Thursday, March 22, 2012


Alfred Hitchcock, 1964
Starring: Tippi Hedren, Sean Connery, Diane Baker, Louise Latham, Mariette Harley

One of Hitchcock's most polarizing films, Marnie is a flawed, but interesting work. It is also the only film in the director's canon that can be described as an outright psychosexual melodrama rather than a thriller with some of these elements, like Vertigo. Based on the novel of the same name by Winston Graham, Marnie concerns the titular character, a thief and a liar with serious psychological damage. She takes on various identities to get hired with no references at different firms and then flees with large sums of money. She also has an intense fear of thunderstorms and the color red, both of which bring on panic and desperation.

Her latest employer, Sidney Strutt, relates the upsetting news of Marnie's recent theft to his friend Mark Rutland, who owns a publishing company and has frequent business dealings with Strutt. Mark remembers Marnie because of her attractiveness and when she applies to work at his firm under a new identity, he hires her. When she inevitably steals from him, he blackmails her into marrying him instead of going to prison. To his family's disbelief they quickly marry, but on their honeymoon Marnie reveals her intense sexual phobia and Mark responds by raping her, attempting to "cure" her. She tries to kill herself in the cruise ship's pool, but he stops her.

Mark is desperate to understand Marnie and hopefully cure her of this behavior, despite her obvious hatred for him. He tracks down Marnie's mother and they both learn that Marnie has blocked out a particularly traumatic memory. When she was young, her mother was a prostitute. During a storm, one of her clients approached Marnie and her mother assumed he was trying to molest her. Her mother struggled with the man and in an effort to help, Marnie accidentally killed him with a fire poker. Learning the truth and remembering the trauma seems to help and Marnie agrees to try to make the marriage work.

Marnie was not successful in the theater, probably due to the strange marketing campaign and change in tone the film makes from Hitchcock's earlier works. For whatever reason, Marnie was advertised as a "Suspense Sex Mystery," which is unfairly misleading. Like Vertigothe film's main character deals with a crippling phobia and sexual repression, but unlike the former, does not solve a particular mystery. Though there is mystery, crime and suspense in Marnie, it essentially deals with an unfolding psychological drama and a sexual power play between the two main characters.

Among the chief complaints were criticisms of Hitchcock's use of special effects. In many cases there are matte paintings, projections, back drops, fake thunderstorms, and a red filter, all of which are obvious. Many positive critics explain that this is because Hitchcock wanted to achieve an expressionistic feel. Marnie is a story about a woman's attempts to reject reality and pursue a fantasy world, which is why I think these fake looking set pieces are intentional and essential to the film. Hitchcock's blending of the real and purposefully unreal result in some very interesting set pieces that are further proof of his technical artistry and love of experimentation. He uses both silence and sound to great effect and, sadly, this was the last time he would work with his greatest musical collaborator, Bernard Herrmann. It was also the last time he would work with a number of his long-time crew members, including DP Robert Burks and editor George Tomasini.

The acting has been another source of controversy for Marnie. This is the last film to have a "Hitchcock blonde" in a main role and the part was supposed to go to Grace Kelly, who had to withdraw for political reason. I'm glad it was Hedren, even though she gives a somewhat stilted, highly criticized performance. Part of the problem is that the role is incredibly challenging -- I don't think Grace Kelly would have been up for it -- and Hedren and Hitchcock had a huge falling out during shooting. This resulted in him directing her through a second party and refusing to have further contact. Despite this, her performance is brave and successfully evokes the fact that Marnie is still a child and has not sexually or emotionally progressed from the instance of trauma that kept her frozen in time and her adult personality fractured. Connery and Hedren have no chemistry, though I think this works in Hitchcock's favor and despite it, we hope for their success by the end of the film. Connery requested to work with Hitchcock and in 1964 was at the height of his career with the BOND films. He is icily charming, devastatingly handsome, and is perfect as Mark.

One of my favorite things about Hitchcock's filmmaking is his intricate use of themes. In Marnie these are more over the top than any other Hitchcock film. There is a particular emphasis on animal imagery. Mark's hobby is zoology and he makes it clear that part of his interest in Marnie is that he wants to hunt and then study her. First he identifies her with the exotic pets he collects, but later with horses, which Marnie has a special attachment to. Riding her horse is the only way she can truly escape the pain of reality. There is a scene at the racetrack, a first kiss in the stable and one of the most important scenes takes place during a hunt on horseback. There is also a more minor connection between sex and the sea. Marnie and Mark take a cruise for their honeymoon and their first sexual encounter occurs out to sea. After this, Marnie tries to drown herself. Her fear of storms seems to be sexual in nature and it is revealed at the conclusion that the man behind her phobias was a sailor. Her mother, who she has a particularly tense, loveless relationship with, lives in Baltimore right near the harbor.

I think this is one of Hitchcock's more underrated efforts and should be seen by adventurous fans of the great director. There is certainly some foolishness with the plot, which beats us over the head with Freudian theory, but as soon as you stop viewing this as an exercise in realism, it becomes a lot more interesting and enjoyable. There is a single disc from Universal and Marnie also appears in the Alfred Hitchcock Masterpiece Collection, which is what I'm reviewing. It includes an informative documentary, The Trouble With Marnie, which explains a lot about production and the later controversy.


  1. Oh Marnie... I have such a love/hate relationship with this film.
    As you pointed out, the themes presented are fascinating and, on paper, riveting. There is just something in the execution that looses me.
    One of the main reasons The Birds is one of my favorite films is Hedren's performance. She just doesn't work as well for me in this role.
    I'd like to watch this again as "an exercise in realism." The first 2 viewings were spent trying to make it into something it was never going to be.

  2. I actually owe THE BIRDS another look, as I usually consider it one of my least favorite Hitchcock films. And I don't think MARNIE is an exercise in realism, I think it is an exercise in expressionism, much like THE BIRDS is an exercise in fantasy. Overall flawed, but still interesting.