Hitchcock’s Heroines–New book delves into the acclaimed director and his leading women actors

Review by C.J. Bunce

Notorious isn’t just the name of an Alfred Hitchcock film, it describes the reputation of the acclaimed director over the course of his 55-year career.  Over the course of his films he would become famous for not only the blonde actresses in his films, but his misogynistic, voyeuristic, fetishism themes and content.  A precursor in many ways to Quentin Tarantino, Hitchcock nearly 40 years after his death is as popular as ever, with his film Vertigo still on many critics’ lists as the best American film of all time.  Those who view his films are left to wonder how much of the content of his films were the man, and how often was he simply selling what moviegoers were looking for–something new, something surprising, something stylish, and something shocking.  The flip side of Hitchcock viewed as provocateur is the fact that his films always featured a strong lead woman–sometimes from the opening scene and other times by film’s end–and the actress was often the only name marketed above the title, including some of the most fierce and compelling women characters ever filmed.

Scotland author Caroline Young takes a compelling look at the director and his relationship with the leading women in his films in her new book Hitchcock’s Heroines, a photograph-filled hardcover from Insight Editions.  Young, author of Roman Holiday: The Secret Life of Hollywood in Rome, Tartan & Tweed, and Style Tribes, sources interviews with the actors as well as interviews with Hitchcock to gain a better understanding of what motivated his work.  He spent the first half of his career–represented by the first half of the book–developing the style he would come to be known for by the time of his 1954 success Rear Window, culminating in his ideal production team: costume designer Edith Head, production designer Robert Burks, assistant director Herbert Coleman, and editor George Tomasini.  Hitchcock knew that most of his audience were women and believed that in the 1940s-1960s women usually determined what movie a couple was going to attend.  So the appearance of his leading women was as important, if not more important, than any other part of the film.  He also had an eye for using color and wardrobe as part of his storytelling tools, perhaps changing a character’s muted-toned costumes to striking and contrasting by film’s end to represent a character’s change in mood, strength, or growth.

Hitchcock’s Heroines is a superb source of costume sketches, costume designs, and production stills spanning Hitchcock’s directorial career.  Young includes with her discussions of each actress and corresponding character the costumes and costumers, which amounts to a history of Hollywood costume design artists, including Jean Peron, Dolly Tree, Joe Strassner, Marianne, Irene, Edward Stevenson, Vera West, Gilbert Adrian, René Hubert, Howard Greer, Edith Head, Christian Dior, Milo Anderson, Moss Mabry, Helen Rose, Harry Kress, Rita Riggs, Helen Colvig, and Julie Harris, although it was also not beyond Hitchcock to source his own vision from off-the-rack wardrobe from Western Costume Company or Bergdorf Goodman. Hair style and hair color is also a recurring theme Young pursues in the book.

Young references an interview from 1931 where Hitchcock discussed selecting actresses for roles: “The chief point I keep in mind when selecting my heroine is that she must be fashioned to please women rather than men, for the reason that women form three-quarters of the average cinema audience.  Therefore, no actress can be a good commercial proposition as a film heroine unless she pleases her own sex.”  It is noteworthy that Hitchcock was not always responsible for who starred in his films–Young cites instances where studio head David O. Selznick directly cast Hitchcock’s leading actors.

In many ways the comparison of all the leading women–June Howard-Tripp in The Lodger, Anny Ondra in Blackmail, Madeleine Carroll in The 39 Steps, Nova Pilbeam in Young and Innocent, Margaret Lockwood in The Lady Vanishes, Joan Fontaine in Rebecca and Suspicion, Carole Lombard in Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Teresa Wright in Shadow of a Doubt, Tallulah Bankhead in Lifeboat, Ingrid Bergman in Spellbound and Notorious, Marlene Dietrich and Jane Wyman in Stage Fright, Grace Kelly in Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, and To Catch a Thief, Doris Day in The Man Who Knew Too Much, Kim Novak in Vertigo, Eva Marie Saint in North by Northwest, Janet Leigh in Psycho, Tippi Hedrin in The Birds and Marnie, and Anna Massey and Barbara Leigh-Hunt in Frenzy–results in Hitchcock being a different person to different people–a complex individual and an enigma.  It seems as many of his leading women reject accusations of misogyny as accuse, although some accounts are more compelling than others, and most at a minimum acknowledge his risqué humor on-set, purportedly to break down barriers, elicit a more natural response, or get a rise out of the actress.

Readers will find plot overviews, scene descriptions, wardrobe analysis, public reception, and commentary from studio staff and friends of the director.  If not also true before and after, in the 1920s through the 1960s, “sexy sells” was a truth, and the women featured in most of his films had their own sex appeal that formed an integral part of their characters, for story reasons, for commercial reasons, or both.  Young’s look at the appeal and use in his films of Joan Fontaine, Ingrid Bergman, Grace Kelly, and Tippi Hedrin reflect the shifts in Hitchcock’s style both on the screen and behind the screen.

A must for every Alfred Hitchcock fan, a superb resource for anyone interested in costume design, and an indispensable tool for aspiring filmmakers, Hitchcock’s Heroines is available now here at Amazon.

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