Hitchcock Collection: Marnie

Upon its original release, Marnie was greeted with disgust by most American critics. Some time later, it attracted equally hysterical adulation from some younger writers such as Peter Bogdanovich and Robin Wood and, inevitably, from many European critics. As with most of Hitchcock’s later work, both views have their merits but neither is an entirely adequate response to a film which, though often playful and exciting, has a chilly heart of ice that, perhaps, reveals more about the master filmmaker than he intended.

The film, based on a novel by Winston Graham, is an unusual beast – a genuinely psychological thriller. It’s about Marnie (Hedren), a compulsive thief who drifts from place to place, changing her name and image in order to avoid detection. When she meets (and robs) a wealthy business called Mark Rutland (Connery), he becomes fascinated with her as a case study in neurosis and he tries, through a queasy mixture of psychoanalysis, domination and sex, to help her solve her problems, all of which seem to lead back to her home and an incident which occurred when she was a child. Marnie seems to have found happiness but her obsessive recall of a horrific primal scene gets in the way of her relationship with Mark, as does the constant presence of his sister Lil (Baker).

In some respects, Marnie stands out as one of Hitchcock’s less satisfying films and a slight disappointment after his unbroken run of triumphs from Vertigo to The Birds. Tippi Hedren, a beautiful woman who was never more than a pleasant actress, is not remotely capable of coping with the demands which the central character of Marnie places upon her. A glacially frigid woman, Marnie is more a Freudian construct than a realistic character but its possible that an actress with great resources – someone like Faye Dunaway or Jane Fonda in their 1970s prime – could have made her believable. Tippi Hedren, despite the many good things she does in this film (and it is certainly her best screen performance) simply does not have such resources and the result is that we are left staring at her with pity while she tries desperately hard to make an impression. Certain moments are better than others. She handles the robbery scene very well – you can sense her nerve-ends twitching with fear and the sexual excitement she cannot find any other way – but the potentially devastating sequence in which she returns home never catches fire – despite the excellence of Louise Latham’s performance as her mother - and few sparks whatsoever are generated between her and Sean Connery. I know Marnie is supposed to be unapproachable and icy but it’s impossible to imagine the two of them being together under any circumstances; Hedren and Connery simply don’t connect.

Nor is Sean Connery particularly well cast. Hitchcock's ideal casting for the character was Cary Grant - by this point heading off into retirement - and you can sense his frustration in having to make do with an alternative.

The role of Mark Rutland demands not only elegance and sexual charisma - both things Connery was more than capable of providing - but what I can only describe as a certain type of upper-class breeding, something which didn't come naturally to Connery. Watching the film, you sense Hitchcock losing interest in the character of Rutland in a similar way to his boredom with Sam Loomis in Psycho - where it didn't matter because Sam was a peripheral character. Diane Baker comes off much better than Connery when it comes to evoking a sense of casual privilege.

Neither of these flaws matters a great deal, however, because the characters are basically screens upon which Hitchcock can project his own neuroses and obsessions. Marnie makes a good partner to Vertigo in this respect. It’s certainly not as impressive a piece of filmmaking but like the earlier film it reveals something deeply personal about Hitchcock. There is a good deal of coldness here, ‘happy’ ending and all, which is far removed from the warm humour of North By Northwest, and I’m sure that it stems from the director himself. This story of a man moulding and dominating a fragile woman seems remarkably close to the way in which Hitchcock would have liked to treat his leading ladies and actually did treat Tippi Hedren. The fanatical control over her which had begun on The Birds turned, during Marnie into something even more oppressive and, ultimately, embarrassing. Various people working on the film have wondered at his odd behaviour – sending off a sample of Hedren’s writing to a graphologist to discover some evidence of a personality disorder, insisting on photographing her unusually close-in – and it has been suggested that towards the end of shooting, he made a direct sexual proposition to Hedren which she was forced to directly turn down. How much of this can be put down to gossip is debatable but what is certainly true is the fact that he refused to speak to Hedren for the last few weeks of production and then refused to use her in another film – going so far as to drop the project he was working on which had been devised as a vehicle for her. The frozen heart of Marnie may well come from Hitchcock’s recognition that he is making a film about a woman who he idolises but who can never love him. Perhaps he wants to be the Connery character – controlling, wise, triumphant – but he feels that he can never be anything but the picture he has of himself – the fat man making bad jokes on TV. This is the man that was loved throughout the world but I think that for Hitchcock, that was never quite enough.

It’s perhaps this which makes the central ‘marital rape’ scene so disturbing. Although it’s possible to skirt around the implications of the scene, what makes it function in the plot is some vague notion that all women want sex and the ones who don’t have to be forced to for their own good. In other words, all a frigid woman needs is a strong, forceful man to loosen her up. I don’t need to point out that this is sexist rubbish, although the female screenwriter Jay Presson Allen appears to think it’s quite an innocuous scene, but I strongly suspect that in many suburban households in 1964, such attitudes were commonplace. The scene makes me feel queasy, as I suspect it does most viewers, not least because Hitchcock seemed so insistent on having it included and was, apparently, very enthusiastic about the filming of it. He had wanted to include a rape in his films before – the abortive 1959 project No Bail for the Judge was scuppered because, among other reasons, Audrey Hepburn objected to a central sequence where her character was raped – and the implicit rape in Marnie was followed by the grisy, explicit rape/murder in Frenzy. What does this tell us about Hitchcock? I don’t know and I don’t wish to make simple psychoanalytical connections in the manner of Donald Spoto. For one thing, Hitchcock was happily married for a very long time. For another, he had a number of close female friends whom he greatly respected. He was also a professional who would never let the bounds of good taste get in the way of the requirements of the plot. But then my mind turns to his lengthy pursuit then rejection by Hedren, and those photos of him gleefully pretending to strangle various female leads (and his daughter). Although it's probably a redundant thing to say, Hitchcock was an incredibly complex man and it would be a foolhardy writer who would judge him. What I would say is that without the jagged edges to his psyche, Hitchcock would never have been a truly great filmmaker and therefore we should be grateful for them.

To get back to the technical side of the film, in some respects it is very well made. The opening is a model of economical storytelling with several memorable images and as the film goes on, I particularly like the use of ‘red outs’ to indicate Marnie’s traumatic flashbacks; a simple but clever expressionist technique.

It’s a concept which Hitch played with in Vertigo and helps to tie a rather diffuse film together into a vaguely coherent psychological whole – and later films such as Bergman’s Cries and Whispers and Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence seem to tip their hat to Hitchcock in the way they use them. Bergman uses red for much the same purpose – a transition involving menstrual blood for example – and Scorsese uses various colours, most memorably yellow when the Countess receives yellow roses from Newland Archer. The film generally flows along very effectively and the set design and costumes are typically fine.

But what baffles many viewers about Marnie is the technical sloppiness in some other areas of the film. In Vertigo, Psycho and The Birds, Hitchcock had reached a peak of technical brilliance but Marnie demonstrates an obvious falling-off. The most famous example is the use of the obviously painted backdrop to the street where Marnie grew up, with a big picture of a ship dominating the skyline. Now, there are three schools of thought on this. Hitchcock’s die-hard admirers claim that this is a deliberately fake device and part of the expressionistic visual scheme of the film, representing the fake emotional history which has been forced on Marnie to repress her primal memory.

Less sympathetic critics suggest that it’s simply sloppiness, that Hitchcock knew it looked fake but couldn’t be bothered to correct it. My own view – a kind of third way – is that Hitchcock knew it looked artificial but didn’t consider it important because his interest was elsewhere. He was concerned about Tippi Hedren for both personal and professional reasons; about the shooting of the big set-pieces – the key flashback sequence was, unusually for Hitchcock, shot from a large number of different angles; and, possibly, the extreme nature of the content which was considerably more graphic than anything he had made before. I suspect he expected the audience to indulge the obvious lapses because he was providing them with such a riveting narrative experience – much the same way they overlooked the ludicrously obvious cuts in Rope when the camera takes a sudden interest in the back of John Dall’s jacket. But it’s not just the obvious things. The film runs 130 minutes and it doesn’t have enough narrative or emotional content to justify such a length. Individual sequences are brilliantly edited – the robbery sequence is a highpoint of Hitch’s work in the suspense genre – and the final half hour races along to the brilliant climax. But the first two-thirds of the movie often ramble, scenes go on too long and there are weirdly irrelevant dialogue exchanges. It’s not unlike what happens in late-period Agatha Christie – the incidentals begin to overcome the main point. This is, by the way, one of the main problems with the much maligned Topaz and the rot begins to set in here.

Marnie has an undertone of poignancy and that’s not just because of the subject matter. It’s to do with the film being the last film of Hitchcock’s Golden Decade, ten years of triumphant movies beginning with Rear Window. After Marnie, Hitchcock seems to lose something – exactly what went missing is a moot point and one which later reviews will consider. The loss of key collaborators is particularly significant of course. His beloved and trusted DP Robert Burks, who had worked on every Golden Decade movie except Psycho, died in an accident. His long-time editor George Tomasini also died, in 1964. Nor did Hitch ever work again with the exceptional production designer Robert Boyle. Most famously, Marnie was the last Hitchcock film for which Bernard Herrmann wrote the finished music score. He did write a score for Torn Curtain but it was rejected and the two men never worked together again. Indeed, Hitchcock’s dislike of Herrmann became so strong that Henry Mancini’s music score of Frenzy was rejected for being too much like the sort of thing Herrmann would have written. This is a huge shame because Herrmann’s work on Marnie is some of his best. It’s a full-blooded melodramatic score which has a memorable main theme – harking back to Miklos Rosza’s theme for Spellbound as well as Vertigo - and some daring incidental cues, such as the one for the scene where Marnie loses her horse.

Although Hitchcock was, in some sense of the word, an auteur – in that every film he made bears an unmistakeable personal stamp or, if you like, a very consistent controlling sensibility – but he relied on a group of talented technical specialists to assist in bringing his vision to life, and without them, his work begins to drift. There are exceptions of course - Psycho was made by the crew of his TV show – but the decline in quality between Marnie (even with its obvious flaws) and Torn Curtain is often painfully obvious. This led to a situation where a very interesting but somewhat problematical film like Frenzy was hailed as a masterpiece because it wasn’t as bad as the two films which preceded it. We could also look at this from a more indulgent and generous perspective. The amount of pleasure which Hitchcock gave at his best was so immense that those who loved his films simply didn’t want to believe that he could let them down. Any scene which was good – the lengthy murder in Torn Curtain or the death of Karin Dor in Topaz - was seized upon as evidence that Hitch still ‘had it in him’ and when a film such as Frenzy contained quite a lot of these memorable moments, it was such a relief that Hitchcock received an overwhelming outpouring of love and affection which had more to do with his great movies than his current work.

But declining as an artist isn’t a crime and even while Marnie has some serious problems, it’s such an entertaining and rich piece of filmmaking that it seems churlish in the extreme to deny its merits as a slice of wildly demented entertainment. The psychology may be simplistic but its presented with enough conviction to be just about good enough and when Hitchcock gets going on an extended set-piece – the steeplechase, the robbery, the final revelation of the source of Marnie’s troubles – he gives the audience full value. As he demonstrated in The Man Who Knew Too Much, he has a particular penchant for hysterical domestic drama and he’s always good on mothers of all varieties. The film remains fascinating for its essential coldness which seems to spring for the unhappiness that Hitchcock was feeling while it was being made. No-one but the most devoted Hitchcock admirer could claim that Marnie is a masterpiece. But anyone who loves Hitchcock must surely look at the film with a great deal of affection and as time goes on, it seems to look better and better.

The Disc

The anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer looks very nice indeed. It's not all that different from the original Universal release of the film but there is slightly more detail and I felt that the colours were a little more satisfying. Not much in it though. No-one is likely to be disappointed with how Marnie looks here, although if you have a low tolerance for film grain then you may not be as pleased as I was. I thought the level of grain looked suitably cinematic. As with most of the other discs in the set, the mono soundtrack is excellent. Bernard Herrmann's delectably florid music score comes up a treat on this track.

The extra features are not abundant but the level of quality is pleasingly high. The documentary, "The Trouble With Marnie", runs just short of an hour and is generally excellent. I qualify because there's a nagging sense that something - Hitch's infatuation with Hedren - is deliberately being avoided. But there's good value in the copious interviews with particularly entertaining contributions from Robin Wood who says, "If you don't like Marnie then you don't like Hitchcock". As always with Laurent Bouzereau's documentaries, there are too many film clips and a rather predictable development but if you're interested in the film then this should satisfy you.

A photo montage, "The Marnie Archives" runs for nine minutes and contains behind the scenes shots, publicity stills and posters. The quality is high throughout and it's backed by Bernard Herrmann's wonderful music score. The production notes are nothing special but adequate. Best of all is the original theatrical trailer. This is one of Hitchcock's delightful bits of salesmanship in which the emphasis is squarely and gleefully on sex and Hitch's sense of humour is well to the fore.

Both the film and the extra features contain optional subtitles.

I hope I haven't concentrated too much on my theories about how Hitchcock reveals himself in Marnie. I feel it's a highly flawed film but an endlessly fascinating one for that very reason and it's probably the last Hitchcock film which is hovering on the verge of being a masterpiece. He would make another decent film - Frenzy - and one entertaining minor work - Family Plot - but I think Marnie is the last hurrah of his greatest days. As such, it deserves to be analysed and treasured for as long as people watch his films.

8 out of 10
8 out of 10
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out of 10