“Sex on the screen should be suspenseful,” Alfred Hitchcock told François Truffaut. “If sex is too blatant or obvious, there’s no suspense. You know why I prefer sophisticated blondes in my films? We’re after the drawing-room type, the real ladies, who become whores once they’re in the bedroom. Poor Marilyn Monroe had sex written all over her face …”
The icy, sophisticated blondes were indeed as iconic in Hitchcock’s body of work as his penchant for thrilling audiences or his cheeky cameos. It could perhaps even be argued that the director, much like his killers and creeps, “had it in” for blondes in the worst ways; they were, in general, often reduced to little bundles of nerves before our very eyes.
Not all of Hitch’s blondes were victims-in-waiting, of course, but more often than not they played as sophistication on a wire: one slip one way or another and despair was waiting. The idea that terror and the macabre could strike at any moment in any evening gown was fascinating for the masterful filmmaker.
Without question, Hitchcock had his favorites. Grace Kelly and Ingrid Bergman, in particular, were among his obsessions. Others seemed harder to capture, as with Doris Day and Julie Andrews. And some, it would seem, were subjected to downright cruelty. In the case of Tippi Hedren in particular, Hitch’s alleged insistence on torturing women came home to roost.
Ranking Hitchcock’s blondes is a bit of an uphill climb. Taking aesthetic and artistic qualities into account produces a list that shifts in dizzying Vertigo-like fashion, but one has to start somewhere. In order to cause things to settle somewhat, the best idea is to assess these real ladies in terms of sheer, unadulterated awesomeness. And, in the spirit of lists, the best idea is to limit it to 10.
(It should also be noted, briefly, that the “blonde” in this universe doesn’t refer to natural hair color but more an archetypal image or an icon in Hitchcock’s lens).
No. 10: PRISCILLA LANE, SABOTEUR (1942): Hitch wanted Barbara Stanwyk for Lane’s role in 1942′s Saboteur and he wasn’t too impressed with Robert Cummings as the lead actor, either. But Lane makes the best of a bad situation, turning in a compact and capable performance as she tries to protect and support Cummings’ falsely accused Barry Kane.
No. 9: ANNY ONDRA, THE MANXMAN; BLACKMAIL (1929): Ondra isn’t often thought of as among Hitchcock’s more traditional blondes, but there’s an argument to be made that she is perhaps the first to embody the type. She is responsible for some of the sexiest scenes in the director’s early films, nevertheless, and she embodies pure tension in the knife-wielding sequence in Blackmail.
No. 8: DORIS DAY, THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1956): Day’s sweetheart image had her pegged as the sort of actress with little in common with a Hitchcock blonde, but she manages to slip into the role of Jo McKenna in the remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much with little difficulty. The “girl next door” was troubled by the surroundings of shooting in Marrakesh and didn’t think she pleased the director with her performance. She also wouldn’t do any scenes with animals unless she could ensure they were properly fed.
No. 7: ANNE BAXTER, I CONFESS (1953): The plan initially was to cast Swedish actress Anita Bjork in the role, but controversy erupted when she arrived in America pregnant and unmarried. As a result, Baxter was cast in the part of Madame Ruth Grandfort. Blackmailed by a man for “indiscretions,” she is trapped in a loveless marriage and is desperately in love with Montgomery Clift’s priest. Oh, the humanity!
No. 6: MADELEINE CARROLL, THE 39 STEPS (1935), SECRET AGENT (1936): Carroll makes the trains run on time in the Howard Hawks-ish The 39 Steps, one of Hitch’s first classics and still one of his best pictures. Robert Donat’s character is handcuffed to her, an awfully big upside considering the circumstances. And in Secret Agent, a lesser film to be sure, Carroll plays wifey while Peter Lorre’s “Hairless Mexican” does the killing.
No. 5: JANET LEIGH, PSYCHO (1960): The shower scene is still one of the most iconic moments in cinematic history. Leigh’s character is a victim for certain and it could be argued that her archetype faced the most punishing of Hitch’s paybacks, at least from a symbolic standpoint. But the picture — and the scene — made her career and wouldn’t have been the same without her screaming face.
No. 4 (tie): KIM NOVAK, VERTIGO (1958); EVA MARIE SAINT, NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959): A cop-out for sure, Novak and Saint split the fourth spot out of the sheer collision of wills and blondeness. Novak’s turn in Vertigo was a career highlight and her character must literally conceal her sexuality in order to draw the passions of James Stewart. Saint’s character in North By Northwest is assertive, lethal and fond of sex on trains.
No. 3: INGRID BERGMAN, SPELLBOUND (1945); NOTORIOUS (1946); UNDER CAPRICORN (1949): There’s little use doubting the fact that Bergman was among Hitchcock’s favorites. She is twice poisoned — in Notorious and Under Capricorn — and thus gives weight to the idea of sophistication wasting away. She isn’t ironclad. And in the expressionistic Spellbound, Bergman even fuels Salvador Dali’s dreams.
No. 2: TIPPI HEDREN, THE BIRDS (1963); MARNIE (1964): There is a lot of controversy and revulsion in the relationship between Hedren and Hitchcock. Some accounts of what she went through in filming The Birds are downright horrific, with the director having live seagulls tossed at her. She endured hell to craft Hitch’s vision of “catastrophe” surrounding us all, while on the set of Marnie it was said that she endured the director’s sexual advances. What’s on screen is at turns terrifying and lovely.
No. 1: GRACE KELLY, DIAL M FOR MURDER (1954); REAR WINDOW (1954); TO CATCH A THIEF (1955): Hitchcock claimed that Kelly was the last of the classic beauties, a star so intoxicating that she couldn’t be replicated. Her characters in three pictures with the filmmaker seem to reveal that truth; she plays a slightly different character each time, yet there’s always something steamy about the role and what lies beneath. She embodies glamour and the “drawing-room type,” taking on all the values of a Hitchcock blonde with effortless awesomeness to spare.
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