Cool, calm, sophisticated, icy and untouchable. That is what a Hitchcock blonde is supposed to be. She is supposed to a woman whose icy locks are never out of place. Her blue eyes are clear, appraising. Always sizing her leading man up. But she is also the symbol of sexual repression. According to Hitchcock, “We’re after the drawing-room type. . . An English girl, looking like a schoolteacher, is apt to get into a cab with you and, to your surprise, she’ll probably pull a man’s pants open.”
This ideal is probably epitomised by Grace Kelly, whose sleek, cool bob, combed back from her lovely face, shimmered with golden tones in three Hitchcock classics, Dial M For Murder, Rear Window and To Catch A Thief. In To Catch A Thief, Grace looks completely untouched by the heat of the French Riviera, in lovely pale pink and glacial blue. Cool, colourless diamonds glittering at her neck. According to the Houston Chronicle, Hitchcock told Richard Schickel that “In To Catch a Thief, I kept cutting to Grace Kelly in profile, very still and not much expression — until Cary Grant sees her up to her room. And suddenly, in the doorway, she turns and plunges her lips onto his. Bowls him over completely. The cool blonde does give you somewhat of a surprise if she does turn out to be very sexy.”
But before I discuss Hitchcock’s most famous blonde, I want to start at the beginning, with Madeleine Carroll, who appeared in The 39 Steps. Her light blonde hair gently waved under a stylish hat, her lovely, perfectly annunciated voice coolly addressing Robert Donat. Her sexual repression, but also her banked passion, symbolised by her clenched fists as Robert Donat forcefully kisses her. Like Grace she is wonderfully stylish, and like Grace in To Catch A Thief, is mistrustful of the film’s hero, but comes to support and help save him.
However, the image of the Hitchcock blonde was not fully “formed” at this point. It would continue to coalesce with Saboteur, starring another feisty blonde, Priscilla Lane. Like Madeleine’s in The 39 Steps, Priscilla’s character would come to trust and love the hero, played this time by Robert Cummings. But Priscilla was not yet the fully formed picture of Hitchcock’s blonde, sophisticated and distant in her desirability.
Then Hitchcock made Spellbound. Although Ingrid Bergman was not blonde, her hair was a cool, ashen brown, and her gorgeous face, seen behind sensible spectacles, belied hidden desires, brought out by Gregory Peck’s amnesiac.
Peck’s character has repressed memories, jumbled in wonderfully strange scenes acted out on sets designed by the king of surrealism, Salvador Dalì. But Ingrid’s character is sexually repressed, cold towards her male colleagues who both desire and dislike her for her distant calm.
This sexual calm would further unravel in Ingrid’s next picture with Hitchcock, Notorious. This time opposite Cary Grant, who is perhaps the closest male equivalent to the tenets of Hitchcock’s blonde. In Notorious we are first introduced to Ingrid when she is wearing a tasteful crop top that shows just a sliver of her bare stomach. She and Cary Grant flirt, but she soon becomes angered at his condescending attitude towards her, and lashes out, breaking her calm. The entire film is a study in her, and Cary’s, efforts to retain a cool veneer as things become charged between them and Ingrid’s character’s life falls into increasing peril. In the end, neither of them can maintain that facade, love and passion saves the day.
And then in 1954, Hitchcock would direct Grace Kelly in Dial M For Murder, and the ideal of the Hitchcock blonde would be born. Hitchcock had seen a 1950 screen test that Grace had done, and thought she would be perfect for the role Margot, the would be victim of her louche, greedy, murderous husband. Margot is having an affair with an American, played again by Robert Cummings, and her near strangulation seems punishment for her sexual indiscretion. Despite this, Grace looks pristine the entire film, even when she begins to break down at the knowledge of her husband’s deceit. Her red evening dress, which she wears when we are first introduced to she and Cummings, is perhaps the only indication that her coolness can be thawed.
Hitchcock would next direct Grace in Rear Window, which she said he had spoken to her about constantly during the making of Dial M for Murder, even before he told her he’d like her to play the role of Lisa Fremont.
Lisa was a departure for Grace. In this film she would play an independent working woman, who instead of being the victim of men, would be the one having the adventure whilst Jimmy Stewart was wheelchair bound. Her introduction in the film would become iconic, as would her wardrobe, which would be elegant and fashionable (she never wears the same dress twice), but also hint at her mature sexuality, her ability to seduce Stewart’s character, who is bizarrely reluctant to marry her. Lisa Fremont is perhaps the solidification of Hitchcock’s blonde. She is cool and elegant, but she is also very intelligent and brave. Her role in the film is a vital one, as she is the one who confirms Stewart’s suspicions about his neighbour by risking her life and finding the evidence.
To Catch A Thief would pair Hitchcock’s favourite blonde with his favourite leading man, Cary Grant. Once again Grace would play a woman who was sophisticated, but who was perhaps less self assured that Lisa Fremont had been.
Edith Head said that Hitchcock told her to dress Grace as if she were dressing a princess, which, it turned out, she was. Edith Head also said that Grace was her favourite actress to design costumes for.
As written above, Grace and Cary’s unexpected kiss in To Catch A Thief, perhaps best describes the competing sides of Hitchcock’s ideal. Grace’s character, Frances Stevens, pursues Cary’s character, John “The Cat” Robie, throughout the film, finally getting her man in the end, but she does so with artful seduction. As Lisa Fremont does in Rear Window, she prefers to tempt her man than outright admit that she wants him. And like Stewart, Cary is somewhat reluctant to give in, even though Frances is any man’s dream woman. And even though Frances lambasts him when she thinks he is responsible for stealing her mother’s jewels, she still cannot deny her attraction for him, and helps him clear his name in the end.
Cary would later say that Grace had been his favourite co-star because she had “serenity”, which is perhaps another reason she has become the ultimate symbol of Hitchcock’s blonde, because she knew how to handle him. Apparently his constant demands and idiosyncrasies amused her, as did his brusque behaviour onset. Unfortunately Hitchcock would see it as a betrayal when Grace married Prince Rainier, and became Princess of Monaco.
Hitchcock would try to fill Grace’s absence with Kim Novak in the intensely psychologically unmooring film, Vertigo, in which Hitchcock’s obsession with the blonde ideal really comes to the forefront. Jimmy Stewart stands in for the director as a man who is intent on recreating the image of a woman who he worshipped. It has been argued that this is what Hitchcock was trying to do in real life. That he was trying to recreate in Kim Novak what he had found in Grace Kelly. Kim’s hair is even more shockingly blonde that Grace’s, her character, Madeleine, even more mysterious and seductive than Lisa and Frances had been. But unlike those two characters, Madeleine, and her doppelgänger, Judy, would meet a strange end, and plunge Stewart’s character into madness and sorrow. It seemed that Hitchcock’s blondes were taking a distinct turn.
Hitchcock would make his final film with Cary Grant, North by Northwest, in 1959. Eva Marie Saint would play the most duplicitous Hitchcock blonde yet, torn between her intense attraction for Cary’s man on the run and her twisted loyalty to James Mason, the villain of the film. Like Kim Novak, Eva Marie’s blondness was undeniable, and like her successors, her appeal was cool and distant, waiting for something to be unleashed. Culminating in her supposed shooting of Cary Grant’s character, and their marriage at the end of the film, with her getting into the upper berth with him. Like Grace in Dial M for Murder and Kim in Vertigo, Eva Marie’s blonde coolness would be chipped away until it was eventually utterly fractured by the end of the film. Baring the desires of the woman beneath. However, Hitchcock’s next blondes would be the ones who were really broken down until nothing of their coolness remained.
In 1960, Hitchcock would direct perhaps his most famous film, the adaptation of Robert Bloch’s psychological horror novel, Psycho. The film would be groundbreaking and shocking for a number of reasons, but perhaps most telling for Hitchcock, for the death of his blonde leading lady half way through the film. Janet Leigh’s shower scene has become iconic because of its musical score and its skilfully shot cutting between her wounded body, the streaming shower water and the murder weapon: a long sharp kitchen knife. Although Janet Leigh utilised a body double for some of the scene, according to the 2012 film Hitchcock, the Master of Suspense wielded the knife himself. I have been unable to corroborate this claim, but if it is true, it adds an entire other dimension to the scene. And instead of the character’s sins being washed away by the shower, it seems as if she is punished for them, with the shower water turning inky with her blood.
Janet Leigh’s blonde, Marion, is also the most overtly sexual so far. The film begins with she and her lover in bed, her only clad in a bra and slip. Hitchcock had apparently wanted her to be topless, because he felt it would be more interesting. But the already crumbling production code would not allow quite that much overt sexuality. But Marion is eventually completely stripped down, killed whilst in the most vulnerable position anyone could be in. Even though she wants to make amends, it seems that Hitchcock’s assertion that women should be tortured, that they are in fact not tortured enough, comes to the fore.
Then Hitchcock would direct Tippi Hedren in two films, The Birds and Marnie. Hedren would later assert that Hitchcock’s treatment of her on both sets was not ideal. During the shooting of The Birds, he would have technicians use real birds in the climax of the scene where Tippi’s character is repeatedly pecked and attacked by the crazed creatures. This reportedly caused a gash above her one eye, which necessitated the halting of production.
Tippi’s character in the film starts out confident. She wastes no time in pursuing the object of her desire, Rod Taylor. She makes a concerted effort to ensure that she gets her man, but when it seems that she will, the birds suddenly start behaving strangely and then their behaviour turns deadly. Tippi is the picture of elegance in this film with a pale blonde chignon, not one hair out of place, her make up tastefully applied and her clothes extremely fashionable and becoming. She is an independent woman who does what she pleases, much like Lisa Fremont and Marion Crane.
But like Marion, she is seemingly to be brutally punished for this. By the end of the film she has undergone a terrible physical ordeal and has had a psychological breakdown. She is not even able to walk without assistance. The birds sit motionless, watching her, and even though she and the surviving characters get away, the damage is done.
In Marnie, Tippi’s character is duplicitous, not to be trusted like Eva Marie and Janet Leigh’s in North by Northwest and Psycho. Her sexual repression is undeniable. Her mother has clearly instilled in her a sense of sexual repulsion. While it is only revealed at the end of the film, Marnie’s mother was a prostitute, who murdered a man who she thought was molesting Marnie. Throughout the film Marnie shies away from men’s attention, namely Sean Connery’s character, Mark. She also does not start the film as a blonde, but a brunette, and then dyes her hair, seemingly transforming into Hitchcock’s contradictory ideal.
Mark eventually blackmails her into marrying him, as he has discovered that she has repeatedly stolen money from companies. During their honeymoon she admits that she cannot stand being touch by a man, and while he initially respects this, he eventually forces himself on her. Marnie tries to kill herself, and is repeatedly psychologically triggered throughout the movie due to a fear of red. Unlike Hitchcock’s other blondes, her cool facade cracks and then shatters almost immediately, until there is nothing left by the end of the film. She chooses to stay with Mark in the end, but it is unclear whether this is because she has grown to love him and will truly recover from her phobia, or if she just wants to escape prosecution for her crimes.
Tippi and Hitchcock’s relationship would disintegrate after Marnie. Hitchcock had apparently sexually propositioned Tippi in her trailer and had tried to control her public image and her private life, sending her jewellery and notes. Truffaut called this a “disastrous falling out”, and it seems that Marnie marked the end of Hitchcock’s focus on blondes as objects of desire, as woman who would coolly and calmly entice men whilst not entirely maintaining their trust.
Hitchcock’s blonde continues to be an object of fascination for classic film viewers. She seems to be at the heart of his work, that beautiful, untouchable image that drives the plot of some of his greatest films. She is intangible, though, seemingly a creation of his imagination. In the end none of the actresses who played her, not even the seeming perfect realisation of his vision, Grace Kelly, could meet and maintain his expectations, because, after all, she was only flesh and blood. And that’s the dichotomy of this image. The Hitchcock blonde is the embodiment of female coolness, of hidden desire in the fairer sex, but she is also imperfect, as vulnerable to human desire as the men who desire her. It seems that even though Hitchcock created a type of cinematic leading lady that still survives through his works and popular culture, he was never entirely able to resolve his desire for an ideal that was both untouchable and real.
This is my first contribution for the Third Annual Alfred Hitchcock Blogathon hosted by Maddy Loves Her Classic Films. Please visit her blog for movie information and to read everyone else’s contributions.