Desire in and of itself is artificial. According to cultural critic Slavoj Žižek, it is this that makes cinema “the ultimate pervert art. It doesn’t give you what you desire, it tells you how to desire.” To Catch a Thief (1955) is an iconic exposition of desire. Whether that be desire for the accoutrement of dress or interior design, the warped elegance of both Cary Grant and Grace Kelly or the idea of place as fantasy; the unreal pleasure dome of escape from memory that the South of France instils in us and ultimately ruins our future plans. It’s a film that has been unfairly maligned as light and frothy as a sugary-sweet meringue; a minor work within the iconic canon of Hitchcock’s grand, dramatic genre masterpieces.
Coming straight after the sublime Rear Window, it’s a palate cleanser, a change-up, a historical artefact that tells us more now than it did then. It lulls you into a sense of forgiveness for its perceived lightness but it has a joyful sense of what cinema means our waking dream life. Set a thief to catch a thief is the general idea and probably all the plot you need to know, but the ever-dashing Grant takes the lead as John Robie, a retired jewel thief seeing out his retirement on the French Riviera. After a spate of robberies that indicate his MO he is forced to turn detective to entrap the true thief. Helping and hindering him in equal measure is Frances Stevens (Kelly) and her aging mother, both on the hunt for a husband. This was to be Kelly’s final film with Hitch and mirrors her later life – both in pleasure and horror.
To Catch a Thief serves as an almost-masterclass in on-screen chemistry that asks questions of carnal interludes and makes one feel the rhythms of secret occult histories that lie underneath our perceived reality. Grant gives the impression that he is merely existing rather than acting within this film as an idea for the beauty of fun, fantasy and fastidious precision. The film is positively alive and kicking with thieves and connivers, both in emotional and physical property. The commonality of the these characters is, of course, how poorly they actually know of each other while thinking they know everything. This consequently allows Hitchcock to be able to press home multiple layers of manipulation and deceit.
As ever, there lies within a moral lesson that veers away from the usual representation of the Catholic Hitchcock. It’s that of the many equivalents of morality that are constant questioned: of an anti-subjectivity that doesn’t allow for a moral certainty. Pleasure should never have to be categorised simply and reductively as either virtue or vice – it should just be. It’s an ideal that asks for nothing but given plenty in return, just as the Master of Suspense’s To Catch a Thief does: a constantly surprising treat of a film that returns more the less you give. Seek out the rerelease in all good cinemas.