HITCHCOCK’S WOMEN: A Woman Who Knows Her Own Mind – Frances Stevens in TO CATCH A THIEF (1955)

After a short break over the summer senior contributor Rebecca McCallum is back with the next instalment of her essay series exploring the representations of women in the films of Alfred Hitchcock…

In her final outing with Hitchcock, Grace Kelly – who the previous year positively glistened in what is arguably her finest performance in Rear Window – plays rich socialite Frances Stevens who is holidaying on the French Riviera with her mother. Her path soon crosses with John Robie (Cary Grant), a retired jewel burglar known as the cat. Amidst the azure and sunshine of Cannes, reports of jewellery being stolen in a manner that resembles Robie’s previous crimes are circulating widely. In a classic case of the wrong man, Robie finds himself in a race to catch the imitator in order prove his innocence and clear his name.

Although it opens with a scream and a black cat crawling along rooftops, To Catch a Thief – based on the 1952 novel by David Dodge – is less suspenseful than the director’s signature films. Instead it’s a picture postcard spectacle full of car chases and romantic pursuits, though just who is the thief – and who is the catcher – remains to be seen.  

Hitchcock has a penchant for creating slow build-ups and an air of mystery when it comes to the entrances of his female characters. In To Catch a Thief he employs both, as not only do we not see Frances until an astonishing twenty minutes in but even then in her sunglasses and headscarf she remains incognito, exuding an enigmatic charm. She sits poised on the beach applying sun lotion, watching Robie emerge from the sea before laying down on the sand, completely unaware of her presence. With word of the jewel thefts spreading Robie is both avoiding the police and planning to expose the real criminal, and while he watches for the authorities Frances vigilantly watches him – observing her prey before making plans to catch it.  She is silent and elegant, radiating a coolness as the audience wonder who she is.  

A Cool Ice Begins to Melt: High Stakes and Goodnight Kisses

Later that evening Frances attends a dinner with an insurance broker, Hughson (John Williams) and her sharp talking and vibrant mother Jessie (Jessie Royce Landis). We see Frances from behind and then in profile, a shot choice that Hitchcock enjoyed using, perhaps most famously with Kim Novak in Vertigo three years later. Not only does this serve to idealise her but it is also reflective of Robie’s gaze from across the room as he sits watching from a distance. She matches this with her own powerful and unrelenting gaze as she fixes her eyes on Robie when leaving the restaurant. A keen gambler her mother initiates a move to the casino, introducing the theme of risk-taking even as Frances remarks that she doesn’t care for gambling. In a remark that foreshadows events to come Jessie declares ‘when the stakes are right my dear, you’ll gamble’. 

At the casino Frances and Robie steal looks at one another across the room as she stands out in her blue gown amidst the sea of black cocktail dresses and tuxedos. Unlike those around her, Frances is evidently disinterested in gambling and she stands in the distance like a ghost: it is not hard to conceive that many of her nights have been spent in loneliness or at the whims of her mother. Acting as an early sign that he brightens up the boredom of her socialite lifestyle,  when Robie drops a 10-thousand-franc chip down a woman’s dress this brings a wry smile to Frances’ face.

When the group convenes for night caps, we see profile shots of Frances again as she grows increasingly irritated and embarrassed at her mother’s tipsy conversation. Hitchcock seeks to make her untouchable and unobtainable as she sits next to Robie – who has given a false identity, telling them his name is Mr Burns – listening to her mother talking about their family history. We learn that Frances’ father Jeremiah was a hard worker whose wish was never to be a ‘silly society layabout’. Their family started off in humble beginnings but after his death found an oil reserve on their land, making Jessie and her daughter rich. This pushes us to wonder if there is more to Frances than jet-setting and luxurious wardrobes and provides an subtle hint that appearances only convey the exterior of a person and not the qualities that exist beneath.  

Frances tries to stop her mother from talking and once again her frustration is melted by Robie who laughs at Jessie’s witterings, prompting a further smile from Frances. This is soon met with awkwardness when Jessie asks Robie directly why he hasn’t made a play for her daughter, a comment that is loaded with irony as in just a few moments we will see Frances make a pass at him. Embarrassed and speechless, Frances also appears quietly pleased when she hears Robie describe her as attractive. In these early scenes Frances is reserved and demure, but away from her mother – who calls her ‘too nice’ – she will reveal herself to be a firecracker who thrives off thrill-seeking and leading the chase.

 As Robie escorts Jessie to her room he is left alone with Frances for the first time. She sets the tone for the power dynamic in their relationship by leading the way to her suite, in total control – as she is on many occasions – of the direction they are heading. Robie follows her and their shadows appear separately on the wall before finally meeting, providing a fleeting visualisation of their forthcoming relationship. Frances opens the door and fixes Robie’s gaze, wrapping her arm around him and asserting her desire before planting a firm and confident kiss on his lips. There is no space for him to speak or react as she withdraws and closes the door. Unexpected by both Robie and the audience, this kiss puts us in no doubt as to who is leading and who is following. Frances is a woman at ease with her sexuality, who knows what she wants and – in 1955 – it would have been rare to see such a sexually forward woman onscreen. In this sense, Frances is a sex-positive female who subverts conventions around gender and romance. 

Hot Pursuit-Female Power, Assertion and Control

The next morning Frances continues her forthrightness as she sends for Robie to the hotel suite. She makes sure she is not present when he arrives however and instead makes a commanding entrance into the room before positioning herself on the chaise lounge, leaning in close to him as he approaches her: this is seduction in full effect. Despite requesting him to meet her at the suite, Frances now makes Robie wait downstairs so she can change before they go to the beach. This power play means she can once again make another impactful entrance, putting him under a spell as she appears in a vision of black and white elegance. Standing confidently with her hand on her waist, she knows her power and senses Robie’s awkwardness at how entranced he is by her. While her body language is self-assured as she walks ahead, he is both awkward and nervous. 

At the beach Robie swims out to converse with Danielle (Brigitte Auber) – a young French woman who he tutored as a girl and who teases him for being behind the recent cat burglaries. As the pair engage in a stilted exchange, Frances is anything but passive. Robie looks back at her reclining on a sun lounger but when he looks a second time, she is gone. Seeming to disappear, she swims out to join them, making certain they are aware she has the measure of their relationship before declaring she is returning to the hotel. Seconds later, as Robie returns from the beach, she appears at the steps of the hotel in another carefully constructed visual moment. He suggests cocktails later that evening but Frances has another plan, proposing to accompany him in his search for a villa following his earlier mention of acquiring a list of potential homes in the area. However, unbeknown to her yet, this is merely a front for a scheme that Robie has agreed with Hughson whereby he will visit the homes of those who own the most expensive jewellery in the hope this will lead him to the real cat burglar. Initially Robie declines her offer but she remains quietly insistent (although never forceful) and she charms him into agreeing, giving him no room to refuse. Once again, her confidence and assertiveness result in Frances taking another step closer towards her goal. 

Visualizing the Emotional Temperature: Deconstructing Costume 

Hitchcock always used costume to echo themes and tone in his female characters, but in To Catch a Thief audiences are given a special visual treat through the numerous costumes worn by Grace Kelly as Frances. Designed by the legendary Edith Head, who has famously gone on record as saying that her work on this film was her favourite, the garments tell a story of emotion through their fabrics, patterns and shapes. The first time we see Frances she is wearing white sunglasses, a headscarf, and a swimsuit in pastel colours at the beach, playing on the themes of disguise and mystery in the film. She enters without a sound, observing Robie quietly: she is the desirer, not the desired. 

Grace was well known for being the archetypal steely Hitchcock blonde – a construct the director created himself – and in the early scenes at the hotel and casino she wears a floor length pale blue dress. This speaks to the icy surface that Frances exudes whilst also hinting that underneath is a bubbling volcano. With its chiffon, folds and delicate straps she is positively goddess-like and furthermore the soft, floaty scarf is movable, allowing her to reveal or conceal as much or as little skin as she chooses. The chiffon also gives the effect of her gliding down the corridors and hallways of the hotel with an ethereal, untouchable energy. 

The coolness is soon stripped back however as the blue makes way for a warmer flower-patterned dress that blends with the couch she luxuriates on, creating a seductive image that is also chic, romantic and playful. When she later makes her breath-taking entrance to the foyer before heading out to the beach she is top-to-toe in black and white, a reflection of her mysterious and innocent sides, a woman of multiple possibilities. The most striking component of this ensemble is the white sun hat which – with its oversized circular shape – not only makes a firm statement but also acts as a halo, crowning Frances with an angelic aura. Although most of her body is covered she has the perfect cocktail of sex appeal and shyness. Her white skirt which covers the bottom half of her black swimsuit is also slightly transparent, suggesting a subtle seductiveness.

For their trip to the villa and their picnic lunch, Frances’ costume becomes classically romantic and sophisticated. Her outfit is a sleeveless coral-pink colour with a top embellished with white patterns and a pleated skirt. Echoing notes of her earlier blue gown Frances wears a chiffon scarf around her neck, a highly feminised and flirtatious outfit topped off with a typical Hitchcockian fetishistic touch with the dainty white leather driving gloves.  

Later, the elegant and simplistic white strapless dress that she wears when she invites Robie to watch the fireworks is purposely picked out to seduce him but also to ensure she can show off the diamond necklace which she teases him with. The whiteness of the dress is an echo of the whiteness of diamonds and with the use of chiffon again the material is both luxurious and unrestrictive. 

There are also some minor costume changes that – although not as memorable – still speak to Frances’ mood and feelings. When she suspects Robie of stealing Jessie’s jewels – resulting in him fleeing – Frances wears a pale blue suit reflective of her iciness returning. The suit is belted and this speaks to her feelings of betrayal, entrapment and tension. By contrast, when she reads in a newspaper a few scenes later that the cat has been captured and Robie is therefore innocent, she is seen wearing a white dress with yellow piping: the white is evocative of the strapless gown she wore when their romantic relationship was reaching its peak and the dress itself reflects a release in comparison to her previous outfit (though notably the piping on the waist and high neckline still suggests a feeling of being restricted).

In the final scenes at the masquerade ball Frances wears a gown in the style of Marie Antoinette. Not only is the dress gold in colour but she wears arm length golden gloves and a gold wig. Gold is the colour of triumph and winning, speaking to the forthcoming success of their plan to unveil the real cat. Choosing to hold a masquerade ball also has a specific and significant meaning as it will become the site of the unmasking of true feelings as well as of the jewel thief.

The colour palette then of Frances’ costumes throughout the film moves from icy blue to the warmth of gold, signifying that Robie coming into her life has allowed her boundaries to fall as she finds a meaningful relationship as well as learning more about herself. 

The Cat’s Out of the Bag: Flirtation, Tension and Assumptions 

With Frances driving, the pair are followed by the police – not only is Robie chasing the real cat and Frances chasing him, but the authorities are also chasing Robie: pursuit is happening everywhere. As she steers the car along the open roads, she tells him she has been waiting for him to ‘ask me about the kiss last night’. Not knowing Robie’s true feelings at this point, she puts her own on the line with this direct approach. In a moment of confidence, she explains that she has been chased all her life for money, noting how ‘money handles most people’. Despite seeing her letting down her guard, he still shows signs of pigeonholing Frances: ‘you are here in Europe to buy a husband’ he assumes, but her reply illustrates that she values love over possessions; ‘the man I want doesn’t have a price’. 

Keeping up the flirtation, Frances’ remarks that a woman who knows her own mind has to be ‘captured first’ and when Robin asks her how, she tells him he needs to discover this for himself.  Clearly fishing for details, in another forthright move she asks Robie about his wife before calling him an egotist. There is clearly a push-pull dynamic emerging between them with each making assumptions about the other. There are also correct observations, such as when he calls her an ‘insecure and pampered woman’ claiming that she doesn’t know if men pay her attention because they appreciate her for who she is, or for her fortune. 

They return to the car again where she remains firmly in the driving seat as they head towards a picnic ground that she has picked out, Frances maintaining a tight rein on everything. As they cruise down the roads, he asks why they are dawdling – a question that she seems delighted at as she smiles, pushing her foot down on the accelerator.  This speaks to Frances pleasure and thrill at speed, excitement and the ability to go at a fast pace while Robie squeezes his legs tensely as she takes corners and avoids obstacles, signifying that this pace is not so comfortable for him and that he has underestimated her in many respects. As they are still in chase with the police who edge ever closer, she reveals that she knows he is not Mr Burns but John Robie the jewel thief – the cat is well and truly out of the bag.

After losing the police, Frances pulls up at the picnic spot where she enjoys teasing him about how she has pieced everything together. Demonstrating her quick-thinking and intellectual prowess, she details all the observations which led her to confirm his real identity. In response, Robie misremembers their kiss – perhaps because his masculinity feels threatened – declaring in his defence that he kissed her at the end of their first evening together. She corrects this claim, reminding him that it was her in fact who instigated the kiss. He seeks to discredit her findings (and the truth) by calling her ‘a very nice girl with too much imagination’, a reductive and all too familiar insult that is frequently directed at women. She does not relent at this however and instead invites herself into what she calls their ‘next job’, revealing a desire not only to catch a thief (foreshadowing Hitchcock’s controversial Marnie in 1964) but to steal with one too. She concludes their outing by telling him that they will have cocktails and dinner in her suite later that night and when he tries to make excuses she threatens to share what she knows about the crimes. The scene is set, everything is arranged and Frances is in total control.

Not An Imitation: An Evening of Fireworks and Diamonds 

In Frances’ suite everything is organised to the last detail including the dress she wears which shows off the oversized diamond necklace she will soon tease him with. The diamonds glisten in the dim of the light and in one memorable moment Hitchcock chooses to eclipse her head in complete darkness showing Frances only from the neck down. This highlights not only the necklace and Robie’s potential desire for jewels over sex but Frances’ sexualised (and dehumanized) body wrapped in a seductive strapless dress. As they stand either side of the shot fireworks hit the sky from the balcony, indicative of the passionate sparks taking place between the couple. She asks him to ‘give up, admit who you are’ and as the fireworks get more plentiful, the two move closer together while she drapes the necklace over his body. He observes that they both know the diamonds are imitation to which she replies ‘well I’m not’ – a statement which seeks to confirm to him that she is the real deal and that emotional value is to be found in love rather than in jewels. The fireworks and the magic of the night seem to take hold as the two eventually embrace and share a romantic evening together. 

The following morning however things take a dramatic and unexpected turn as Frances wakes to find that her mother’s jewels have been stolen. Has Robie exploited her at her most vulnerable and proven himself to be the cat? Feeling certain that he is to blame, Frances confronts Robie and any trust that was built the previous evening seems shattered. In his room she finds a list of jewellery owners, crucially containing her mother’s name. This prompts her to call the police but before they arrive Robie flees across the hotel roof top out of sight. Alone with her mother, an angry and betrayed Frances finds herself on the receiving end of directness (rather than issuing it) as Jessie remarks that what bothers her daughter most of all about Robie is that he is the first man not to fall at her feet. This is a cold, harsh truth and suggests that although she may not be willing to admit it yet, Frances experience with Robie is different to that of her prior romantic interactions with men.

The Final Chase: ‘I was wrong about you and I think you might be wrong about me’ 

With Robie on the run his quest to capture the cat becomes increasingly urgent, particularly when he is attacked by two unknown persons in the dark of night as he stakes out an estate. This encounter results in the death of one of the assailants, who is later identified as Foussard, a man who works at a local restaurant with Robie’s former student, Danielle. Out walking with her mother, Frances picks up a newspaper and reads that the cat has been captured, prompting Jessie to tell her that she needs to start practicing her apologies. Robie attends the funeral of Foussard where an angry and grieving Danielle hurls insults at him, declaring him to be a murderer. 

Taking his leave, outside the funeral he finds Frances calling to him from the roadside. She occupies a mood we have not seen before; she is sincere, serious and apologetic for wrongly accusing him of being the cat. However he doesn’t warm to this display of humility and bids her goodbye while walking away, declaring they should ‘go back to our mutual disregard of one another’.  She becomes more tender still as she holds his arm now – not in a moment of control but in a plea for understanding and forgiveness – as she takes a great emotional risk in declaring that she loves him. He belittles this – ‘to you words are just playthings’ – and she becomes visibly upset. In a description of Hitchcockian romance, she then summarises the film in one neat sentence: ‘I was wrong about you and I think you might be wrong about me’. Nervously, he asks her to secure him an invite to a party at the Sandford’s – one of the people on Robie’s list of jewel owners – so she can watch ‘a real-life burglary in action’. As he walks away Frances’ confidence and control are diminished with tears forming in her eyes. 

As Frances, Robie and Jessie attend the Sandford’s party, they successfully pull off a plan to make the police believe that Robie has gone to Jessie’s room to retrieve something but waiting there is insurance broker Hughson who wears Robie’s costume and take his place to allow him to look for the cat. Later we will see Hughson acknowledge that the scheme was devised by Frances, a testimony to Robie not being able to uncover the burglar without her.  As Robie scales the roof tops in chase of the cat whose black clothed figure prowls about, he is shot at wrongly by the police as a terrified Frances watches below. The guests stare in tension and disbelief as it is revealed that Danielle is the cat, working in league with her father Bertani. Robie’s innocence is proven and Frances exhales a cathartic sigh of relief.  

Although the mystery of the cat is resolved there is still one final chase in motion, this time led by Robie as he heads back to his villa with Frances following behind. She reminds him that he is not the lone wolf he thinks he is and that he could not have unmasked the identity of the jewel thief without her, highlighting that the events that took place have proven they are a partnership that works well. Tentatively she puts out her hand for him to shake but then the two fall into a mutual kiss. Hitchcock cannot resist adding a final splash of humour as we hear wedding bells while Frances declares how much ‘mother’ will ‘love it up here’. What is clear however is that while both may have been wrong in their assumptions – as many couples are in Hitchcock’s works – she and Robie complement each other, and their relationship is about seeing past these assumptions in the ultimate pursuit of love and acceptance.  

© Rebecca McCallum

Enjoyed this article? You can read more of Rebecca’s work in her Hitchcock’s Women series here, or check out Rebecca talking all thing’s Psycho on our recent podcast episode here.

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