Films in Focus
By Jonathon Saia
Marnie (Universal, 1964) – Director: Alfred Hitchcock. Writers: Jay Presson Allen (s/p), Winston Graham (novel) Stars: Tippi Hedren, Sean Connery, Martin Gabel, Louise Latham, Diane Baker, Alan Napier, Bob Sweeney, Kimberly Beck, Milton Selzer, Henry Beckman, Edith Evanson, Mariette Hartley, Bruce Dern, S. John Launer & Meg Wyllie. Color, 130 minutes.
“You Freud, Me Jane?”
Perhaps it’s the heavy-handed psychological jargon that now seems quaint. Perhaps it is the melodramatic ending ripe for camp. Perhaps, like The Wrong Man (1957), it gets lost in the shuffle of Hitchcock's established masterpieces it follows. Perhaps it's its uncharacteristic sentimentality. Perhaps it is the infamous rape scene that turns some viewers away. Whatever the reason, Marnie has sadly been forgotten as one of the great films – and as Hitchcock's last great work.
Marnie (Hedren) is a compulsive thief and a pathological liar. She goes from town to town, identity to identity, blonde to brunette, gaining confidence with her employers before emptying their safes and getting out of Dodge. The film begins with a shot of her purse and her latest victim grunting, "Robbed!" As Mr. Strut describes "Marion" to the police, he makes sure not to leave a physical attribute unnoticed; it is obvious he hired her for her sex appeal. The police have a chuckle at his expense, as does Mark Rutland (Connery at the peak of his Bond beauty), one of the bank's most prominent clients who just so happened to be passing by. "The girl with the great legs," Mark remembers.
Meanwhile, "Marion" is back at the hotel turning herself back into "Marnie." Hitchcock explains to us, in the "pure cinema" technique he was famous for, Marnie's checkered past. We see a pocketbook full of Social Security cards and the methodical way she packs; this girl has done this before. We are reminded of Marion Crane's preparation for escape in Psycho not only by the name she has chosen to use, but by the way she tosses a white bra into her suitcase (packing her innocence away for another day the way Marion Crane wore her black undergarments for her escape) – with that slow, romantic, Bernard Hermann score seducing us in the background. Marnie dyes her hair in the bathroom, draining the darkness, returning to innocence, and flips her newly blonde hair back like Gilda (1946), eroticizing yet infantilizing her at the same time. This is the first time we see Tippi Hedren's gorgeous face; Hitchcock has reclaimed his icy, cool blonde.
Marnie heads home to visit Mrs. Edgar (Latham), her invalid mother who never seems to treat her as a mother should, saving her maternal love for a neighbor child. Marnie, always trying to win her affections, brings her a mink stole and a beautiful bouquet of white flowers. But she sees red, literally. The red flowers on the table make her dizzy, leaving her visibly distraught and vocal of her disapproval and jealousy and screams at her mother for preferring Jessie (Beck). Mrs. Edgar evades the question, slaps her for her insubordination, and sends her away for a nap, like a toddler who has gotten out of hand.
Marnie leaves the next day to gain employment at a new firm. She uses the name "Mary" and tells her much rehearsed sob story of a dead husband as her way of gaining favor. The irony in Marnie's job interview tactics is that she uses her beauty by downplaying it.
Covering her knees with her dress ever so deliberately to make sure men noticed her knee first, then notice that she is too much of a lady to let them see it; she is using propriety as seduction – the hard working librarian look that drive men wild. No feigned laughs for the boss, no low cut blouses. Just an eye on her duties and the dedication to work overtime. She knows she can't use real references because she has robbed them all. So she claims to be a housewife, returning to the fold in need of hard, demanding work to keep her occupied. If taken in a different tone with different music, this would be the set up for a thousand pornos. But Marnie is no slut. In fact, she is a virgin, reviled by the touch of any man who dares to show her affection.
Mr. Rutland, the president of the company, immediately recognizes her as Marion, the girl who robbed Strut's. He encourages her hiring despite the lack of references and the potential danger she poses. She intrigues him and wants to see how far she will go. Will she try to rob him too?
One stormy Saturday, Mark calls her to his office to ostensibly do some transcription work. But the conversation turns to the ideas of predators and prey. Mark, a one time zoologist, tells her that the female is most often the predator, harboring a criminal element. But before she can challenge his theories, lightning strikes, making her as vulnerable as a deer in a lion's den. Mark watches in titillation as she practically climbs the walls in terror over the storm. The walls flash red and a giant phallus-like tree stump crashes through the window. Mark takes her in his arms and kisses her comatose face. The passion is far from reciprocal, Marnie catatonic with fear.
From then on, they begin to date, going to the horse races. Marnie adores horses, riding bareback whenever possible (yet secretly reviles men; a clever sexual transference, playing on the way that women eroticize horses). One day at the track, a man spots "Penny," one of Marnie's past aliases. She denies it, Mark corroborates; he has caught Mary and no one else will have her. Mark learns that Mary/Marnie has an aversion to the color red. But why?
Despite Mark's genuine, yet ulterior affections, Marnie is not swayed by what she knows she must do. She robs his safe and absconds with the money.
But Mark has been expecting this and finds her. Round and round they go, sifting through Marnie's lies. His research has found out the truth; he is merely testing her. This scene is the most exciting in the film (and one of the best in the Hitchcock canon): seeing Marnie squirm as she knows Mark is too smart for her usual excuses, watching Mark visibly aroused at Marnie's discomfort and weakness. Mark blackmails Marnie into marriage.
Aboard their honeymoon cruise, Mark learns the truth depths of his wife's pathologies. That first night when he tries to sleep with her, she regresses to a howling banshee, terrified of his touch. Mark is sympathetic, especially for a glorified kidnapper. He leaves her in peace – for the time being.
The following days, they grow closer; she seems to take to his kindness, he seems the perfect gentleman. But a man can only be patient for so long when he has such a succulent prey on the barb. Mark rapes Marnie.
If Marnie is discussed at all, the rape scene is usually one of the things mentioned. Evan Hunter, the original writer who also wrote The Birds, was so disturbed by the prospect of writing a rape scene that he included an alternate scene as an addendum in the hopes that Hitch would use it; instead, he was fired. Jay Presson Allen (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, 1969) took over the reins. Hunter was afraid that an audience would not be able to accept Mark as a likable character after raping his clearly disturbed wife. But on the contrary. Mark raping Marnie makes him three-dimensional and fleshes out his own pathologies. Mark is a man sexually aroused by a woman who doesn't want him, a woman who is frigid, a woman who is a thief. Mark feels he has met his match in Marnie the Predator. He will tame her. And make her his prey.
Hedren has gone on record multiple times describing Hitchcock's untoward advances, essentially blacklisting her for two years when she refused to sleep with him (he also famously gave Melanie Griffith, Hedren's daughter, a miniature coffin with a doll of her mother in it as a gift for her 10th birthday).
It is not conventional love he feels for her, but – like all of Hitchcock's surrogates, particularly Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo (1957) – obsession that drives him. He will conquer her against all odds. After Grace Kelly is almost stabbed with a pair of scissors in Dial M for Murder (1954), Kim Novak falls from a tower in Vertigo, Janet Leigh is stabbed to death, naked, with a long knife in Psycho (1960), and Tippi Hedren is "raped" by bird beaks, it is fitting that one of his characters, particularly one played by Hedren, would incur an actual rape.
It is to Sean Connery's credit that Mark continues the picture, not unscathed, not forgiven, but understood as someone who needs Marnie to heal whatever wounds he has as much as Marnie needs him to heal her own. He continuously covers for her criminal activity; she is recalcitrant to his power, yet can't seem to keep returning to his arms. Marnie attempts suicide, which makes Mark want her even more. He nurses her back to health. They are now bound by a common trauma. They deserve and fear one another, making for one of the most unique and captivating on-screen romances this side of 9 1/2 Weeks (1986).
Mark and Marnie return home to play Husband and Wife. Mark's sister in law, Lil (Baker) is suspicious – and has her own jealous motives to see Marnie brought down. She professes her allegiance to Mark. She will lie to the police. Anything that is necessary to protect him from whatever trouble Marnie has gotten him into. He curbs her advances and returns to his felonious Pygmalion.
Later on a fox hunt, Marnie's horse becomes injured, forcing her to kill it. She is devastated, destroying the only male she has ever truly loved. Subconsciously, Mark, the amateur psychiatrist, knows he must psychologically transfer her love of horses to him (insert Freudian sex joke here). But Marnie has finally reached her breaking point, possibly never to return. Can he save her?
He drags her to her mother's house to find out why Marnie is afraid of thunderstorms, the color red, and the touch of a man. Secretly, he already knows, but needs Mrs. Edgar to tell her daughter the truth about herself: When Marnie was a child, she killed a man; one of her mother's Johns who tried to sexually assault her. Mrs. Edgar tried to protect Marnie from the assault, but fell and broke her leg. So Marnie then took a fire poker and beat the sailor to death. The blood covered his body. Outside, the lightning flashed through the window.
Like the end of Psycho, audiences must have found this clinical explanation of Marnie's neuroses as didactic and somewhat esoteric. Perhaps this is why Marnie has ripened with age. Once ahead of its time, now Marnie's afflictions (and Mark's) almost feel like common knowledge, with Freudian theories very much a part of the layman's lexicon. Marnie's psychology has even been lampooned in Charles Busch's Psycho Beach Party (2000) with the character of Chicklet terrified by the color red at the hand of her prostitute mother.
What strikes you most about watching Marnie in a Hitchcockian context is the amount of dialogue. Hitch, the King of Pure Cinema, always believed in the visual over the word. And Marnie is not void of visual clues or storytelling; Marnie's theft at Rutland's is beautifully plotted and meticulously executed all without words. But notice the long dialogue scenes in the car or the analysis scene. In a world hell bent on adapting established material, Marnie seems ripe for a stage version.
But the greatest element that sadly is forgotten by sending Marnie to the wayside is Tippi Hedren's glorious performance. After a career as a model and commercial actress, Hedren made her stunning film debut in The Birds (1963), a masterpiece that I would argue is possibly the Greatest Film Ever Made. In both films, Hedren plays a woman-child with serious mommy issues. In The Birds, she deals with them by carousing and breaking hearts; in Marnie, she steals to buy her mother's love. Here Hedren commits wholeheartedly to an almost impossible character, dichotomous and frustrating, certainly Hitch’s most complicated femme fatale. It is one of the tragedies of the silver screen that she did not go on to be a major star.