John Robie (Cary Grant) is a retired cat burglar, living the high life off the French Riviera until a string of robberies cast suspicion his way. Fleeing the police, Robie discovers his old “friends” from the underworld are convinced he’s up to his old tricks, and are none too happy about it. Robie realises he alone can clear his name. He hooks up with a gentlemanly insurance investigator (John Williams) who provides a list of likely targets among the rich and beautiful. In his guise as a lumber tycoon from Oklahoma, Robie inveigles his way into the good graces of wealthy widow Jessie Stevens (Jessie Royce Landis) and her gorgeous, yet seemingly aloof, daughter Frances (Grace Kelly) and tries to lure out “The Cat”. Complications arise in slinky Danielle (Brigitte Auber), daughter of his old rival Foussard (Jean Marintelli), who dogs his every move, and when the adventurous Frances reveals she knows who Robie really is.
Hitchcock’s sexiest movie is a sunny confection conceived purely to delight the senses. Critics who relish Hitchcock movies for their wealth of subtext usually dismiss this outright. Set beside Rear Window (1954) or North by Northwest (1959) it is lightweight, but offers Hitch at his most playful and fun, indulging in glamorous stars, a fantastic locale and beautiful, Oscar winning cinematography from Robert Burks. It thrilled audiences in its day and, as entertainment, still has much to offer. Also it isn’t entirely without subtext, as there are two themes intertwined. The film is an extended metaphor for the dance of courtship. Robie and Frances circle each other warily, falling in and out of love, their passions fired by a mutual need for danger and excitement. Hitchcock visualises this brilliantly when Frances speeds Robie away in her sports car (with Grace Kelly tearing down the same stretch of road where she would have her fatal accident twenty-seven years later). It is Francie who concocts the brilliant scheme so Robie may unmask the cat, proving herself a worthy life partner just as he proves himself an honourable man. Cary Grant is at his most devil-may-care and debonair, making it tempting to read his and Kelly’s characters as fantasy alter-egos for Hitchcock and his wife Alma (a gifted editor and writer, and his closest collaborator).
The opening credits establish the playful tone: close-ups on travel brochures set to jaunty music, which suddenly cuts to a scream. Amidst the near-wordless, first five minutes Robie makes his thrilling escape (Watch out for Hitch’s trademark cameo - sitting beside Grant on the bus!). Hitchcock indulges in neat tricks (subliminal shots of a black cat the first few time Grant appears onscreen) and lavishes attention on the delightful fairytale costumes designed by Edith Head for the climactic masquerade. If film was like a child’s game to Hitchcock then the prettiest dolly in the toy box was Grace Kelly. A textbook definition of gorgeous (Especially in that powder blue dress - wow!), she is still underrated as an actress. The definitive Hitchcock blonde - ice-cool with simmering passions underneath - Kelly makes Francie one of his most alluring heroines.
Which brings us to the film’s second theme. It’s also a fantasy about having wild sex with Grace Kelly - and as romantic obsessions go, that’s a doozy. It’s there when their car swerves down the lane and heaves Robie and Francie’s bodies together. It’s there in those fireworks - bright colours bursting in the sky while they flirt on the couch. It’s there in Grace Kelly’s knowing smile and seductive line readings (“Even in this light I can tell where your eyes are looking”). After all that, you might just fancy lying down with a cigarette.
Away from the sultry interplay between Kelly and Grant, Brigitte Auber turns in a fine performance as duplicitous Danielle. Everyone turns out to be crooked in some small (often innocent) way, awakening the lovers’ eyes to a world of joyous corruption. After such an erotically-charged, whirlwind courtship, what other response is there than marriage?
The sixties started strongly with groundbreaking horror Psycho, and The Birds was just as successful, but then Hitchcock went into decline with uninspired thrillers like Marnie, Torn Curtain and Topaz. The seventies saw a return to form with Frenzy, but his last film Family Plot was disappointing. Still, a great career, and his mixture of romance, black comedy, thrills and elaborate set pieces will always entertain. Watch out for his cameo appearances in most of his films.