Hitchcock Reviews: “Marnie” (1964)
Posted by therebelprince on August 23, 2012
Welcome back to my complete Hitchcock reviews, as we arrive at 1964. Alfred Hitchcock was a household name after four decades in film, appearing regularly on television introducing episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents (now The Alfred Hitchcock Hour), and continuing to startle audiences with films like Psycho and The Birds. We’ve moved into Hitchcock’s late period now, and I’ll be exploring his final films one by one.
“You Freud, me Jane?”
— Marnie Edgar (Tippi Hedren), Marnie
written by Jay Presson Allen, with story by Joseph Stefano and Evan Hunter, from Winston Graham’s novel.
Disturbed con artist Marnie Edgar (Tippi Hedren) applies for a new job as the start of another con. Unbeknownst to Marnie, the wealthy widower (Sean Connery) who hires her knows more than she realises, and begins to probe the truth about her past.
What is Marnie? Failed thriller? Outdated melodrama? Expressionist psychological journey? Mature character study? Or, as the poster advertises, “suspenseful sex mystery”? (Hint: it’s not that last one.) This question has plagued audiences and critics for almost fifty years, making Marnie one of the director’s most divisive films.
The story itself is rather straightforward for Hitch. As regular readers will be aware, this already earns a gold-star from me. Don’t get me wrong, give me ambiguity or opacity any day; just don’t hand me a convoluted tale with seven different levels of conspiracy. As with Vertigo, Psycho, and The Birds, Marnie creates a sense of tight dramatic unity, which is a definite plus.
For the third time in a row, Hitch’s film opens with a beautiful blonde embarking on an adventure. (Like Marian Crane before her, Marnie is escaping from a crime. Unlike Marian, she’s fairly certain that she got away with it.) Clearly still reeling from the psychological hammering of his previous creations – Scotty and Madeleine in Vertigo, Norman Bates and “Mother”, Jessica Tandy’s Lydia Brenner – Allen’s script leads us from the heist to the dockside home of Marnie’s mother (Louise Latham), an embittered, passive-aggressive woman who dotes on a neighbouring girl (Kimberly Beck) but seems restrained toward her own daughter. The barely restrained rivalry between the adult Marnie and the young Jessie is fascinating. (And the kids playing “how many years will I live?” outside the house is a nice Hitchcockian marker of things to come.)
Structurally, Hitchcock is able to play both sides against the middle when Marnie applies for her new job with Connery’s Mark Rutland. Marnie is the title character, and we know that she’s conning Rutland so – whether we like it or not – the audience is on her side. Yet, Rutland is already aware of Marnie’s past, and we know that he knows! As a result, the first half of the film plays in a similar vein to Hitch’s character-based dramas like Notorious, as opposed to his open thrillers like North by Northwest.
Perhaps one of the reasons Marnie has a checkered reputation is that it avoids the tropes of a ‘heist’ movie, or even of a ‘romance’, and certainly of a ‘thriller’. As Marnie integrates into Mark Rutland’s life, he develops an attraction to her, but it’s one brought on by intrigue: whenever the woman sees red, or a flash of lightning, she falls into a deadly panic. What is Marnie’s secret? And just how sincerely is she conning this man?
The first query to arise from the film is whether Marnie’s predicament is realistic. At the mere sight of a red vest – or spilled ink, a commonplace dilemma for an office worker in the ’60s! – Marnie falls to pieces. I don’t necessarily see this as shallow characterisation, but the problem seems to lie mostly in the melodramatic presentation. I don’t want to backseat drive one of history’s greatest film directors, but I feel as if the story would work just as well if Marnie had her reactions without the music and flashes of technicolour red that accompany them. The attitude toward psychology here is nowhere near as one-dimensional as the lacklustre Spellbound, but we could still have used a little less. Thinking of how brilliantly Hitchcock created Psycho without colour yet with much subtlety (until that final monologue at least), it’s a shame in Marnie‘s few glaring moments.
Like many of Hitch’s late films, Marnie takes its time setting the scene, introducing the characters, and allowing each of them a moment in the spotlight. Where it unquestionably comes alive is in the central act during two great scenes. The first is a classic Hitchcockian heist, where Marnie robs the Rutland safe unaware of the cleaning lady steadily approaching her from just around the corner. It’s an orgasmically filmed sequence, which doesn’t overplay its hand, allowing the action to create the tension. (The sequence’s first scene, in which Marnie loiters in a toilet stall until her colleagues go home, is exquisite.) The second sequence is a lengthy conversation between Marnie and Rutland, after he tells her he knows about the theft, and Marnie’s lies are gradually reduced to half-truths at his insistence. It’s a ballsy move to set a central act of the film as just a conversation between the two leads, but it yields great dramatic fruit. Marnie’s lies stem from truth (she refers, hilariously, to her horrible “cousin Jessie”), but Rutland refuses to be taken for a fool. Connery is the film’s stand-out performer, taking Allen’s sometimes declamatory dialogue and making it all sound natural. He’s a delight from his first interaction with Marnie as he watches, quietly amused, at her job interview.
The declamatory nature of Hitch’s later scripts would come undone under the wooden performances of Topaz, but here he’s assembled another top-notch cast. Aside from Connery – marvellously understated as Rutland, remaining both endearing and intriguing – Diane Baker is all smouldering glances as Mark’s sister-in-law, who never warms to Marnie, Alan Napier is solid as Mark’s father, and Martin Gabel is a ball of suspicion as Marnie’s former employer. Latham is heartbreaking as Marnie’s mother, who holds the secret to her past, but I’ll discuss that later.
But let’s be honest. No-one wants to talk about any of them. It’s Tippi Hedren who emerged as the lightning rod around which criticism of Marnie centres. The actress’ two films with Hitch (the result of a personal contract he made with her) were both the beginning and the highlight of her career. Princess Grace had been interested in the role of Marnie, but the people of Monaco were not so keen, and she ultimately backed out. Although Hitch set out to model this new blonde in his usual style, he was never quite able to get there. It’s true that Hedren is no Princess Grace, nor an Ingrid Bergman. She doesn’t explode off the screen in their patented Hollywood way, yet those who deny Hedren’s talent seem to be working from pre-existing assumptions. In truth, she impresses in much of the film. No, Hedren couldn’t tackle a Bergman role, but she could damn sure tackle a Hedren role. The repressed, icy nature of Marnie is right in Hedren’s wheelhouse. This isn’t Sofia Coppola taking on the Godfather trilogy; Hedren is able to shut down psychologically with the best of them. (Even if you don’t believe she’s an intentionally good actress, the part fits her natural character. It’s rather like Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard: I’m not sure Swanson was a good actress at all, but Billy Wilder cast her in a role that suited the performer as much as the character!) It’s true that a more experienced actress could’ve made a meal out of Marnie’s chain of unravelling lies – there’s a cleverness to the character that someone like, say, Elizabeth Taylor could’ve turned into a piece de resistance. Yet for the most part, Hedren is wonderful at portraying Marnie’s gradual breakdown. From her opening scene with her mother (“why don’t you love me?”, she asks in a plaintive way that lacks any of the sentimentality of the previous generation’s film actors), to that grand psychoanalysis sequence, Hedren gives us a woman who is exhausted by her own mental condition. In fact, her inherent knowingness helps sell Marnie’s refusal to accept help.
Where The Birds‘ Melanie was a role tailored to Hedren, the disguised Marnie never really convinces as an actress. Hedren is her usual “knives coated in icing sugar” self. Marnie is supposed to be an enigma, sure, but one feels like she never actually puts on a different face when in a new role. As Rutland delves into her psychology, however, Hedren proves up to the task. Her most powerful moments are the word association test, and her devestation after her horse collapses. Marnie’s biting responses to Mark’s probing suggest the intelligence of Hitchcock and his screenwriters. Even if he takes a reasonably simplistic approach to psychology to make the story work for a cinema audience, it’s clear that he’s fascinated by the complexities involved. Hedren switches so quickly from cocky to broken (the moment where Rutland offers “death”, and she instinctively responds with “me” is chilling). I can understand why people find Hedren’s performance less than exhilarating, but to my mind there’s an exhaustion in Hedren’s performance that really stands out, and the broken woman who staggers off her horse in the film’s climax is a work of art.
Hitchcock, it seems, didn’t always agree. The well was perhaps poisoned anyway by Princess Grace’s inability to appear in the film, and Hedren herself wasn’t sure she was up to the task. For whatever reason (and reports vary from mundane to salacious), the relationship between actress and director broke down in the final weeks of filming, and never fully recovered.
Before we delve into the other controversial elements of the film, let’s take a look at it from a critical standpoint. I’ve already mentioned the talent of those on-camera, but Marnie also boasts an impressive technical contingent. Cinematographer Robert Burks and editor George Tomasini would both pass away in the few years after Marnie, and this was the last Hitchcock collaboration for both. From the gorgeous opening tracking shot, to the heartbreaking final moments, the soft colour palette of the film manages to paint Marnie’s psychological state. To my mind, few of Hitch’s colour films make as much use of the spectrum as his monochrome pictures, but Marnie is another beautiful piece. Despite my earlier concerns about the obviousness of Marnie’s attacks, there’s a startling chill in the hunt sequence, as Marnie is surrounded by a sea of black and white. Tomasini’s editing fits neatly into Hitchcock’s style, providing a few sharp shots like the tree falling through Rutland’s window mid-storm. Meanwhile, Edith Head‘s costumes again provide a timeless elegance, and Bernard Herrmann‘s sumptuous score echoes Mahler in its lavish orchestration. After the violence of the Psycho score, and the non-musical soundscape of The Birds, this extravagance is a pleasant surprise (and Herrmann’s last contribution to the canon, sadly, but more on that next time.).
Where Marnie raises a few eyebrows is in Rutland’s treatment of Marnie’s psychology. The film probably needs to come with a “don’t try athis at home” disclaimer. After the air is cleared between the two (or so he thinks), Mark forcibly marries Marnie, convinced he can “fix” her. This is troublesome enough, as he effectively traps her like an animal, which makes him no better than the man who caused this trouble in the first place. However, Rutland seems to get his come-uppance: what he thinks of as simple frigidity proves to be far more potent. Marnie’s ability to create new identities on the spot clearly acts as a substitute for some unspoken childhood grief. Rutland’s treatment raises feminist questions that can’t be ignored. (Original screenwriter Hunter ultimately couldn’t reconcile his thoughts on what is – morally if not directly – the rape sequence, and was replaced by Allen. Hitch’s wife and longtime advisor Alma reportedly suggested the change to a female screenwriter.) Mark’s treatment of his wife certainly feels uncomfortable, but then why must he be entirely heroic? As an upper-class man in the 1960s, should we expect him not to have a certain inherent chauvinism? One of the tragedies of the film is that Rutland realises too late just how broken Marnie is. He’s assumed her coquettishness is yet another game, but it’s a mask – and a feeble one, at that – for her deep scars. If Marnie’s near-suicide isn’t payment for Mark’s actions, then I don’t know what is. It’s fair of us – in our holier-than-thou Gen Y way – to ask questions about the treatment of women in the film, but it’s not acceptable to impose 21st century values on to a fifty-year old film, particularly when they ignore the consequences of the action just because it’s more satisfying to be self-righteous about the action itself. (And if you think we’re not meant to side with Marnie in that sucker-punch moment when Mark rips off her nightgown, you’re clinically insane.)
In other qualms, the special effects are rather poor, even for the era. Backgrounds throughout the film are clearly projections (an issue Hitchcock wouldn’t face as much in future with his renewed emphasis on location shooting), and the blood in the final flashback is a bit unfortunate. Yet, I don’t really see this as an issue. This isn’t Avatar after all. The power of the final hunt is not in its role as a setpiece, but in the fact that it’s a character-based climax. Finally, one could argue that Rutland’s uncovering of Marnie’s mother’s past is a bit of a narrative deus ex machina. The final sequence, in which Marnie’s mother reveals her past with a tearful monologue, is beautifully performed by Latham, but it feels as if we’ve spent two hours looking for the map, only to have an angel drop from the sky with exact directions.
Ultimately, Marnie is an odd film, veering between extremes. Marnie’s initial collapses come on so strongly that you fear we’ll be painting psychology with the same brush as Spellbound, only for events to spiral down into a satisfying, personal climax. Marnie doesn’t have that delicate balance of humour and darkness that penetrates most all of Hitchcock’s classics, yet it’s propelled by wonderfully underplayed scenes, such as Marnie’s confrontation with an old acquaintance at the race track, and the sequence where she and Rutland must bluff her most recent con (Gabel). Indeed, my favourite element of the film may be how the two leads gradually become co-conspirators, breaking down those walls of mistrust. The quiet intensity of the sequence where Mr. Strutt recognises Rutland’s new wife has all the nail-biting suspense of any of Hitchcock’s grand suspense sequences.
I don’t believe that any review should stand alone. One of the joys of a complicated canon like Hitchcock’s – of films over five decades, ranging from the works of an auteur to studio collaborations – is that those of us who regard Strangers on a Train as a classic and Spellbound as a delicate failure face people with exact opposite views. So, when I say that I find Marnie to be among Hitchcock’s most powerful works, it’s coming from someone who respects the history of film, but finds a renewed joy in the immediacy of Hitchcock’s late ’50s and early ’60s films. Hitchcock was discovering the vibrancies of New Wave European film, investing more and more in the psychologies of his characters, and finding expressionist ways of exploring them. Despite a typical opening reminiscent of Psycho (at one point, Lil directly references that film: “I always thought a girl’s best friend is her mother”), Marnie doesn’t become the tale of a quirky band of con artists which everyone might’ve expected. (They’ll have to wait until Family Plot for that.) While Hitchcock’s future films would return to broader canvasses, and lose something in doing so, Marnie is a work with a singular focus. It’s a mature piece casting a tragic pall over the humorous, adventurous, and dramatic scenes. Marnie is a tale of old sins casting long shadows, of doubt and mistrust severing human connection, and of the sheer barriers of our engagement with others. Not, admittedly, something to put on in the background on a Friday night, but further proof that Hitchcock was stretching his boundaries and finding new challenges, even as he entered his later years.
Hitch Cameo: In the hotel corridor as Marnie prepares her getaway at the start of the film.
Next time: Hitchcock takes on a new generation of actors and politics in Torn Curtain…