Both worshipped and victimized, the cool, aloof blonde was one of Hitchcock's key obsessions. Explore the Master's fair-haired fixation in such suspense classics as Rear Window, Vertigo and Psycho.
"You know why I favour sophisticated blondes in my films? We're after the drawing-room type, the real ladies, who become whores once they're in the bedroom."—Alfred Hitchcock
"'He loved blondes, and couldn't understand women not bleaching their hair for the privilege of working with him."—Joseph Cotten
Hitchcock's typically ungallant comment in the famous interview with François Truffaut summons not only his "naughty boy" persona of smuttiness and unsubtle innuendo—he loved to pun on his last name and to make toilet jokes—but also the more knowing artist who recognized the double nature of one of his signature motifs: the cool, aloof blonde. Petrarch's time-worn oxymoron "icy fire" captures the quality Hitchcock searched for in his succession of fair-haired beauties, from the manacled Madeleine Carroll in The 39 Steps
through the oddball blondes, one real, one fake, in his last film, Family Plot
. With her precise diction, virginal beauty, and regal air—John Ford applauded her screen test as revealing her "breeding, quality and class"—Grace Kelly best embodied the remote, composed but approachable blonde who was Hitchcock's ideal. ("I signed [Tippi Hedren] to a contract because she has a classic beauty," Hitchcock told a reporter. "Movies don't have them anymore. Grace Kelly was the last.") More than the unfortunate others, Kelly managed to elude the director's sexual predation (and depredation), maintaining her sophisticated poise and serene elegance. She was the lucky one. Those who resisted—Janet Leigh, Tippi Hedren—found themselves tormented both off-screen and on, submitted to needlessly protracted, gruelling shoots: a six-day stint in the shower (Leigh) or endless avian onslaught (Hedren), their marmoreal loveliness defiled for the world to behold.
However one characterizes the dual nature of "the Hitchcock blonde"—earthy-ethereal, detached-passionate, femme fatale-ingenue—the misogynist dichotomy of the virgin and whore that the director's own statement seems to imply does not actually pertain. Rather, in his cinema the inviolate exists to be violated: stabbed, strangled, or tossed off a tower, emotionally humiliated, traumatized, or otherwise injured. (Buñuel was somewhat less severe in his treatment of unattainable blondes, for whom he shared a fascination with Hitchcock; see Viridiana, Belle de Jour, Tristana
.) In Hitchcock's punitive universe, the blonde can sometimes be disciplined (by death or mortification) for an actual crime—Marnie and Marion (Psycho
) steal from their employers, Vertigo
's Madeleine is complicit in murder and fraud—but she often appears to be punished merely for being desirable. And, in a cruel irony, Hitchcock's actresses were made to feel unappealing until they had achieved his prescribed degree of blondeness: Anne Baxter, replacing the Nordic Anita Björk in I Confess
, was immediately instructed to dye her tresses so bright that she became almost unrecognizable.
A cinema as complex as Hitchcock's resists generalization; no observation matches all instances. The amiable working girl who makes one wrong step and regrets it, Marion Crane seems a distant relative of the glamorous, sometimes arch socialites Eve Kendall (North by Northwest
), Melanie Daniels (The Birds
) and Lisa Fremont (Rear Window
), as does The Man Who Knew Too Much
's freckle-faced singer Jo McKenna (the sole blonde in this series with a child, an anomaly that Hitchcock typically turned into an instrument of intimidation). Too, the semiotic thicket of Hitchcock's cinema can be tricky to navigate. Turning the innocent into the ominous, the "pure" into its sordid opposite, the Catholic Hitchcock, greatest purveyor of name symbolism since Dickens, often ensures his blondes have posh monikers or ones fraught with religious association, even as their characters appear to be (or indeed are) spies, thieves, kidnappers or cheats.
Aside from the basic vagaries of determining hair colour—some critics count Ingrid Bergman as a Hitchcock blonde, though both her bearing and tint seem to deny that appellation—blondeness remains something of an "elusive signifier" in Hitchcock. Despite its frequent association with the brassy and brazen in early cinema—e.g., the well-named Joan Blondell, Jean Harlow, Barbara Stanwyck—blondeness originally derived its fascination for the director, or so he claimed, from the wholesome nature of "The Girl with the Golden Hair," silent star Mary Pickford. Hitchcock often complicates the classical light-dark duality and its traditional clusters of connotation. In Vertigo
, each a Pygmalion tale of a man's fetishistic obsession with, and reconstruction of, a duplicitous woman to satisfy his desires (as well as an obvious allegory about Hitchcock's domineering treatment of his actresses), Kim Novak and Tippi Hedren play both ends of the spectrum, dyeing their hair less for beauty than for ruse. After what seems like a perverse deferral of revealing the heroine's face in Marnie
's opening sequences—we see only her body from the back and hear her described by a policeman reiterating her employer's estimation: "black hair, wavy, even features, good teeth"—our first glimpse of the character's visage is introduced by the "stain" of her previous self being washed away, a sink swirling with dark dye before Marnie finally heaves into view: Venus-like, triumphantly, almost ecstatically, a blonde. She does not, however, expunge her transgression along with the raven stain: she remains criminal, a kleptomaniac and prisoner of sexual pathology despite the "purity" signaled by her blonde rebirth. Similarly, Vertigo
's wraithlike Madeleine (the whorl of her blonde chignon signifying for Chris Marker one of the film's many spirals of temporality) transforms into the dark and down-to-earth Judy from Kansas, only to again be remade into her former chimerical self, the chic, platinum enigma with the Proustian name and tailored grey suit, by an increasingly abusive man in love with her phantom. Tincture means little more to Madeleine than a means of deception, while Scottie fetishizes it as a talisman of lost time.
"Are you crazy? Are you trying to kill her?" a doctor reportedly demanded of Hitchcock during Tippi Hedren's harrowing ornithological ordeal in the final weeks of shooting The Birds
. Hitchcock's impulse to punish his actresses has been duly analyzed by everyone from Lacanian theorists and feminist critics to Donald Spoto, author of three biographical studies of the auteur. Among the first scholars to emphasize what he called "the dark side of [Hitchcock's] genius," Spoto has increasingly focused on the psychodrama of the director's relationships with his actresses, blonde and not, while maintaining that Hitchcock was "history's greatest filmmaker." (After all, the list of great directors with vicious attitudes or sadistic means runs to reams.) Spoto prefaces Spellbound by Beauty
, his latest Hitchcock study, by observing that of the more than 140 references to actresses in the Truffaut interview with the director, none of them is complimentary, even about the actresses he was fond of (Ingrid Bergman, Grace Kelly), while many of them are hostile. Spoto presents a self-loathing, isolated artist, imprisoned by his ego and fleshy immensity, plagued by childish sexual delusions that he imposed upon his actresses, persecuting them when they failed to respond. "Torture the women!" Hitch often joked, and proceeded to do just that. To invoke the language of his religion, does the indisputable greatness of his art absolve his most grievous sins?