“I thought Marnie was one of his most interesting films of that later period. The picture was criticized at the time. It was not highly thought of. I don’t think it did very well. But that was typical of the way people treated Hitchcock at that time. He was never taken very seriously. It really wasn’t until after Truffaut’s book that the establishment in America started to change rather quickly. You know, if a French cultural icon suddenly says this guy is good, everyone says, “Really? Hitchcock?”
Peter Bogdanovich in The Trouble With Marnie.
Marnie Edgar (Tippi Hedren) is a disturbed con artist who travels from one American city to another, taking office jobs and subsequently stealing money from her employers. The start of the film shows the aftermath of one such robbery at the office of Sidney Strutt (Martin Gabel), a man Marnie had convinced to give her a job without providing any references. Dropping us right into the middle of the story, we first see Marnie walking away with a bag of looted cash before she changes both her appearance and her name.
Marnie has an aversion to men, and also a strained relationship with her mother Bernice (Louise Latham), who lives by the port in Baltimore. Marnie craves her mother’s approval, and sends her some of the money she steals, but this merely arouses Bernice’s suspicion and serves to create more distance between the pair. Additionally, the complicated thief suffers from panic attacks induced by the colour red, and thunderstorms.
One of Strutt’s customers is Mark Rutland (Sean Connery), a young widower who runs a successful publishing company. When Marnie applies for a job with Rutland’s firm she is unaware that he recognises her from a prior visit to Strutt’s office, or that he knows all about the robbery that took place. She begins working for Rutland and also enters into a relationship with him. Eventually she gains access to the company safe, and successfully steals a vast sum of money, but Rutland manages to track her down and explains that he knew all along about her previous crimes.
Rutland, who has fallen in love by this point, blackmails Marnie into marrying him by telling her he will inform the police about her crimes if she fails to comply. He discovers her frigidity while the couple take a honeymoon cruise and, somewhat out of character midway through the journey, rapes her. Subsequently, Marnie attempts to commit suicide by drowning herself in the boat’s pool, but Rutland finds and revives her. The couple return home.
Rutland’s suspicious sister-in-law Lil (Diane Baker) overhears a conversation between Marnie and Rutland where they discuss paying off Strutt, and she deliberately invites Strutt to a party at Rutland’s house as a result. Strutt instantly recognises Marnie, but Rutland covers for her, lying about the length of time they have known each other. Later Marnie, still being held against her will, has a chance to steal from Rutland’s home safe, but freezes. Rutland, catching her in the act, dares her to take the money.
Rutland eventually takes Marnie against her will to Baltimore to confront Bernice, who describes her past life as a prostitute. It transpires that Marnie was molested as a little girl by one of her mother’s customers, a sailor (Bruce Dern), and this took place during a thunderstorm; in a flashback sequence Bernice is seen fighting with the sailor and the young Marnie kills him with a fireplace poker. The thunderstorm, the assault and the striking red trickle of blood from the sailor’s head thus account to some extent for Marnie’s prior behavior. After the repressed memories are identified as the reasons for her fear, she decides she wants to try and make her marriage with Rutland work.
Hitchcock originally wanted another of his ‘blonde leading ladies’, Grace Kelly, to play the demanding role of Marnie. However Kelly, by the early 1960s, was Princess Grace of Monaco, and had to withdraw from the project due to personal reasons and also because citizens of the principality objected to the idea of her portraying a sexually-disturbed thief.
Other actresses wanted the role, including Eva Marie Saint, who had already worked with Hitchcock on North By Northwest. However midway through shooting The Birds with Hedren, Hitchcock informed her that he wanted her to play the role of Marnie. Hedren, who prior to The Birds was a model with little acting experience, believed it to be the chance of a lifetime and gladly accepted. Which is lucky, considering she was under contract to the director. Her acting is good at times and far too over the top at others.
The damning BBC / HBO film The Girl, in which Sienna Miller played Hedren, was accompanied by accusations that she attracted too much unwanted attention from Hitchcock in the form of ‘crude, sexual overtures’ and that he made her life a living hell on and off set. Hedren’s claims have been questioned by regulars on the set, and by other leading ladies that worked with Hitchcock over a number of films, but she has stuck by them. (Perhaps it was merely a coincidence that Hitchcock showed great desire to cast her in a psychological sexual thriller after The Birds had wrapped. Perhaps not.)
It has been suggested that Hitchcock lost interest in Marnie after Grace Kelly pulled out, but Hedren discussed every single scene with the director at length before an on-set row resulted in a complete breakdown in communication two-thirds of the way through filming, and an end to their strained relationship. For the rest of the shoot the two only communicated through third parties.
Connery, presumably caught in the middle of all this, had already starred in two James Bond films and had contract worries of his own. Eon Productions had handled Dr No and From Russia With Love, but also offered Connery a series of non-Bond films, all of which he turned down. When they asked him who he would like to work with, he told them “Hitchcock”. Eon arranged this, but Connery wanted to see a script first, as he was concerned about being typecast and didn’t want to appear in another spy movie like North By Northwest. Apparently when informed that even the great Cary Grant had never once asked to see one a Hitchcock script before, Connery is said to have responded: “Well I’m not Cary Grant”.
Marnie was criticised for its supposedly low production values, and there’s no denying that there is perhaps less attempt to disguise the studio-based sets or the back projections than in certain other Hitchcock films of the 50s and 60s. But time has seen a counter-argument to this point often made, with critics pointing to Hitchcock’s schooling in German cinema in the 1920s and his fondness for German Expressionism.
Indeed, with its psychologically-damaged main characters and use of geometrical shapes, red suffusions, vanishing points and light and shadow, Hitchcock was certainly in an effusive mood regarding his influences. The use of these elements makes Marnie a fascinating Hitchcock film to watch. In Hitchcock’s hands even a simple scene like the one where Marnie waits in the office toilets for everyone to leave becomes an exercise in building tension – her eyes coldly dart off to the sides while light and shadows form strong patterns around her head against the cubicle wall.
The matte painting used for Bernice’s street, which features a giant cargo boat at one end, may not look realistic but it’s certainly a striking backdrop. With the lens compression the boat almost looks as if it is floating in the air, and the fact the bow is pointing down the street towards Bernice’s house is a nice touch. It’s a phallic symbol, and only at the end do we see that for Marnie it is an ever-present reminder of the sailor / molester who once visited. It’s surely no coincidence that “Marnie” is very similar to “Marine”.
Importantly, the rape scene takes place on a boat – a crucial setting given the backstory mentioned above – but it’s rather odd in the way that it just kind of passes without comment. It’s implied by a two minute build up and by the looks on the faces of the two characters, and the scene is lit superbly. Yet after Rutland halts Marnie’s subsequent suicide attempt she merely cracks a joke about jumping into the sea and that’s it. The script – though based on Winston Graham’s novel of the same name – really lets Rutland off here. He is not brought to justice, he isn’t reminded of the event by Marnie, and isn’t even shown to be reflecting on it at a later period.
It’s as though Hitchcock does his level best to play down the rape, yet it’s a scene he felt was vital to the film, even going so far as to replace one screenwriter (Evan Hunter) with another (Jay Presson Allen) after Hunter objected to the sequence and suggested writing an alternative one. Allen was not aware that she was the third writer to work on the film, just as Hunter didn’t know he was the second; Allen later told Hunter “you just got bothered by the scene that was his reason for making the movie”. In his 1997 book Me And Hitch Hunter said Hitchcock had specified “Evan, when he sticks it in her, I want that camera right on her face”. Anyone considering Hedren’s recent accusations may well interpret such an instruction as misogynistic, to say the least.
It does seem somewhat out of character for Rutland, but a theme of captivity is developed throughout the film and the rape – an animalistic urge that isn’t halted by consideration of morality – at least ties in with that. It’s weirdly fetishistic the way he keeps her prisoner. Rutland is shown reading books about zoology / animal behaviour, and though occasionally he appears to be genuine when expressing his desire to help Marnie, at other times there is a touch of the sadist bastard about him (it’s a very good performance by Connery – as a young man he was excellent at portraying (supposedly) good men with darker sides; a quality that still makes him the best Bond yet, 50 years on from his debut). Does he just see her as an animal to keep captive and put on display when it suits? What is Mark’s intent, ultimately? Does he really want to make Marnie better, or is she simply a like-for-like replacement for his dead wife? Mrs Rutland’s “left” him when she died; with Marnie held captive by blackmail she can’t leave.
There is superb tension at times, in the grand Hitchcock style; he pulls out all the stops with a scene showing a horse jump that goes horribly wrong, and uses almost as many fast jump cuts as the famous shower scene in Psycho, but it doesn’t quite come off. Much better is the robbery at Rutland’s firm, where the viewer can see Marnie emptying the safe but is also privy to a cleaning lady mopping the floor who is approaching the safe room door. That really is one of Hitchcock’s finer moments, particularly when he also goes a little bit further by showing the barefoot Marnie silently tip-toeing away while her shoe slowly dislodges from her coat pocket, about to fall at any second and drop her right in it.
Hitchcock repeats a trick from Psycho – to convince the audience that they are watching a certain type of film before changing things completely at the 30-40 minute mark – though without the same success and without the same shock factor. While there are signs early on that this is going to be a psychosexual / psychoanalytical thriller, to all intents and purposes it is mainly played as a straightforward cat-and-mouse crime film until Rutland blackmails Marnie into marriage, but the transition feels muddled.
The ending is also similar to that of another earlier Hitchcock film: Suspicion. That film ended suddenly with the major ‘problem’ driving the plot swiftly and unrealistically resolved, but it was largely due to a necessity to please the studio in order to get more work. With Marnie it just seems a little lazy to end the film suddenly and positively, especially given the film’s length of 130 minutes, much of which is pretty damn dark.
Ultimately, it’s a fascinating film for many reasons. Visually it is creaky but deliberately so. There is a very strong and (initially) independent female lead, but it’s a shame that she is eventually dominated by a man who wishes to ‘fix’ her head and goes about this by raping her. Marnie carries the reek of chauvinism and misogyny that permeates a lot of Hitchcock’s best work from this period; think of Hedren coming under attack from all those birds a year or two earlier (she was assured they would be mechanical but endured five days of prop men flinging dozens of live gulls, ravens and crows at her under orders from the director), or the brutal slaying of Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane in the shower. It’s as though he tired of putting confused male protagonists in peril and decided to concentrate mainly on women, but the level of suffering they receive in his films is completely disproportionate to anything meted out to the likes of, say, Jimmy Stewart or Cary Grant. Or even, for that matter, Anthony Perkins. I don’t question for one minute that he was one of the greatest directors of the 20th Century, but I do wonder more about the man’s attitudes in light of Hedren’s comments. One wonders how he would have defended himself if he were alive to do so. Plenty of people have spoken up for him, a fact that should not be dismissed lightly.
In a way Marnie marks the end of an era. There was a slow decline for Hitchcock after this picture, and it was also the last film in which he would use a blonde leading lady. It was the last time he would work with long-time collaborator Bernard Herrmann, whose score here isn’t all that memorable, but is still typically insistent and dovetails well with the images on occasion. (Hitchcock felt Herrmann had begun to repeat himself and fired him midway through the next movie.)
There is a great mind at work here, studiously paying attention to every detail – sets, acting, costume, colour, music, camera angles, lighting, pace – with Hitchcock, everything is important. Yet at times it is frustratingly muddled, it has a rushed ending and even some supposedly tense moments will make you cringe or laugh. Neither a lost classic nor the disaster critics originally described it as, Marnie is one of Hitchcock’s most perplexing movies.
Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock
Written by: Jay Presson Allen, Winston Graham
Starring: Tippi Hedren, Sean Connery, Diane Baker, Martin Gabel, Louise Latham
Running Time: 130 Minutes