7 of Hitchcock’s Leading Ladies on the Silver Screen
Blonde and cool on the outside, Hitchcock’s leading ladies were often aroused by the danger brought about by their leading men. Manipulative, passionate, and at times criminal, his heroines were richly complex characters infused with a deep sensuality that more often than not complicated the lives of Hitchcock’s heroes.
The Master of Suspense worked with 47 leading ladies in his five decades of moviemaking. Here are seven of his most memorable.
The rival sister of actress Olivia de Havilland, Joan Fontaine made her first Hitchcock film with Rebecca, playing the naive second wife of the urbane Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier). Upon arrival at de Winter’s country house, she runs afoul of her new servants, especially the manipulative Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), who adored de Winter’s first wife, only to learn that she died under suspicious circumstances. Fontaine was Oscar-nominated for her performance.
In Suspicion, she was again the naive waif, this time marrying a charming man (Cary Grant) after a brief romance, only to suspect that he’s after her money and wants to kill her. This time, Fontaine won the Oscar for Best Actress, becoming the only actor, male or female, to win an Academy Award for their work with Hitchcock.
She once called Hitchcock an “adorable genius,” but it was Ingrid Bergman whose beauty and talent lit up the screen in some of the director’s most acclaimed films. In Spellbound, she was a psychoanalyst who falls for her new boss (Gregory Peck) and learns that he’s a troubled amnesiac and possibly even a killer. Notorious starred Bergman as the daughter of a convicted spy, who is tasked by a government agent (Cary Grant) to seduce and marry the head of a group of former Nazis relocated to Brazil.
She joined forces with Hitchcock a third time for the lesser-appreciated Under Capricorn, in which she was the alcoholic wife of a prominent businessman and former convict (Joseph Cotten) who took the blame for a murder she committed. Though never Oscar-nominated for her Hitchcock performances, Bergman was widely regarded as his finest leading ladies, with her turn in Notorious ranking as one of the best in her decorated career.
Without a doubt the most elegant of Hitchcock’s actresses, Grace Kelly broke the mold of the traditional icy blonde in favor of a warmer, more vivacious leading lady. In Dial M for Murder, she was the unfaithful wife of an ex-tennis pro (Ray Milland) who is targeted for murder after her husband discovers her affair with a crime-fiction author (Robert Cummings). That same year Kelly starred opposite James Stewart in one of Hitchcock’s greatest films, Rear Window, playing the socialite girlfriend to Stewart’s wheelchair-bound photojournalist who plays along with his idea that one of his neighbors killed his wife.
Her third and last film with Hitchcock was 1955’s To Catch a Thief, in which she was the target of a copycat burglar mimicking the modus operandi of a notorious but retired jewel thief (Grant). Though she left acting to become the Princess of Monaco, Kelly’s three films with Hitchcock were the highlights of her short career.
Both aloof and sensual, Kim Novak was cast by Hitchcock in Vertigo after original actress, Vera Miles, left due to pregnancy. Novak played the dual role of Judy Barton/Madeleine Elster, who becomes the sole obsession of acrophobic police detective John “Scottie” Ferguson (Stewart). He first becomes infatuated with Madeleine, who herself is obsessed with her own death, after a friend asks him to tail her. When Scottie’s vertigo stops him from saving her life, he meets Judy, a dead-ringer for Madeleine whose deeply held secrets causes his world to spin anew.
Novak’s icy seductive qualities were put to great use and the role defined her for the rest of her career. The film was a high watermark for the actress, as Novak never managed to reach such heights again.
Eva Marie Saint
Though an Oscar-winner for her performance in On the Waterfront, Evan Marie Saint was easily more identified for the role of Eve Kendall in North by Northwest, her only Hitchcock film. She played a seemingly innocent woman on a train who helps Roger Thornhill (Grant), a suave accountant wrongly accused of hiding a murder from the police. Little does Thornhill know, she’s actually working for a shadowy syndicate that would like nothing more than to kill him. But when her own life becomes endangered by the same people, Eve and Thornhill conspire to stop a conspiracy involving hidden microfilm.
And, of course, they fall in love. While Saint’s career was largely cast in the shadow of North by Northwest, she went on to further acclaim and decades later won an Emmy.
Though only on screen for the first third of the movie, Janet Leigh’s appearance in Hitchcock’s Psycho was the most famous of his leading ladies, thanks to the now-infamous shower scene. She played Marion Crane, a secretary who embezzles $40,000 from her employer in order free her lover (John Gavin) from debt. On a drive from Phoenix to California, Marion stops at the isolated Bates Motel, where she meets the repressed Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins).
Bates lives at the hotel with his abusive mother, who chastises him for wanting to have an affair with Marion. Meanwhile, Marion resolves to return the money and face the consequences, only to be viciously stabbed in the shower. Though her starring turn was brief, Leigh had the distinction of being in one of the most famous scenes in cinema history.
Tippi Hedren was the last of the classic Hitchcock leading ladies and starred in the last of his great films. In The Birds, she was a wealthy young socialite who travels to a seaside California town in pursuit of a new beau (Rod Taylor), only to find herself among the townspeople being pecked to death by swarms of seagulls.
She next starred opposite Sean Connery in Marnie, widely considered to be Hitchcock’s final masterpiece. Hedren played a troubled young woman with a penchant for theft, with Connery as her boss-turned-husband who begins digging into her dark past. Hedren was hailed as a promising newcomer thanks to both roles but spent the rest of her spotty career struggling to gain her due respect.