The modus operandi of a string of jewel robberies in the French Riviera causes the police to believe that the infamous jewel thief or "cat burglar" John Robie (Cary Grant), nicknamed "The Cat", has left his retirement of growing grapes and flowers. He gives the police the slip at his hilltop villa.
Robie visits a restaurant. The staff are his old gang from French Resistance days, paroled based on patriotic war work as long as they keep clean. Bertani, Foussard, and the others blame Robie because they are currently all under suspicion while the new Cat is active. Still, when the police arrive at Bertani's restaurant, Foussard's teenage daughter Danielle (Brigitte Auber), who has a crush on Robie, spirits him to safety.
Robie can prove his innocence if he can catch the new Cat in the act. He enlists the aid of an insurance man, H. H. Hughson (John Williams), who reluctantly obtains a list of the most expensive jewelry owners currently on the Riviera. Widow Jessie Stevens (Jessie Royce Landis) and her daughter Frances (Grace Kelly) top the list. Robie strikes up a friendship with them. Jessie's delighted but Frances offers a pretense of modesty. When Robie and Frances run into Danielle at the beach, Robie keeps up the mask of being a wealthy American tourist, despite Danielle's jealous barbs about his interest in Frances.
Frances sees through Robie's cover. She seduces him, dangling before him her jewels. She teases him with steamy tales of rooftop escapades and offers herself as an accomplice who might share his crimes. Fireworks fill the night sky.
The next morning, Jessie discovers her jewels are gone. Robie is accused by Frances of being using her as a distraction so he could steal her mother's jewelry. The police are called, but Robie has disappeared.
To catch the new Cat, Robie stakes out an estate at night. He struggles with an attacker, who loses his footing and tumbles over a cliff. It is Foussard, who dies in the fall. The police chief publicly announces that Foussard was the jewel thief, but, as Robie points out privately in the presence of the abashed Hughson, this would have been impossible because Foussard had a wooden leg, and could not climb on rooftops.
Foussard's funeral is marred by Danielle's loud accusation that Robie is responsible for her father's death. Outside the graveyard, Frances apologizes to Robie and confesses her love. Robie needs to continue his search for the Cat. He asks Frances to arrange his attendance at a masquerade ball, where he believes the Cat will strike again.
At the ball, Frances is resplendent in a gold gown, Robie unrecognizable behind the mask of a Moor. The police hover nearby. Upstairs, the cat burglar silently cleans out several jewel boxes. When Jessie asks the Moor to go get her "heart pills," Robie's voice tips off his identity to the authorities. Upon his return, the police wait out Frances and the Moor as they dance together all night. When they go to her room, the mask is removed: it was Hughson, a switch to conceal Robie's exit.
On the rooftop, Robie lurks. His patience is finally rewarded when he is joined by another figure in black. But just as his pursuit begins, the police throw a spotlight on him and demand he halt. He flees as they shoot at him, whereupon he manages to corner his foe with jewels in hand. Unmasked, his nemesis turns out to be Foussard's daughter, Danielle. She loses her footing on the roof, but Robie grabs her hand before she can fall. He forces her to confess loudly to the police of the father-daughter involvement, and that Bertani was the ringleader of this gang.
Robie speeds back to his villa. Frances follows to convince him that she has a place in his life. He agrees, but looks less than thrilled when she says, "Mother will love it up here."Cary Grant as John Robie ("The Cat")
Grace Kelly as Frances Stevens
Jessie Royce Landis as Jessie Stevens
John Williams as H. H. Hughson
Charles Vanel as Monsieur Bertani
Brigitte Auber as Danielle Foussard
Jean Martinelli as Foussard, Danielle's father
Georgette Anys as Germaine, housekeeper
René Blancard as Commissaire Lepic (uncredited)
Alfred Hitchcock makes his signature cameo approximately ten minutes in as a bus passenger sitting next to Cary Grant.
Despite Brigitte Auber's character being referred to as a "girl" or "teenager", compared to Grace Kelly's supposedly more mature character, Auber was actually 26 years old at the time of filming and more than a year and a half older than Kelly.
This was Hitchcock's first of five films in the widescreen process VistaVision, and final film with Grace Kelly. The film also led to another successful collaboration with Cary Grant, the 1959 classic North by Northwest (also about a man with a mistaken identity who goes on a breakneck adventure to prove his innocence).
The costumes were by Edith Head, including Kelly's memorable gold lamé gown for the film's costume ball.
To Catch a Thief is the only Hitchcock film released by Paramount that is still owned and controlled by the company. The others were sold to Hitchcock in the early 1960s and are currently distributed by Universal Studios.
Robert Burks won the Academy Award for Best Cinematography, while Hal Pereira, Joseph McMillan Johnson, Samuel M. Comer and Arthur Krams were nominated for Best Art Direction, and Edith Head was nominated for Best Costume Design.
In 2002, American Film Institute included the film in AFI's 100 Years...100 Passions (#46).