Cool. Aloof. Clever. Calculating. Alluring. Mysterious. Sexy. In essence, that’s the Hitchcock Blonde, a creature indigenous and essential to some of the greatest films that the Master of Suspense ever made. Though the faces, names and hairstyles often change from picture to picture, the archetype remains largely the same, and contributes a unique and intoxicating flavor to many Hitchcock films.
Often swathed in a chic wardrobe, impeccably coiffed, spouting suggestive quips and sporting a confidence and independence far ahead of her time, the Hitchcock Blonde is usually daring, unafraid of risk, and always knows what she wants and how to get it. Feminine wiles are her specialty, and she needs them to wrap the likes of Cary Grant, James Stewart, Sean Connery and Rod Taylor around her finger. But underneath all the fancy dresses, double entendres and cat-and-mouse chicanery lies a woman with a heart of gold – vulnerable, troubled, a bit over her head, and desirous of a strong man to lean on. Cynical and jaded? Oh, sure. The rough edges, however, are part of her charm, and oddly complement the refined veneer that she wears like a badge of honor.
Interestingly, the first half of Hitchcock’s career featured very few blondes. Madeleine Carroll in ‘The 39 Steps‘ and ‘Secret Agent’ was the dominant blonde in Hitchcock’s British period during the 1930s, and Priscilla Lane in ‘Saboteur’ acted the part in the 1940s, when Hitchcock was more focused on brunettes, such as Joan Fontaine and Ingrid Bergman. Back then, the type was in its gestational stages, far removed from the shapely form the blonde would eventually adopt. These dames are spunkier than their 1950s counterparts, and are usually unwilling participants in the plot – second bananas often dragged into the action by a desperate hero, and who become damsels in distress.
That all changed when Hitchcock began filming in Technicolor on a semi-regular basis in the mid-1950s… and when Grace Kelly entered his life. That’s when the Hitchcock Blonde was truly born. Color accentuated the hair tone and added dimension to his heroines. Breathtaking beauty became even easier to depict (and a de rigeur Hitchcock staple), but the Master complicates matters by making us wonder whether that beauty is only skin deep. Kelly personifies that duplicity of character, yet never pulls the wool completely over our eyes. In ‘Rear Window’ and ‘To Catch a Thief‘, she’s spoiled and petulant, but also wild and adventurous, eager to get her hands dirty and play with the big boys. She’s a sexual aggressor, too, eager for romantic attention yet savvy enough to realize her commitment-phobic prey might not end up with her at the altar.
Kelly, however, metaphorically left Hitchcock at the altar, as she abandoned their partnership to marry Prince Rainier of Monaco. Like a jilted lover, the director almost never got over it. Hitchcock spent the rest of his career trying to replace Kelly with other blondes, and somehow mold them into her image, a theme he explored with stunning success in the self-reflexive ‘Vertigo’. Though no one ever came close to grabbing Kelly’s stature as the quintessential Hitchcock blonde, each actress gave it the old college try.
First came Doris Day in ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’. Even though she portrays a devoted wife and mother with the proper forthright conviction, Day’s wholesome image and sugary sincerity doesn’t mesh with Hitchcock’s blonde blueprint. Day’s antithesis would be Kim Novak in ‘Vertigo’, as icy a maiden as they come – sleek, sexy, manipulative and oozing intrigue. She’s a Hitchcock blonde on steroids. It’s just a shame she couldn’t act.
Novak was succeeded by Eva Marie Saint, who plays a similar yet more accessible and human character in ‘North by Northwest‘. Unaccustomed to playing duplicitous roles, Saint embraced the challenge, and her superior ability makes her a formidable foil for Cary Grant and James Mason. Next came Janet Leigh in a little film called ‘‘Psycho‘… and we all know what happened to her. Impassioned, troubled, impulsive, clever, strong, yet sensitive and sympathetic, Leigh plays Marion Crane to the hilt, maximizing her limited screen time and totally eclipsing the other (bland) blonde in the picture, Vera Miles.
Other than Kelly, the most notable Hitchcock blonde – and the one Hitch himself groomed as her replacement – was Tippi Hedren. Hitch was many things, but Svengali was not necessarily one of them, and he couldn’t quite put Hedren over. Still, in ‘The Birds’ and ‘Marnie’, she’s a dazzling presence, and compensates for her lack of talent by connecting with the camera and projecting both sex appeal and vulnerability. Hedren is a poor man’s Kelly, no question (or, as Anne Baxter’s Eve Harrington would have termed her in ‘All About Eve‘, “the carbon copy when you can’t find the original”), but she brings the Hitchcock blonde full circle, embracing its many guises and putting her own personal stamp on the coveted and identifiable role.
Though there have been plenty of notable blondes throughout motion picture history: Jean Harlow, Betty Grable, Lana Turner, Jayne Mansfield and Marilyn Monroe among them. None of them, with the possible exception of Monroe, exhibit the dimensionality, magnetism, sophistication, sex appeal and sense of mystery as Hitchcock’s blondes. They don’t define Hitchcock’s films, but they add complexity, texture and titillation – essential elements that enhance the artistry and impact of the director’s work. They are truly one of a kind, and as iconic as Hitchcock himself.
In association with the National Film Preservation Foundation, High-Def Digest is proud to join the 2012 Hitchcock Blogathon. During the week of May 14th to 18th, we will blog about topics related to the films and career of the legendary Sir Alfred Hitchcock. This year, the NFPF hopes to raise money to fund a new musical score and online streaming distribution for ‘The White Shadow’, an early silent film that young Mr. Hitchcock (then officially a writer and Assistant Director) used as a stepping stone to launch his own directorial career. To contribute, please visit the NFPF’s donations page.