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Now and Then: Hitchcock’s Bad-Ass ’40s Brunettes Were the Lead-Up to Those ’50s Icy Blondes

Now and Then: Hitchcock's Bad-Ass '40s Brunettes Were the Lead-Up to Those '50s Icy Blondes

My favorite words in the movies come from the dusky, sultry opening minutes of “Rear Window” (1954), as Grace Kelly’s New York socialite glides through L.B. Jefferies’ (James Stewart) dim apartment, switching on the lights. “From top to bottom,” she announces herself. “Lisa.” Flick. “Carol.” Flick. “Fremont.” Flick.

Kelly’s fluid, graceful steps; the structured elegance of her Edith Head-designed dress (see below); the way the scene conjures up that late-summer swelter: here is Hitchcock turning on the lights of his own most productive decade. Between 1954, which saw the release of “Dial M for Murder” and “Rear Window,” and 1964, with the underrated “Marnie,” Hitchcock directed eight films, five of which I’d count among his, or any director’s, best (the remake of “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” “Vertigo,” “North by Northwest,” “Psycho,” and “The Birds”).

Hitchcock’s blondes (Kelly, Doris Day, Eva Marie Saint, Tippi Hedren) have come in for more than their fair share of analysis, invariably “icy,” if the critics are to be believed. Icy in appearance, maybe, but not in action. How else to describe Kelly’s brazen break-in across the courtyard in “Rear Window,” except to call it hot-blooded, tempestuous? What other word than “warm” is there for Doris Day’s heartfelt rendition of “Que Sera, Sera” in “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” her brilliant ploy to recover her son? In fact, it’s the women of the most famous films that animate the proceedings, all while the men — with broken limbs, dizzy spells, bourbon benders, overbearing mothers — settle in to watch. Hitchcock may have treated his leading ladies badly on set, but they mostly come off bold and complicated on screen. 

Watch “Notorious” (1946), though, and it becomes clear that by the 1940s Hitchcock had already begun assembling the thematic and aesthetic components of his peak period. With the opening of “Rear Window” in mind, the first minutes of the Ingrid Bergman/Cary Grant vehicle seem almost uncanny, a prophecy of a future as yet ten years away.

Following her father’s conviction as a Nazi spy, insouciant Alicia Huberman (Bergman) pours drinks in her living room for others of the idle rich. Against the matte opulence of Kelly’s gown, the simple sheen of Bergman’s black-striped blouse seems a perfect mirror image, though her Devil-may-care attitude presages similar storms. “How about you, handsome?” she asks of the man in the foreground (Grant), as yet faceless, cast in shadow. “Haven’t I seen you somewhere before? Ah, it doesn’t matter. I like party crashers.”

The camera is something less than perfectly still — it follows Bergman’s easy, loose limbs and penetrating glance, such that she never leaves the center of the frame — but the entire scene falls within this single shot, capturing the kind of deep-focus intensity of which the courtyard in “Rear Window” is emblematic. It’s intensity with purpose. “I’m a marked woman,” she laments sarcastically. “I’m liable to blow up the Panama Canal any minute.”

“Notorious” follows Alicia as she’s recruited to spy on escaped Nazis in Brazil, seduces her target (played by Claude Rains), and falls in love with her handler (Grant). The film speaks to Hitchcock’s increasing propensity, in the 1940s, to give women his most dangerous assignments. Joan Fontaine’s young Mrs. de Winter, in “Rebecca” (1940), ends up coaching her husband through a murder cover-up; Bergman’s Dr. Petersen, in “Spellbound” (1945), uses her expertise as a psychologist to chase Gregory Peck’s imposter down the rabbit-hole of his Salvador Dali-designed dreamscape; in “Notorious” she’ll be slowly poisoned. Poor Teresa Wright, upon discovering Joseph Cotten’s malign deeds in “Shadow of a Doubt” (1943), nearly breaks her neck on the back stairs, almost asphyxiates in the garage, and only barely escapes being thrown from a moving train. Come to think of it, Doris Day singing in the British Embassy seems an easy assignment.

(It’s possible, I suppose, to see Hitchcock as a sadist, punishing beautiful women that he, not being Cary Grant or James Stewart, could never attract. I’ve never gone in for this sort of psychological criticism, in part because it seems simplistic. Rather, I read his female characters as tenacious survivors in a dangerous world, risking far more than the men by their sides. These damsels’ distress is often the result of their own courageous decisions, and it’s this adventurousness that makes them so much fun to watch.)

It isn’t going very far out on a limb to say that the 1940s were Hitchcock’s formative years, or to call “Notorious” his best from this period. Indeed, Hitchcock may have been ahead even of his own skills as a director. The films of the 1940s seem almost experimental, playing with overloaded plots and single settings and long takes in ways that don’t always cohere. But looking at the decade with fresh eyes reveals that the bad-ass brunettes — Fontaine in “Suspicion” (1942), Wright, Bergman, Tallulah Bankhead in “Lifeboat” (1944), even Alida Valli in “The Paradine Case” (1947) — were not just preludes to but preconditions for those blondes. Their heat was right there in the shadows, just waiting for the lights to come on.

Twentieth-Century Fox’s “Alfred Hitchcock: The Classic Collection,” which includes “Rebecca,” “Spellbound,” and “Notorious,” is now available on Blu-ray.

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