In David Dodge’s thriller “To Catch a Thief,” John Robie turned Cannes on its head as he skillfully evaded the police while contriving to discover the copycat who stole his identity as the “cat” burglar. Disguised as the middle-aged and sophisticated Jack Burns, Robie joined the glamorous society inside casinos, private estate parties, and black tie soirées. I have been an ardent admirer of “Robie the Cat” ever since reading Dodge’s novel in school. I often wondered what it would be like to mingle among Cannes’ haut monde the way Robie did. So I planned a trip with my two friends to Cannes where we would borrow a page from Dodge’s book and have our own John Robie moments.
The Promenade de la Croisette is where life happens in Cannes. It is the place to be seen whether on the red carpet for the city’s famous film festival or sauntering along the boulevard in style. The promenade runs along Cannes’ coastline, bordering a lengthy stretch of beach, and makes for prime real estate for tony restaurants and chic accommodations. If we were going to dive into the Robie lifestyle this was the ideal spot. So my two girlfriends and I hit the ground running the moment we landed on the Plage de la Croisette beach.
A Grand Carlton Entrance
The Hotel Carlton has always symbolized the epitome of high society glamour for us ever since we watched Grace Kelley make her spectacular silver screen lobby entrance as Francie Stevens in Hitchcock’s interpretation of “To Catch a Thief.” Wrapped in a daring black swimsuit and white cover dress, Kelley’s Francie was the epitome of charisma to us. So, this was naturally the spot where I suggested we begin our movie version of catching the inimitable cat burglar as portrayed by Cary Grant.
Even today, the Carlton hotel maintains its iconic Belle Epoque style façade, creating an elegant cornerstone to Cannes’ Promenade de la Croisette. Inside the Carlton cream, gold, and white bespeak the good life while attention to detail creates an atmosphere that makes guests like us feel like movie stars. While our beachwear wasn’t as bold as Grace Kelley’s, we felt we made quite a grand scene as we paraded through the main entrance onto the beach at La Croisette. Our mission was to find a brigand as debonair as John Robie who might be surreptitiously relaxing among the pampered beach set.
Hunting for Robie
An hour spent in our blue-and-white striped lounge chairs with our blue-and-white striped towels under our blue-and-white striped umbrellas did not reveal any candidates for Robie. It was, however, a luxuriously relaxing and thoroughly educational experience. Irrepressible French children frolicked around us on the seashore as their barely dressed parents sipped expensive cocktails under the peace of the umbrella next to us. Further down the beach, a talented artist molded beach sand into detailed golden sculptures while several pairs of teenagers canoodled on the wooden pier jutting out over a lazy Mediterranean. Life on the beach in Cannes, my girlfriends and I agreed, was like a succession of old time cinematic sequences. Yet, we hadn’t discovered our captivating cat burglar among them.
So we headed to the only other place we could think of that might be a hangout for the elusive John Robie: a swanky restaurant on the Boulevard de la Croisette. Choosing the right swanky restaurant to attend proved difficult, however, given the numerous quality choices along the busy avenue. As we ran out of options towards the end of the stretch of beach, Anne, the most decisive of my friends, picked out a modern eatery with large glass windows and contemporary wooden seating. The waitress seated us by one of the windows overlooking the Mediterranean and we dithered over a stocked menu full of steak, moules frites, burgers, and pasta. As my friends argued over what courses to select, I scanned the intimate place for any signs of John Robie. None met my eye, mostly because the restaurant was filled with vacationing fathers and business men.
The Elusive Diner
As we finish our meal, a business man stepped in and sat in the best window seats available. The waitress hurried over to tell him that the seat was reserved and unavailable to him. She admonished him to sit anywhere else he liked. Ten minutes later, two confident gentlemen in bespoke shirts and pressed jeans entered and occupied the same table. This time the waitress rushed forward to greet them effusively and immediately returned to the kitchen. A couple of minutes later dishes appeared at their table. The three of us were entranced by these newcomers, and Jane, the inveterate romantic, whispered to me that she found both equally attractive. We whispered amongst ourselves, attempting to guess who they were and of what importance. I closely studied the taller man, taking in his windswept hair, light blue collar, and soft leather loafers to see if I can guess his occupation. Was this mysterious stranger the elusive John Robie of the modern century?
As my girl pals and I debated on what the enigmatic gentleman did for a living, he and his companion finished their meal, suavely entered into a white Lamborghini parked in front of the restaurant and roared off into the Cannes sunset. While we gobbled down crêpe suzettes and lemon sorbets, we surprisingly remarked that the streets facing the Mediterranean were filled with Lamborghini of every color. Furthermore,there were also plenty of Maserati, Porsche, and Ferrari to add flavor to the mix. Having finished our fine meals, we adventured on and explored the palm treed avenues of Cannes where it struck us that these roads were merely asphalt runways for a parade of opulent vehicles.
Admiring the mobile luxuries dotting the streets while we walked, we playfully started guessing which one the modern John Robie would have driven down from his hilltop villa to Cannes. While each of the exotic cars looked impeccable, none of them had the air of debonair distinction we felt sure Robie (or Cary Grant) would have preferred to drive. Then, as we were strolling down Rue Buttura, Anne spotted the perfect carriage for the cat burglar. It was a steel-blue Sunbeam Talbot from the 1960s, remarkably similar to the convertible Hitchcock’s Francie Stevens drove around the Riviera. Yet, so very appropriate for today’s John Robie, a man who would combine modern convenience with classic style. We hung around the Sunbeam taking photographs and hoping that its owner would show up, but our luck did not turn. John Robie remained elusive as ever.
A day of expensive cars, fashionable people, and the opulent surroundings of Cannes immersed us into a world of high-end drama. The three of us felt that around the next corner we might meet the real John Robie, jauntily walking towards us in a tuxedo or lightly dropping down from the slate roofs to join us. This is a city for the moneyed, but without spending a fortune, we were able to participate in the same kind of sexy sumptuousness Francie Stevens, Count Paul, and Frank Burns indulged in. For us this is a Cannes worth countless stolen jewels, but one we didn’t have to turn into a thief to enjoy.
Traveler David Dodge’s thriller set in the exotic villas and hotels of Cannes, France brought to life the dramatic character of this region of the French Riviera and popularized its glamorous personality. His book “To Catch A Thief,” met with immense success due to Hitchcock’s movie starring Cary Grant and Grace Kelley and set Cannes forever as a bewitching background for high society.
Cannes has more to offer than expensively dressed socialites and you can discover its artsier side in our book, “French Riviera: Artist’s Paradise.”