Hitchcock Blondes

Electric Sheep writers pick their favourite Hitchcock blonde. Enter our competition to win cinema tickets!


To coincide with the Blonde Crazy retrospective, which runs from March 1-17 at BFI Southbank as part of the Birds Eye View Festival, Electric Sheep writers pick their favourite Hitchcock blonde. Tell us who your favourite is by leaving a comment below and win a pair of tickets to one of the films in the season! See details of the competition below.

For all his talent, Alfred Hitchcock was a tyrant and none more so than with Tippi Hedren. Just like the ‘poor little creatures caged up’ at the beginning of The Birds, Hitchcock bound Hedren so tightly to her contract that her career stayed in limbo until it was too late. In Marnie, she captures the haunted innocence of the title character but it is as The Birds‘ Melanie that she is at her most iconic. Sometimes aloof, sometimes as overplayed as a B-movie actress, Hedren’s Melanie dominates the viewer’s gaze. Credit must also be given to her blonde bouffant, which, in its varying degrees of tidiness, reveals almost as much emotion as her face. The actress has since revealed that Hitchcock demanded real birds be used in her character’s final showdown, so part of her struggle is in fact genuine. This perhaps explains why she has since devoted her life to rescuing tigers, rather than anything of an avian nature.

My favourite Hitchcock blonde is Cary Grant’s ‘sparring’ partner in North by Northwest (1959), Eva Marie Saint. While Grace Kelly is probably the Master of Suspense’s archetypal woman, having starred in three of his films – Rear Window, Dial M for Murder, To Catch a Thief – I just feel Saint has a devilish quality that, to my mind, makes her more alluring. In many ways, Saint’s character, Eve Kendall, is an unusual Hitchcock blonde; yes, she oozes cool charm and well-mannered sophistication like many of the director’s other platinum-haired beauties, but unlike them, we also know almost immediately that she’s no virginal do-gooder. Her picture of innocence is tarnished from the off: we know she’s up to no good, we know she’s lying to Thornhill and we know she uses sex as a weapon (some kind of flyswatter) – she is, essentially, a ‘bad girl’ (who eventually comes good). And the allure of the dark side is always compelling. I know I would have fallen for Eve’s charms far sooner than Roger O Thornhill – a bewitching cock of the eyebrow, a dry quip, laden with double meaning, and the offer of a quick bunk-up in her cabin after dinner, and I would have been putty in her hands too. There may be better Hitchcock films, but is there a better Hitchcock blonde than Eva Marie Saint? I don’t think so…

Others were fully formed before they reached his hands but Ms Hedren was Hitchcock’s custom-built blonde, designed and sculpted for mounting unease and screaming terror. Witness to the malicious ecological nightmare of The Birds, she looks fabulous darling with that skin, those clothes, that hair, that car, drawing the suspicion of locals as if she must be responsible for the vicious attacks simply because she looks so damn fine. And no wonder, she is like a visitor from some sleek space-age future that never was, here to tell an outpost of the 50s that a swingin’ paradise awaits. Of course, she must be punished for this and spends much of the film’s second half yelping in terror with a variety of feathered fiends screwing up that immaculate coiffure, pecking that perfect skin… As frosty Marnie she displayed a new range of traumas against a fake backdrop of matte paintings and modish psychodrama, in a great film that’s as difficult to love as its heroine. That was it for Hedren and Hitch, and she was never used so well again. But she wears a flapping crow well, and that’s a talent to be reckoned with.

There is James Stewart sweatily asleep in his dark apartment, with his leg in a plaster cast and his mind on the goings-on in the flat opposite, and here comes Grace Kelly to wake the grumpy sleeping beauty with a kiss and light. Switching on three lamps, she introduces herself with golden insouciance: ‘Reading from top to bottom, Lisa…Carol…Freemont’. Self-contained, confident, beautifully dressed and bringing a catered dinner. She is a princess, with a couture wardrobe and a knack of packing an immensely beautiful negligée and delicate slippers into a very small suitcase. But she’s also the prince, heading into peril on a quest for the freighted-with-meaning wedding ring, and a murderous husband. Crisp of diction and dressed to the nines she’s a girl who’ll take chances, embark on adventures. By the end of Rear Window, she’s wearing the trousers, (and a very becoming) tailored shirt, pretending to read Beyond the High Himalayas. Checking to see that Stewart, now with both legs in cast up to the thighs, is still asleep, Ms Kelly swaps her travel book for a copy of Harper’s Bazaar. Very cool.

Appearing in arguably two of Hitchcock’s greatest films – and certainly two of the juiciest female roles in the filmmaker’s oeuvre – The Birds and Marnie, Tippi Hedren was the ultimate and last of Hitchcock’s icy blondes. Strikingly beautiful with the same cool elegance as Grace Kelly, the model was ‘discovered’ by Hitchcock when watching a television commercial. Perhaps it is because she was moulded by the director himself that she became the most perfect example of his female ideal, through which he could play out his favourite fantasy – watching the urban sophisticate whose cool exterior is destroyed by a force of nature. Seeming older (already a mother in her 30s when making her film debut in The Birds) and more worldly than Kelly, she also was willing to suffer indignities more famous actresses would never have allowed – having birds tied to her and even thrown at her. Her terror as seagulls claw her hair can clearly be seen to be real. But perhaps she remains the perfect Hitchcock blonde because she barely made any other films for any other directors. Naturally, she is cool and aloof today when discussing why it was they fell out – why she refused to work for him and why he refused to let her work for anyone else – paying her to sit idly for two years while others clamoured to cast ‘Hitchcock’s new Grace Kelly’ in a multitude of roles. She occasionally hints that it was something to do with Hitchcock’s obsessive nature and that it would probably be classed as sexual harassment nowadays, but whatever it was, it seems it was worse than having live seagulls thrown at your face.

In Vertigo, Kim Novak gives one of the greatest performances ever in a Hitchcock film, one that is carried by a deep understanding of the curious double-sided nature of her character, and which for me surpasses any other Hitchcock blonde in both its sensuality and vulnerability. It’s hard to imagine how the film would have turned out if Vera Miles (who starred in Hitchcock’s earlier film The Wrong Man and would later appear in Psycho) had played the part of Madeleine/Judy as originally planned, but – fortunately – Miles became pregnant just before the shooting was to start, and Novak took on the part. Dressed up in a wig and that close-fitting grey suit, she not only brilliantly portrays a woman who must impersonate another woman to please a man, but she also strives against Hitchcock’s disappointment at having to work with his second-choice blonde. She succeeds in both tasks and proves that Hitch for once was wrong in his initial choice of cast. A tough job incredibly well done.

Tippi Hedren may not be as dangerously pulpous as Kim Novak or as coolly urbane as Grace Kelly, but she is the ultimate Hitchcockian object of desire, and although delicate-looking, she turns out to be more resistant to aggressive male attention than many of her blonde counterparts. In The Birds, she comes under freak avian attack shortly after meeting an attractive man and being taken to his home. In Marnie, she is the pathological kleptomaniac who is given the dubious choice of marriage or prison by the boss (Sean Connery) who catches her. In both films, she is a woman in trouble, but she somehow eludes the obsessive, fetishistic suitors who try to keep her/birds/life under control. In Hitch’s world, blonde sophistication masks the predatory nature of romantic relationships and Hedren embodied this perhaps more strikingly than any other of the director’s muses.

In Scenes of Clerical Life, George Eliot wrote: ‘In every parting there is an image of death’… This could apply to Alfred Hitchcock’s depiction of Kim Novak in Vertigo, her entrances and departures into John ‘Scottie’ Ferguson’s life leading to the death and resurrection of her character. Hitchcock’s obsession with unobtainable blondes on screen is obvious to even the casual observer, but Novak is the most exquisite example in what is his most overt film on the subject. At face value, Scottie falls in love with a woman only to see her die, and then while dealing with post-traumatic stress tries to craft a stranger into her doppelgänger. If every Hitchcock blonde is a reflection of the ultimate woman in the director’s mind’s eye, then this explicit rendering of the theme turns the viewer into both psychoanalyst and voyeur as we see a desperate man try to overcome death through metaphorical necrophilia. If every Hitchcock blonde is a reflection, it is appropriate there was such a large filmic concatenation of afterimages following the film’s release. The fake Madeleine, a reflection of an unseen ‘real’ woman in Vertigo, gives a monologue about her former life in front of a felled redwood, a tree that has seen a hundred generations of deaths precede its own, a speech that was then adapted for the script of Chris Marker’s La Jetée in 1962. Sound and images from Vertigo were later used in Marker’s Sans Soleil, in Terry Gilliam’s remake of La Jetée, Twelve Monkeys, and in video works by artists Douglas Gordon (Feature Film) and Wago Kreider (Between 2 Deaths). Since Novak’s character and her scenes from Vertigo had such a remarkable afterlife, it is appropriate that she and Hitchcock collaborated once again, in an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, introduced by the director (in archive footage) suitably from beyond the grave.

Leave a comment below to tell us who your favourite Hitchcock blonde is and explain why in no more than 200 words. The best two entries will win a pair of tickets each to a film of their choice in the Blonde Crazy retrospective, (subject to availability), courtesy of the BFI. Closing date for entries: Thursday 25 February.

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  1. I think it has to be Tippi Hedren as Marnie as she perfectly acts out the role of a dorry, messed up young lady. x

  2. Definitely Tippi Hedren. I can’t imagine anyone else stepping off a rowboat more gracefully, with her cardi still over her shoulders and not a hair out of place. It took a whole flock of frantic, murderous birds to ruffle that hair. We should all aspire to that…

  3. For me Kim Novack is one of the greatest Hitchcock leading ladies, because she is a lie in Vertigo, she doesn´t exist as real only in Jimmy Stewart´s imagination. But I think that Ingrid Bergman, that doesn´t have a blond-yellow hair but is blond in some way, was the first Hitchcok´s woman in America. We see her in Notorious and she is most disguised while her spy mission is most dangerous, I definitely love her. Is so important in Hitchcoks´ ladies the costume, because all of them are liers, spies, thieves… And Hitchcok had dressed all of these actresses for her rolls, and time has turned all these ladies into icons.