Night would have us believe, but a romance-enabling landscape where jewel thieves go to retire and well-to-do Americans holiday. This wasn’t the first full-length feature to be shot in VistaVision, and the studio cajoled the director into it against his wishes, but it was arguably one of the format’s early successes, with Burks winning an Academy Award for his efforts.
Despite its beauty, To Catch A Thief is a regularly overlooked Hitchcock film. It certainly lacks the suspense of his best-known works but that’s because it’s pure escapist fantasy; crafted to delight and entertain the audience. Grace Kelly and Cary Grant have a relaxed and easy chemistry; screenwriter John Michael Hayes (previously responsible for Rear Window) was able to get some tongue-in-cheek double entendres past the censorship board, including the picnic scene where Kelly offers Grant some chicken: “Do you want a leg or a breast?”, “You make the choice.” In one of the film’s most famous scenes, Hitch utilised the power of suggestion with a not-so-subtle cut to exploding fireworks during a kissing scene. The board cautioned the director, suggesting he cut the scene, but he refused, instead opting to re-record the score.
Loosely based on a novel by David Dodge, Thief’s plot is a love story in disguise. Following a spate of jewel thefts, retired cat burglar John Robie (Grant) finds himself prime suspect. Robie protests his innocence but, thanks to the new Cat replicating his methods, finds his pleas fall on deaf ears. Robie sets out to uncover the truth and clear his name and, in the process, meets the wealthy Frances Stevens (Kelly), who’s holidaying in the Riviera with her mother. Mother is sure Robie is quite the catch, but Frances is determined to play it cool. A cat-and-mouse romance is played out alongside Robie’s jewel thief investigation, with Frances lending her talents.
The Riviera backdrop demanded an appropriately glamorous wardrobe for Kelly, and Hitch’s long-time costume collaborator Edith Head was happy to oblige. The director, always very particular about his leading ladies and their dress, had already established Kelly’s persona as a ‘credible hybrid of elegance and sex’ and To Catch A Thief was an extension of this. Although the costumes were designed and made in Hollywood, Head was invited to the set in France, something that rarely happened to costume designers. According to Edith Head’s Hollywood, the director was aware they were shooting in one of the world’s fashion capitals – ‘it’s the place where style is created’ – and wanted the costumes to look the part.
The audience is first introduced to Frances Stevens in an ice blue chiffon evening gown that celebrates her blondeness whilst accentuating her goddess credentials. Held up by lim spaghetti straps which emphasise Kelly’s golden-apricot tan, the fitted bodice is detailed with a knot that drapes into the waist and the skirt, and styled with a coordinating chiffon scarf and matchy-matchy clutch bag. This gal has money, and her attire reflects it. Head’s design pays homage to Dior’s New Look, which was unveiled in 1947 – the year during which the 1955-released To Catch A Thief is set. Dior’s gowns were reworked for the American market almost immediately, and this is an interpretation of it, setting Frances Stevens apart from her surrounds and defining her wealth and elegance. Considering the period, blue is a bold choice for a young single woman, but it’s likely that Hitch and Head were keen to amp up the cool aspects of Kelly’s character, depicting her as an ice-cold maiden who won’t be taken in by Grant’s charms.
The second costume to make an impact (although the third of 10 designs) is a monochrome outfit, topped with an uncomfortable-looking wide-brimmed hat. Frances wears the outfit to meet John in the hotel lobby, the duo are bound for the beach. This is ‘practical’ Hollywood resort wear at it’s finest: the white drawstring skirt is actually worn with a halterneck top and over capri pants. The hat accentuates Kelly’s beauty and enhances her spectacular entrance but she wears it awkwardly, possibly because it’s a crownless design (worn over a turban) that would have fallen off at the slightest movement. The overall look is elegant, if not a little ridiculous, and is an interesting counterpoint to the elegance the ice blue evening gown projects.
To symbolise the fledgling romance between Stevens and Robie, Head designed a coral pink day suit. Apparently the original design included trousers but the actress requested a skirt, perhaps wanting to highlight her character’s femininity. Comprised of a round necked swirl-patterned top, paired with a full midi-length skirt, white leather driving gloves, a matching chiffon scarf and demure sling-back shoes with a low heel, this is the most overtly feminine outfit Kelly wears but it’s worn in the scene where she takes the most control. She drives the car to the villa viewing and her risky manoeuvres on the winding cliffside roads cause Robie to clutch his legs with panic (if not fear?). She increasing suspects that Robie is the Riviera jewel thief, and is willing to challenge his comments with humorous dialogue. Frances is a character of contradictions, she’s got a ‘jackpot of character traits’: by turns aloof and witty, cool and warm, and this outfit makes it difficult to pin her down. Is she the icy blonde? The fun fashionista? The hopeless romantic? She takes both Robie and Stevens by surprise and one trait begins to emerge: she has an independent spirit that can’t be suppressed.
To confuse the situation more, Frances reverts back to goddess glamour for the aforementioned firework scene. The white strapless column dress with a gathered bodice recalls the film’s first look, highlights her innocence and frames her diamond cocktail necklace to perfection. In one chiaroscuro-effect scene, the actresses face is completely in shadow, all that can be seen is from the neck down are her sparkling diamonds; this draws attention to the necklace (an important element in the development of the plot) but also re-presents Frances as an enigma. Despite her haughty, Delphic statue and aloofness she can still do something surprising: like kissing Robie when he least expects it.
A couple of fairly innocuous outfits followed, including some pale blue cotton pyjamas and a white sundress with Oriental-inspired yellow piping and a wide waist belt. These outfits, however, are overshadowed by the finale, a masked ball, based on the Marquis de Cievas’ 1953 costume ball. Held in a French chateau, illuminated with candles and featuring a rendition of Swan Lake, it’s the logical, glamorous conclusion to the film.
Hitchcock wanted Kelly to look ‘like a princess’, so Head was able to go all out on a dramatic 18th-century inspired gold-lamé gown decorated with fabric birds and accessorised to perfection with opera gloves, drop earrings, a choker-style and a towering sausage curl wig. A masterpiece in spectacular, there’s lots of close-ups on guests’ jewellery, reminding the audience of the aim of the game: to catch the real jewel thief. Apparently this was one of the most expensive scenes Head had ever worked on, the price justified in the elaborateness of the set-piece, with each character wearing a costume more dramatic than the one before.
Perhaps it’s the extravagant nature of this final scene that disappointed many, who expected less window dressing and more psychological analysis from Hitchcock. But it’s the visual wonder that makes To Catch A Thief such a great escapist movie; just because Hitch, Kelly and Grant made it look so fun and easy doesn’t mean it was.
Further reading: Cary Grant’s wardrobe is also pretty special and BAMF Style has an excellent review of his sartorial choices