How Christopher Nolan reinvented the Hitchcock blonde

·6-min read
Icy: Elizabeth Debecki in a scene from Tenet - Warner Bros
Icy: Elizabeth Debecki in a scene from Tenet - Warner Bros

‘Blondes make the best victims,” Alfred Hitchcock once observed. “They’re like virgin snow that shows up the bloody footprints.” And the great director left distinctive tracks. If you were a fair-haired female in a Hitchcock film, you were almost certainly elegant, enigmatic, and cold to the touch – and had a vanishingly low chance of reaching the end credits unharmed. Kim Novak in Vertigo, Eva Marie Saint in North by Northwest, Janet Leigh in Psycho, Tippi Hedren in The Birds and Marnie: Hitchcock’s pristine and unobtainable leading ladies during that unparalleled late-career run were the opposite of the dusky femme fatales of film noir. Rather than just harbouring or trafficking in secrets, Hitchcock Blondes became possessed by them – which in turn inspired possessive feelings in their male co-stars, who often found themselves getting an unexpected two-for-one deal on damsel and distress.

Six decades to the month since the London premiere of Psycho, the Hitchcock Blonde can feel like a figure from another age. Yet she has been quietly revived and revolutionised for the 21st century by another British filmmaker who has found extraordinary success in Hollywood. Christopher Nolan, whose new time-twisting spy thriller Tenet opens in British cinemas this week, has a habit of killing and tormenting women, and especially wives. Not – let us be clear – in the real world, where the London-born director has been happily married for 23 years to Emma Thomas, his producer since his student-film days. But on screen, Nolan’s women have an even lower survival rate than Hitchcock’s, and leave as many mysteries billowing in their wake.

If you’re unconvinced, just check the dress code. The Nolan Wife in Tenet is Elizabeth Debicki’s Kat, the trophy spouse of a psychopathic oligarch. And there isn’t an outfit in her wardrobe that couldn’t have been worn by Eva Marie Saint in North by Northwest 61 years ago: classic skirt suits and floral dresses are the order of the day, while her cool blonde hair is often demurely clipped back. Talking to British Vogue last week, she described Kat’s look as “a little bit Tippi Hedren, a little bit Grace Kelly”, and described Jeffrey Kurland’s across-the-board-exquisite costumes as “belong[ing] behind glass”.

Herein lies a crucial distinction between the Hitchcock Blonde and the Nolan Wife. While the natural habitat of both might be behind a screen that should only be broken in case of emergencies, only in the former case can sense the director skulking nearby and excitedly fingering a hammer.

“You know why I favour sophisticated blondes in my films?” Hitchcock told Francois Truffaut in 1967. “We’re after the drawing-room type, the real ladies, who become whores once they’re in the bedroom.” (Try getting away with that line on a press tour nowadays.) To Hitchcock, there was nothing better than “indirect” sex appeal, which was a peculiarly northern European talent. “Sex should not be advertised,” he went on. “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.”

Alfred Hitchcock and Tippi Hedren at the 1963 Cannes Film Festival - Getty Images
Alfred Hitchcock and Tippi Hedren at the 1963 Cannes Film Festival - Getty Images

It’s impossible to imagine either Nolan or one of his strait-laced heroes thinking this way – not least John David Washington in Tenet, who’s so decent he even wears his polo shirts buttoned all the way up. But that’s because for Nolan and Hitchcock, the mechanisms of heroism turn in opposite directions. From The 39 Steps to The Wrong Man to North by Northwest, Hitchcock kept returning to the idea of innocent men plunged into conspiracies of other people’s making. But Nolan’s leading men are driven by guilt, and trapped in self-constructed prisons from which they only occasionally manage to escape.

The pattern was set in Nolan’s 2000 breakthrough film Memento, in which an amnesiac called Leonard, played by Guy Pearce, is hunting a man whom he believes raped and strangled his wife Catherine, played by Jorja Fox. (In the classic Nolan style, she’s dead before the film begins, yet still appears throughout.) Unable to make new memories stick, Leonard leaves himself a complex trail of clues in the form of Polaroids and tattoos – yet the more we learn about his quest, the more we start to question its purpose.

Leonard and Catherine were Doris Day and Rock Hudson compared with the leading couple in 2010’s Inception. Again, when the film begins, its Nolan Wife – Marion Cotillard’s Mal – is dead. But she appears as a destructive projection in the subconscious of her husband Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), who is racked with remorse over her suicide – a result of his own negligent use of the dream-infiltration tech he uses in the world of corporate espionage. Cotillard is impossibly glamorous, wearing ghostly gowns that recall Kim Novak in Vertigo. Yet you probably wouldn’t describe her as sexy: Hitchcock preferred his sex appeal indirect, but in Nolan’s work it’s missing in action. Again, that’s a result of the two directors thinking in opposite directions: where Hitchcock Blondes are always tantalisingly just out of reach, Nolan Wives have been temporarily held then lost for good.

Kim Novak in a scene from Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo - Allstar/Cinetext/PARAMOUNT
Kim Novak in a scene from Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo - Allstar/Cinetext/PARAMOUNT

The trail of loss leads from Piper Perabo and Rebecca Hall in The Prestige – rest in peace, both – to Maggie Gyllenhaal in The Dark Knight, and to Anne Hathaway and Cotillard again in The Dark Knight Rises. In Interstellar, Matthew McConaughey’s spacefaring hero Coop is already a widower. Even in 2017’s Dunkirk – the only Nolan film without a single female character, let alone leading lady – England herself feels like a lost, mythologised love.

It hardly needs saying that Nolan has a cinematic style powered primarily by awe. And the same applies when it comes to women: Nolan longs where Hitchcock leers.

In his late period especially, the Master of Suspense was also a doyen of voyeurism. Nolan, though, has always seemed horrified by the thought of anything so seamy. In his 1998 debut Following, a writer and novice stalker (Jeremy Theobald) is obliquely accused by a woman – known only as The Blonde (Lucy Russell) – of being preoccupied with “the kind of kinky, voyeuristic s--- men get into”. But Theobald demurs. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I’m not into any of that.” Neither, emphatically, is Nolan, which makes his wives the ethically acceptable 21st century alternative to Hitchcock’s icy coterie.

Tenet is on general release now

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