When it’s on: Saturday, 8 October (12.30 am, Sunday)
By no means all Hitchcock films were box office hits, and some at the time found little critical favour also, though retrospective reviews have often discovered the genius their contemporaries failed to identify. Marnie is something of an oddity in that regard – a decent commercial return upon its 1964 release, a largely positive body of comments, a real Marmite movie for today’s viewers. It’s a title I’ve always had trouble getting to grips with. Perhaps that isn’t a surprise – Marnie followed a string of four outright classics, two of which – Vertigo and North by Northwest – remain perhaps the best film I’ve ever seen and the most entertaining respectively, also Psycho and The Birds, both close to masterpiece territory (and if they aren’t, then that’s only because I don’t want to use that word loosely and they certainly fit the bill where many other people are concerned). But on its own merits it isn’t an easy title to take to readily. Marnie runs for 130 minutes and often very little happens in it. The signature moments of suspense are few and far between, though understated and gripping when they occur. And on the surface it seems a simple premise – Tippi Hedren plays the psychologically damaged Marnie, a serial thief ‘rescued’ by Sean Connery’s beneficent and endlessly patient Philadelphia rich kid who seeks to get to the root of her malaise, to essentially save her from herself. It lives or dies depending on how much you engage with Hedren’s performance. Marnie isn’t a very likeable character, but there are reasons for this – how well is all this conveyed? Do you believe in her? Is any of it compelling?
The major criticism of this film is that with a better female lead it might have been more compelling – you imagine it being made in the 1970s starring Faye Dunaway or Meryl Streep and gaining Oscar approval. Hitchcock wanted Grace Kelly for the part, attempting to coax her out of retirement and finding her reaction to be a positive one before the combination of problems within Monaco and Prince Rainier’s unhappiness with his royal wife taking on such a negative role forced her to withdraw. In the meantime, the director’s ‘groomed’ star, Tippi Hedren, had impressed in The Birds to such an extent that he could turn to her as an off the shelf alternative, though by the time Marnie was being shot Hitchcock and his star were barely on speaking terms anymore.
How much of this was down to the lurid stories concerning Hitch’s personal relationship with Hedren is for you to decide. Personally, I never wanted to believe too much of it – the gifts, the affection, the long, long meetings between the pair, the rumours of his ultimately rebuffed sexual advances towards her. I confess this is entirely down to not wanting it to be true, because I love his work and by extension the man himself, though admittedly over time I’ve come to realise there must have been something to all the tales. Hedren was hardly the first lovely lady he attached himself to but perhaps she was the one in whom he felt he’d invested enough time and effort to feel a sense of almost ownership, as though she was his to do with as he pleased. I don’t know. These are just feelings, impressions based on events no one beyond the two people at the centre of it all can claim to know everything about, although Hedren’s own testimonies and the weight of history do suggest a degree of darkness to Hitchcock’s efforts to find the perfect blonde (for his movies).
The other way of looking at it is to imply that by cold shouldering Hedren on set, Hitchcock put her in the perfect place to coax such a performance of alienation and resentment. Because on the viewing for this write-up I was pretty much hooked on her work; far from seeing weak acting that was unable to cope with the demands of the role, I found her entirely convincing and magnetic. It’s a difficult part to play. Not only do you have to buy into her internal psychological damage, she has to make you believe that she’s worth being pursued by Mark Rutland (Connery), that despite her efforts to brush him off, not to mention her sexual frigidity, he persists until the film ends on a cautiously optimistic note. Fortunately, it’s beautifully done, Hedren’s character going through the emotional wringer until at the end her make-up has run, she looks as though she hasn’t slept properly for weeks and she’s reduced to speaking in a little girl’s voice to explain the childhood incident that scarred her for life. The result, Marnie’s repression and attempts to steal and then move on, all fits together so successfully that the use of the red filter as a psychological trigger whenever she sees the colour (no prizes for guessing what that symbolises) is a redundant gimmick.
The film opens with Marnie up to what we must consider to be her old tricks, having taken a position of employment, wormed her way into the boss’s confidence, breaking into and robbing his safe, and moving on to a new city, to the next trick. By a sorry coincidence, the target of her burglary is an associate of Rutland’s, and he’s the very man she ends up working for next. Again, she steals from her employer and does one, only Rutland’s wise to her ways and catches up with her. He then marries her as a pretext to helping her confront the demons that have forced her into this sad existence, a losing game apparently as Marnie is far from ready to give up her secrets.
The other motive behind Rutland’s decision to wed Marnie is his apparent lust for her, depicted in the infamous ‘rape’ scene, a soft take on the act by any modern filmed standards but clearly depicted all the same. This moment appeared in Winston Graham’s source novel and Hitchcock considered it to be uncuttable, despite the protestations of the original screen writer, Evan Hunter, who believed it would rob Rutland of any audience sympathy. The consequence was Hunter’s instant dismissal from the project and the decision to hire Jay Presson Allen, whose script for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was a draft at this stage. Allen appreciated working with Hitchcock, felt that she was never discriminated against for being a woman and believed he was pleased to have a writer who would give the Marnie character a true female perspective, something he was incapable of providing. As for the scene, it remains relatively hard hitting, especially given Rutland’s careful development as a relatively good man, and it’s possible to feel the rape – or at least, the non-consensual act, if you really insist on softening it – jars with the character’s motivations. I think the aim was to add flesh to Rutland, to show that among the good intentions and willingness to help Marnie he’s still a red-blooded male and can only take the lack of sex during his honeymoon so far. In saying that, I’m not trying to excuse his actions, just looking for reasons why he did it.
Rutland was played by Sean Connery, at the time just beginning his run as James Bond with Dr No finding success and a string of annual 007 outings in the pipeline. Looking for a younger version of his proto-masculine hero, Cary Grant, Hitchcock lucked out in getting Connery, who certainly brings all his charisma and presence to the role, albeit one demanding little of the physical performance that would define his time as Bond. While the complete refusal/inability of the actor to adapt his accent to the character was already in place when he made Marnie, Connery’s is undoubtedly good casting, a strong co-star for Hedren and someone in whom you believe entirely to get to the bottom of his wife’s mysteries once he’s resolved to do so. Of the rest of the cast, Diane Baker excels as Lil, Rutland’s sister-in-law who obviously sees herself as a future Mrs Rutland and makes malevolent efforts to undermine Marnie, sort of a less benevolent take on the Midge character in Vertigo. Marnie’s mother is played by Louise Latham, who deglamourised herself to excellent effect as a rather pathetic woman who both loves her daughter and does all she can to push her away, all because of unfortunate past events.
At the time Marnie was released, it was criticised heavily for ‘old Hollywood’ techniques that just looked out place in the 1960s – rear-screen projection and painted backdrops; check out the exterior set used for Marnie’s mother’s house for a glaring example. But was all this done deliberately? After all, it becomes clear that Marnie lives in a made-up world, so does it not follow to suggest her surroundings have a degree of artifice, that to flood her in harsh reality would only serve to highlight the character’s contrivances and diminish the power of her story? I guess it’s up to the individual viewer to decide, but as the film progressed it made more sense to me to think of it in this way.
Far from seeing this as a relatively weak entry within Hitchcock’s body of work, I’ve now come to really appreciate it, and of course there’s the parting of ways it also represented – the final collaboration between the director and Bernard Herrmann; his last with Robert Burks, the long-time cinematographer of Hitch classics. Truly things would never be the same again, and not in a good way given (largely) what followed. I certainly have no hesitation in recommending Marnie. Like Vertigo, it’s quite unlike anything else he made and if nothing better then it’s certainly an absorbing experiment in the subject matter he chose. I imagine those who psycho-analyse Hitchcock’s films for signs of the man’s profile having a field day with this one, which indeed you can do and often with dark and unpalatable results. That’s there if you’re looking for it, but take his extra-curricular motivations away and what you’re left with is a fine and unique film, one that definitely deserves its retrospective.