Director: Alfred Hitchcock
By Roderick Heath
Alfred Hitchcock’s career, after a wane in the late ’40s, gathered new steam in 1951 with Strangers on a Train, and for the next decade or so, his creative zest and cinematic brilliance seemed practically limitless. His exploits came within his official brief as the “Master of Suspense” and yet often, both covertly and overtly, tested those limits, setting and overcoming challenges of form, tone, technique, and substance even before gaining a strange, but harmless and even encouraging boost from a new generation of young French critic-filmmakers. All that seemed to come to an abrupt halt in 1964 with Marnie, an awkwardly received work that became a battleground for auteurists and their enemies. All involved came out somewhat battered.
For Hitchcock himself, the experience seemed to cause a creative crisis, and except for the coldly beautiful, maliciously funny Frenzy (1972), his final works display the hit-and-miss tone and intent of effect that characterised his lesser, earlier work. Perhaps age and the uncertainties of the suddenly permissive, authenticity-craving zeitgeist began to catch up with him; or perhaps, as some have said, Hitchcock finally let his perpetual actress crushes get the best of him on the set of Marnie, where he fell out with leading lady Tippi Hedren, who had been carried over from The Birds (1963) after an abortive attempt to get Grace Kelly to return to filmmaking. His powerhouse technical crew also began to disintegrate after its release; he lost his editor George Tomasini and cinematographer Robert Burks, and composer Bernard Herrmann ended their epochal partnership after his score for Hitchcock’s next film, Torn Curtain (1966), was rejected as uncommercial.
Whatever truths pop psychology and industry rumour can extract from the situation can’t match the evidence of Marnie itself, that it is one of his most personal, intense, fervent films and one where he tried to finally bust out of the role of Master of Suspense. Marnie is essentially an expressionist romantic melodrama rather than a thriller, boiling down many of his basic themes to a basic dialogue of suspicion and passion, transgression and forgiveness. Hitchcock’s least generic film since The Trouble with Harry (1956), but also an antithesis of that film’s deceptively flip aesthetic, Marnie’s declarative style echoes through the contemporary cinema of Lynch, Almodovar, Argento, Scorsese, De Palma, and many others, and noncinematic visual artists, too, indicating the degree to which he succeeded in laying out his most electrified images in a purified visual language. That language is largely one of raw iconography, often imitated, even fetishized, yet rarely reproduced coherently: the yellow handbag with which Marnie (Tippi Hedren) spirits away her loot in the first shot, the enormous close-up of Mark Rutland (Sean Connery) searching for her bright red lips in a moment of electric fear and passion, the equally huge close-up of her hand clutching a revolver as she shoots her beloved horse Florio, the repeating motifs that combine basic Freudianism with the axiomatic power of images.
Adapted from Winston Graham’s novel by Jay Presson Allan with the customarily loose approach of the Hitchcock development phase, Marnie is in some ways a gender-switch remake of Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945). Marnie is nonetheless also a deeply ironic film that sets out purposefully to pull apart multiple forms of institution—family, sex, marriage, business and social hierarchies, even the authoritarianism of psychiatry itself—and recompose them in new, distorted shapes.
Marnie Edgar herself seems both the chicest and the most dedicatedly duplicitous of Hitchcock blondes, but that is an illusion: she’s really from a poor Southern family, scion of hellfire religion and seamy rendezvous. Marnie is almost always the smartest person in the room and yet crippled by a powerful compulsion that sees her use up her talents and intelligence in repetitive, nominally profitable, but essentially pointless crimes. The audience, as so often in Hitchcock, is invited into complicity with her crimes, her satisfaction in ripping off the smug, bottom-pinching paternalists of the American business class and showing up their frauds, incompetence, and self-satisfaction. Who is her first and most troublesome victim in the film? A man named Strutt (Martin Gabel). She pays an early visit to her mother Bernice (Louise Latham) carrying the treasure from her latest assault, only to be driven insanely jealous by her mother’s affection for a young urchin, Jessie (Kimberly Beck), and Bernice’s dislike of being touched by her daughter, who begs her mother for any kind of physical affection with the exposed pathos of a child. Psycho’s silhouetted, looming maternal figure is here still alive and quietly torturing with inchoate love, standing over Marnie’s bed as she’s stricken with nightmares from a childhood incident she can’t remember yet obsesses over. Marnie is clearly a fractured mess contained by the trappings of the Hitchcock blonde, making it Hitchcock’s most overt deconstruction of his figure of obsession. Marnie’s misanthropy and frigidity, enacted through her gratifying raids, fascinates and entices Mark, knowing full well who and what she is, after her robbery of his business associate Strutt.
Hitchcock’s jokiness always had a peculiar habit of concealing notions of discomforting profundity, and here the narrative is sustained by a restlessly clever conflation of human behaviour with zoology, a pragmatic and amoral science that balances and rivals the medical psychotherapeutic conceits with its specifically human constructs and egocentric world view (and also inevitably invoking the animal motifs of Psycho and the avian apocalypse of The Birds). This idea is introduced as Rutland’s essential interest, a form of thought which codifies his worldview of the predatory, yet frustrated, alpha male. Mark himself is a contradictory figure, a nerd forced into the role of business tycoon to protect the prosperity of his American Brahmin family. The notion of Mark being as quietly entrapped in his own, specifically masculine way as the more overtly neurotic, yet hardly more perverse Marnie is a significant substrata to the film’s psychic drama: if Marnie is near-fatally afflicted not only with profound childhood trauma, but also corrosively retrograde concepts of morality, Mark Rutland seems to be an almost purified edition of the era’s version of playboy male—aggressive, darkly charming (played by James Bond himself), entitled, and conquering. Mark’s approach to Marnie, engaging in what is basically a form of sexual and emotional blackmail with Marnie in a desire to satisfy his taste for an exotic female specimen, blends confusedly with his actual affection and interest in her, an affection that becomes mediated and complicated through an interminable array of defence mechanisms and biological instincts.
Marnie’s credits announce a literary motif as the names are presented printed on turning pages, an almost satirical touch, as if Hitchcock was delving back into the era of the oppressively vulgar romanticism of former patron David Selznick and classic Hollywood. But the romanticism is also very real, if livid in its perversity, and the film’s opening moments—Marnie, seen from behind, stalking a railway concourse carrying that yellow bag, and then a jump-cut to Strutt’s angry exclamation of “Robbed!” immediately clarifying the strange importance of the bag and the mysterious figure—represent formally arranged cinema at its height, brusquely free of the literary. This segues into a ritualised shift of identities, with Marnie switching Social Security cards hidden in her compact in a marvelous conjunction of practical trick and metaphor for the immutable impersonality of femininity, washing the black dye from her hair, and dropping the first of the film’s many talismanic keys to the bus station locker where she abandons her most recent alternate guise. One major structural difference between Marnie and other Hitchcock films is in the final melding of the figure of the ice-cool woman of mystery and the fearful fugitive, usually a male character who at some stage becomes captor or captive to the female. Whereas early films in the canon like The 39 Steps (1935) mediate the idea of being at the mercy of a criminal with humour, here the motif is explored in disturbing ways through a situation where the relationship allows neither character unsullied dignity nor freedom from culpability.
After her robberies, Marnie always rides her beloved horse Florio (“If you must bite someone, Florio, bite me!”) with all its ripe suggestions of adolescent sublimation. Marnie’s guises enable her status as a subversive agent without a cause within the structure of contemporary society, but they soon prove ineffective armour against the world, and the relentless male gaze of Hitchcock and his protagonists: “Stare,” Marnie spits in response to a word-association game Mark plays with her, “And that’s what you do!” Such a tantalising surface must be shattered. Only the forces that compel that shattering largely come from within Marnie herself rather than Russian spies or harassing police, but still Rutland, like many (usually female, sometimes equally malevolent) Hitchcock protagonists before him, becomes accomplice and protector, persecutor and lover to the fugitive. Rutland’s half-protective, half-greedy entrapment of Marnie becomes then the overture for a perverted inversion of the rituals of marriage and social courtship laced with acidic import, as the narrative moves through a quickie wedding, a first honeymoon night that turns into an oppressive disaster, a sexual encounter that grazes rape and concludes with a suicide attempt (“The idea was to drown myself, not feed the damn fish!”), and finally a return home whereupon Rutland coaches Marnie sarcastically in the arts of respectable cohabitation and newlywed rituals: “This is the drill, dear—wife follows husband to front door, gives and/or gets a kiss, stands pensively as he drives away…”
Later, Marnie is inducted into the ritual of hosting a party, where she’s almost driven to flee by the sight of Strutt, invited with malicious intent by Mark’s sister-in-law Lil Mainwaring (Diane Baker). Rarely was Hitchcock’s sense of sarcastic humour and utter contempt for domestic institutions so sharp as in such scenes. This is the marriage role-playing stage of Rear Window’s (1954) many windows, replayed through a more immediate, torturous prism. Whilst the film thoroughly validates Freudianism, it proffers an intense distrust of official interventions and authority: the psychiatrist Marnie sees in the novel is conflated with Mark himself, whose amateur tilt at the art is blended in multifarious, dangerous, but also more personal and crucial ways. Marnie meets Mark’s attempts to tease psychoanalytic self-recognition out of her with equal contempt in a moment that recalls the similarly inquisitorial courtships of The Birds: “You Freud – me Jane?” The old gag, “just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you,” here is rewritten as, just because Marnie knows that she’s criminally neurotic, doesn’t mean she’s wrong to want to invert the power relations backed up by ever-present hints of brute, vindictive force that surround her.
Marnie’s sequential set-pieces are far less expansive and spectacular than in the likes of North by Northwest (1959) or even Psycho (1960), and yet represent exercises in technique and symphonic emotion just as bravura and compelling for the attentive viewer. Mark and Marnie’s relationship, which bobs to the surface first when she is sent into an animalistic frenzy by the electric brightness and saturating red of a thunderstorm, retreating to writhe against the office door in proto-orgasmic panic, attracting Mark to embrace her in an intimate moment that resolves in that colossal kiss, a moment that seems to represent an absolute reduction of one aspect of the cinema just as surely as the shower murder of Psycho. The next climax, Marnie robbing the Rutland and Co. safe, builds from the moment Rutland steals away with Marnie into a corner of the family mansion’s stables to kiss her in a moment of supposedly illicit passion, with Marnie playing along whilst keeping her mind on her upcoming theft as the price she will exact. This moment of covert retreat jumps almost immediately to the image of Marnie hiding within a toilet cubicle, waiting in the semi-dark for the office women to retreat and leave her to her peculiar, solitary form of sexual release. The actual heist makes a Jules Dassin-esque use of silence, as a cleaning lady strays unperceived into Hitchcock’s coolly framed widescreen cage as Marnie does her deed, and she strips her shoes off to make a getaway, only for one to fall with calamitous volume to the floor.
Only the cleaning lady’s lousy hearing saves Marnie, but her seemingly clean getaway is abruptly ruined when Marnie’s customary post-heist fling on Florio is interrupted by Mark’s appearance, now the glowering force of male vindictiveness, or so it seems at first, before Mark’s actual, far stranger program becomes apparent. The image of Joan Fontaine’s repressed intellectual in Suspicion (1941) reading a book on child psychology whilst keeping one eye on the gorgeous threat of Cary Grant is soon inverted, as Mark peers over the edge of a book on seashore animals into Marnie’s bedroom, with sex on his mind. He releases his frustration on Marnie, tearing off her skirt, then bundling her guiltily with his bathrobe: the switchbacks here between desire and hate, protectiveness and lust, violation and embrace, nakedness and protective layering, are articulated with stunning rapidity. Marnie’s wide, dead eyes and Mark’s predatory gaze form a dialogue of primal sensation, completely at odds and yet locked in a dying fall onto the bed. It’s one of the most brilliant, disturbing, multifaceted moments in movie history, and one that has links to the much simpler and yet so similar moment in Hitchcock’s first mature film, The Lodger (1926), in which the frame is filled with Ivor Novello’s face looming upon the camera in the act of a kiss, an image of both love and fear, threat and affection.
Hitchcock’s style, which always seems so singular as to be sui generis, actually represents a weird and fascinating blend of the two basic approaches to cinema: he learned from Fritz Lang and the Munich filmmakers under whom he served an apprenticeship a form of expressionism and symbolism, one in which his interest in psychology readily found release, and yet he was also a fundamental realist in the British school, anticipating aspects of neorealism in work like Shadow of a Doubt (1943) in his way of observing specific detail and utilising milieu. His later films offer a violently eclectic technique, and that’s true enough in Marnie, a deeply stylised film, full of grandiose shots that show off their inauthenticity but only for the sake of enriching the film’s emotional palate and elemental drama. Such tricks range from the hugely looming, oppressive ship that sits moored at the end of Bernice’s street, to the thunder clouds that hang over the Rutland and Co. offices, presaging the storm that will soon break on both physical and psychological planes. The film resolves into overtly expressionistic alternations of drained colour and sudden, violent hues and the interplay of the present and past screaming faces of Marnie, beholding the horror of her accidental homicide, practically begging for Edvard Munch’s scream to be added to the montage. Whilst it’s tempting to admit Hitchcock’s effects get too bluntly, even cornily declarative in places, like the in-and-out zoom that punctuates Marnie’s final robbery and the rush of unlocked symbols in the finale, it’s still important to recognise their place in the film’s final idealisation of image not simply as a picture but as an expressive device.
It’s taken me a long time to come around to Hedren, but lately I can’t take my eyes off her on screen, as what Hitchcock saw in her seems plainer. In comparison to his great triumvirate of female stars, Joan Fontaine, Ingrid Bergman, and Grace Kelly, Hedren was much less subtle, but also had both a febrile intensity under the simpering cool, and a precise type of aggression, a spiky hauteur the other three usually rounded off. This quality works especially well here, an edge that comes out in Marnie’s bitterly self-aware humour and her serpentine defensiveness when cornered: she could alternate between softness and hardness with precise timing. Although by logical standards oddly cast as an American Brahmin, Connery is simply marvelous in one of his best performances, capturing Mark’s natural imperiousness and delight in game hunting with eruptions of shame and tenderness. Herrmann’s score is one of his most lush, irradiating the images with a swooning sense of yielding desire and unfettered feeling, which the characters constantly stymie. It’s easy to see why Hitchcock’s style has had such a deep impact on queer aesthetics and artists, with his immediate sense of illicit passion, unease, and duplicitous surfaces. It’s tempting enough to read the tale of Marnie as that of a closeted lesbian, which would probably be the first reflex of a modern analysis, as, like the heroine of Rebecca (1940), she practically trembles with the constant threat/invitation of being recognised/outed.
Baker’s marvellously supine Lil evokes Suzanne Pleshette’s antipathetic brunette Annie Heyworth in The Birds as one who stands as a nominal rival for the affections of the hero. Whereas Pleshette was easier to read in her affectations as an embodiment of same-sex attraction, Lil is more a quietly murderous sprite, an example of a younger generation for whom the weaknesses of the older are invitation to cruel sport. The grand climactic scenes of Marnie come somewhat before the actual finale’s perfervid revelations, as Marnie, made nervous by Lil’s plot to spring Strutt on her, and with Mark trying to strike a bargain with him, joins a fox hunt. She registers the laughter of the hunters and the jollity of the blood sport as a specific psychic anticipation of her own destruction, and flees, chased by Lil until she tries to make Florio jump a brick wall, the horse smashing its rear legs and sending Marnie tumbling head over heels. The interplay of editing and shooting here, ranging from helicopter shots to close-ups that feel like comic book frames in their illustrative quality, is as amazing as any of Hitch’s vaunted scenes, and the pungent emotionalism of Marnie, bedraggled and hysterical, begging a farm woman for a pistol to shoot her beloved steed, and angrily shoving aside the pleading Lil (“Haven’t you killed enough today?”) to deliver the coup de grace.
Mercy killing of her most beloved creature segues into thievery as Marnie, almost entirely unhinged though back in her near-catatonic state, tries to rob the Rutland mansion’s safe, but with her paralysing psychological blocks now preventing her from taking the money. Mark determines to drive her to the showdown with her mother that will finally unveil the base trauma that has caused her compulsions and phobias. That finale tries to pack a little too much into one scene, but the completeness of Marnie’s devolution is remarkable, as she’s reduced to a childish state, whilst Mark finally achieves the authority he’s always sought, ripping away the bandage of forgetfulness Bernice had thankfully idealised as a gift from god, relieving not only Marnie from guilt but also herself from her past. Marnie escapes the total collapse and rot that finally cocoons Norman Bates, the death wish of Vertigo’s Madeleine/Vicky, and the collapse of The Birds’ Melanie Daniels, Marnie’s immediate psychic ancestors. And that, perhaps, is truly why Marnie feels like the end of something.