Marnie (1964, Alfred Hitchcock)

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An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A con artist is rumbled by a businessman who then tries to help her with her psychological issues…

Much like its lead character, the movie Marnie is complex, fascinating and often admirable – but there’s also something very wrong. It’s the story of a damaged woman who’s a thief and a liar and has many deep-rooted problems stemming from a childhood trauma. But sadly it’s also the story of the man who attempts to ‘fix her’ via simplistic therapy and misogyny.

This project had a long gestation. Initially, Alfred Hitchcock planned it as his next production after Psycho (1960), but the script took a while to come into focus and eventually went through three writers. For the all-important title character, the director hoped for a huge casting coup: his former muse Grace Kelly, who’d retired from acting in 1955, was keen on a Hollywood comeback. It would have been an interesting role for her, one very different from her three previous Hitchcock characters. However, she then pulled out of the project, worried about how such a provocative movie would be taken in her new home of Monaco. Various other names were considered for the part – Marilyn Monroe, Eva Marie Saint, Lee Remick, Vera Miles and others – until, while filming The Birds in 1962, Hitchcock decided to cast its leading lady for a second time.

Tippi Hedren has always maintained that Marnie is her favourite of all her films – despite the fact she and Hitchcock fell out during filming – and it’s easy to see why. She gives a sensational performance, which is both dynamic and dangerous. She plays the eponymous Marnie Edgar, who drifts from town to town, gets jobs at high-flying firms, rips them off and does a runner. But when she shows up at a new company in Philadelphia, boss Mark Rutland (Sean Connery) recognises her from a previous encounter and twigs that she’s hiding something…

Connery was then two films into his original stint as James Bond, and he looks the part of a dashing movie star. But for some reason he doesn’t quite gel in this role. Maybe it’s the incongruous accent (to try to explain it away, the character is given a British father played by Alfred from the 1960s Batman TV show), maybe it’s his age (Connery was only 33), but he’s rather miscast as a Pennsylvanian widower from the American aristocracy. It also doesn’t help that the character is lumbered with a storyline that is at best naïve and at worst exceedingly sinister.

Marnie the movie is an attempt at some rigorous psychology. Its lead character has turned to crime in order to compensate for something lacking her life. She has a troubled, seemingly hollow relationship with her mother; she has a pathological hatred of men touching her; and she suffers from panic attacks when confronted with the colour red. The script holds back the reason for these issues until the final act when we learn that, as a child, she killed a pervert (Bruce Dern) who was attacking her prostitute mother.

But when Mark Rutland takes a shine to new employee Marnie, even though he’s worked out that she’s stolen from his company safe, he decides to help her. It’s presented mostly as curiosity and affection, but there’s more than a hint that he’s sexually attracted by the danger. And in 21st-century terms his help amounts to nothing less than abuse. He essentially blackmails her into starting a relationship with him and even marrying him. Then, on their honeymoon, while she cowers and shakes with fear, he rips off her nightdress and rapes her.

The first person to work Marnie up into a screenplay – Evan Hunter, who also wrote The Birds – was fired from the project when he left the rape scene out of his draft. It appears in the source material, a novel by the British writer Winston Graham, but Hunter argued that there’d be no way back for Mark as a character if he did something so despicable. Hitchcock disagreed. So did Hunter’s replacement, Jay Presson Allen, who gladly included it in her rewrite. (Disturbingly, given some of the accusations made about Hitchcock down the years, Hunter later said the rape scene had been the primary reason why the director had wanted to make the film. ‘When he sticks it in her,’ Hitch had told him, ‘I want that camera right on her face.’)

If that wasn’t bad enough – which it is – the film also has a ham-fisted approach to trauma therapy. Marnie is forced into a cathartic remembrance of what happened when she was a child… and then all is fine and she and Mark walk off into the sunset. Psychoanalysts scoff at this moment. So should we. Most Hitchcock films might get away with this kind of simplicity, but that’s because we understand the popcorn context. Roger Thornhill in North by Northwest is a cartoon character, a precursor of James Bond, so we don’t especially fret when his life is threatened or when he’s framed for murder. Margot Wendice is put through a horrifying time in Dial M for Murder – attacked in her home, forced to kill a man in self-defence, jailed despite her innocence – but she’s essentially a character in a Cluedo-style parlour game. She only exists for the 100 minutes she’s on screen.

Marnie Edgar, however, is a woman with a life, with baggage, and we feel for her desperately. She’s been severely damaged by the actions of one sexual pest and is now being groomed by another. Tippi Hedron deserved huge credit for making her so watchable and both strong and vulnerable at the same time.

But while its treatment of its lead character is antiquated and objectionable, much more impressive is the movie’s style. Early in his career, Alfred Hitchcock worked in the German film industry, where he directed his first full-length film, The Pleasure Garden (1925), and the buzz and innovation of Weimar Republic cinema had a lasting impression. ‘I worked there for many months,’ Hitch said in a 1960s interview. ‘And I was able to absorb a lot of the methods and style.’

In Marnie, as in many Hitchcock films, you can see the influence of German Expressionism, a style that dramatises stories, characters and settings in non-realistic ways. It uses lighting, set design, editing, costumes and all the other tools of filmmaking to turn subjective emotion into something that can be *seen* and which has a physical affect on the world of the fiction. (The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920), for example, takes place on off-kilter, out-of-proportion sets in order to reflect the twisted story and the unbalanced characters.)

The most obvious piece of Expressionism in the present movie is the use of the colour red. Whenever she sees it, Marnie has a physical reaction. She pulls away, scared, at the sight of ink spilt on her blouse, for example, or the polka dots of a jockey’s silk. But it’s not just the acting that tells us she’s suffering: the screen becomes infused with a crimson wash. It’s not ‘literal’; it’s not actually happening in the diegetic world of the story. It’s Hitchcock using a cinematic device to *show* us her emotional state. (Not that every visual in Marnie is for art’s sake. The indoor sets for exterior scenes and the painfully dated backscreen projection for car journeys are most likely just down to Hitchcock’s dislike of location filming.)

There are other more trad, yet still tremendous, sequences in the film too. Marnie stealing from the Rutland & Co safe is a tension-sustainer of the highest order – complete with the absurd detail of her nearly being rumbled by a deaf cleaner – while the death of a beloved horse is genuinely moving and sees Hedren’s acting reach a fever pitch of emotion. The climactic flashback, which shows us Marnie’s violent experience as a child, is also very impressive – not least the fact that the scene begins with a disorientating zoom-in-and-track-out shot that seems to place the events inside a nightmare.

It’s an odd mixture of genres, this film – part psycho-drama, part perverted romance, part heist movie. The central storyline has many troubling issues, especially when viewed today in the era of #MeToo and Harvey Weinstein, but Tippi Hedren’s superb performance and the general flair of the filmmaking means it’s still worth seeing.

Eight men in a corridor out of 10

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