My feature on Alfred Hitchcock’s strange obsession with his blonde leading ladies ran in yesterday’s Yorkshire Post but was trimmed for reasons of space. You can read it online here. The full version appears below.
Alfred Hitchcock loved his blondes. As To Catch a Thief is rereleased Film Critic Tony Earnshaw looks back at the strange obsessions that drove the Master of Suspense.
The stories are legion.
Alfred Hitchcock liked his women, blonde, icy and carnal. He desired them from afar and, when spurned, tortured them via the medium of film. He put his fantasies into his movies and secretly spied on his leading ladies via a peephole in his office. Just like Norman Bates…
It is said that he lusted after a succession of actresses – all blondes – starting with Madeleine Carroll (the star of The 39 Steps in 1939) and progressing through Ingrid Bergman, Grace Kelly, Kim Novak, Janet Leigh and Tippi Hedren, the latter just 33 when the 64-year-old director became obsessed by her during the filming of Marnie.
Kelly fared better than most, though in Hitchcock’s eyes she committed arguably the greatest act of betrayal by quitting movies to marry a prince. And when Hitchcock lured her back to pictures in 1963 to play in Marnie it was the good people of Monaco who bested him.
Kelly wanted to do the film. Her husband, Prince Rainier, was less keen. It was put to the people of the principality – and they voted no. It was the definitive end of Kelly’s movie career and marked a sea change in Hitchcock’s fortunes, too.
Grace Kelly made only 11 films in a five-year career. She won an Academy Award for The Country Girl and appeared in a string of hits from High Noon to High Society.
For Hitchcock she made To Catch a Thief, Rear Window and Dial M for Murder. In the former – rereleased this week – she was the reserved daughter of a millionairess. In the latter she endured near strangulation as Hitchcock strove for realism.
Yet they were friends – certainly friendlier than Hitchcock was with Bergman, Novak, Leigh and Hedren, all of whom saw a darker side to this droll fat man who liked to introduce himself to new collaborators by saying, “Call me Hitch. Hold the cock.”
And there is another, more salacious, story that refuses to go away. In Kenneth Anger’s book Hollywood Babylon II he writes that Kelly was persuaded by Hitchcock to perform a striptease for him. He was not in the room at the time. Instead he was a mile away, watching the unique event unfold through a telescope. His fetish was voyeurism – of one kind or another.
Hitchcock’s blondes have become an archetype through which modern audiences can view his films. They were cool, soignée, willowy – ice-maidens to be disarrayed. As the man himself once observed, they were “the drawing-room type, the real ladies, who become whores once they’re in the bedroom. Sex should not be advertised. 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.”
Millions of words have been written about Hitchcock’s treatment of his leading ladies. It is evident as early as The 39 Steps when Madeleine Carroll is handcuffed to Robert Donat. Every time she moved her arm his hand stroked her thigh.
Was he mischievous or semi-sadistic? Certainly he appeared to relish the process of presenting an alluring portrait of confident, feisty womanhood only to break her down.
It reached an unpleasant zenith with Tippi Hedren on Marnie. The oft-repeated story is that Hitchcock propositioned her when the two were alone in her trailer. She rebuffed him. Thereafter he seemed to lose interest in the film. He spoke to her via third parties; she did the same.
His career went on, not entirely successfully, with just four more films. Hers collapsed. But the film is notable for an extreme close-up of a kiss between Hedren, playing a frigid habitual thief, and Sean Connery. The moment has been described as “nearly pornographic”.
Later she would remark, “I had always heard that his idea was to take a woman – usually a blonde – and break her down, to see her shyness and reserve broken down. I thought this was only in the plots of his films.”
Hedren had reason to be wary. In The Birds she had endured a week-long sequence of a bird attack. Hitchcock substituted real gulls for stuffed fakes, and tied them to Hedren’s clothing. As they pecked and tore, her eye was injured and the actress collapsed in hysterics. The breakdown was complete.
Hitchcock had his own theory. He liked to present his blondes as having hidden reserves of sexual ardour. Grace Kelly was made to reveal the hidden fires beneath the classic beauty that had become her trademark. In To Catch a Thief she boldly flirts with Cary Grant. In Rear Window she teases wheelchair-bound James Stewart as she parades in a diaphanous negligee.
In Psycho Hitchcock introduces heroine Marion Crane in a bedroom scene with her lover, Sam Loomis. Sam, played by John Gavin, is shirtless, lying on the bed. Nestled against his chest in obvious post-coital bliss is Janet Leigh. She’s semi-dressed, wearing a bra.
Hitchcock saw it as a cheat; she should have been topless, her bare breasts rubbing against his chest. “It would have been more interesting,” he told François Truffaut in his famous 1966 book-length conversation.
Interesting, perhaps. But also pointedly indicative of what was going on in Hitchcock’s mind when he presented his heroine on screen. What’s more, she would pay dearly for her modesty at the hands of mother-fixated psychopath Norman Bates. And when the naked Leigh rehearsed the shower scene the knife was wielded by… Alfred Hitchcock.