Over the next week or so, I’m going to be immersing myself in some of Alfred Hitchcock’s lesser known classics. I will review them as I go along, for a bit of a retrospective on a master filmmaker’s most underrated work. I decided to start with Marnie.
In 1964, Alfred Hitchcock was at the height of his popularity with the American public. His two previous films, Psycho and The Birds, were massive hits. His television show Alfred Hitchcock Presents only added to his success. All of this changed when Marnie was released. By all counts, the film was considered a failure. Seen today, the movie is a forgotten masterpiece. With the exception of Vertigo, which was also a failure when it came out, Marnie is Hitchcock’s deepest, most mysterious film.
Audiences have always responded well to Hitchcock when he is out to thrill us, North by Northwest, or when he’s out to scare us, Psycho, but it always takes them a while to respond to the times when he really makes us think. Marnie is the thinking man’s Hitchcock film. It has so many underlying themes and obsessions that multiple viewings are essential. In Marnie, Hitchcock doesn’t want scare us, he wants to us to be deeply disturbed.
Marnie Edgar, played by Tippi Hedren, is one of the greatest female characters in all of American cinema. She is beautiful, intelligent, and witty. She’s also a compulsive kleptomaniac (she steals from her employers), and a pathological liar. She is deathly afraid of the color red, and she can’t stand to be touched by men. She only cares about two things, her horse Forio, and her mother’s affection. She is a deeply troubled woman with a very dark past, and her future isn’t looking too bright either.
From the very beginning we get a sense of who Marnie is, we see her walking with her latest score in a yellow purse. She heads to the hotel to wash out the black dye in her hair, and then she heads to Baltimore to see her mother. Her mother babysits a little girl from the neighborhood. Marnie is jealous of the way her mother dotes on the child. You can cut the tension with a knife. Marnie’s mother warns her: “Men and a good name don’t go together.” Pay attention, these are the first pieces of the puzzle. After leaving her mother some money and a fur scarf, Marnie heads to Philadelphia to find a new victim. She gets a job working for Mark Rutland (Sean Connery), a charming aristocrat who immediately takes an interest in Marnie. After catching her in the act of stealing, Rutland decides he’s going to “help” Marnie with her problems. Then it gets interesting. He forces Marnie to marry him, and if she doesn’t play the happy bride, then she goes to jail. On their honeymoon cruise, Marnie curls up in fright when he tries to touch her. He realizes how troubled and frightened she is, and he is gentle towards her, at least for a while. After a few days, Rutland forces himself on Marnie, essentially raping her. The rape is the turning point in the film, and the following scenes become increasingly darker and more twisted.
This is Hitchcock at his most perverse. As deeply disturbed as Marnie may be, Rutland is worse. Besides the rape, the man has an almost fetishistic obsession with Marnie. Why is he so concerned with helping her? Can’t he just turn her into the police? Is he turned on by making her feel helpless and weak? The questions go on and on. In fact, it wasn’t until the rape scene, that I realized that Marnie was probably a virgin. She can’t stand a man’s touch. Hitchcock was aware that the restrictions of content in film was beginning to fade in the 1960’s, and he really cuts loose here. There are scenes in this film that will stay with you forever. True to form, Hitchcock gives us some very suspenseful set pieces, especially when Marnie breaks into the Rutland safe and the chase on horseback near the end of the film, but for the most part Marnie is about the characters, and the actors are more than adequate.
Hedren and Connery were dogged for their performances in 1964. The character of Marnie was originally intended to be Grace Kelly’s comeback role, but when she declined, Hitchcock gave it to Hedren. You have to remember, this was only her second role, after The Birds. Honestly, I never thought she was that good in her first film, but here, only a year later, she is phenomenal. The role is so complex, I think it would be hard for any actress, and Hedren deserves the credit that has eluded her for so many years. We all know Connery isn’t going to be believable as a rich guy from Philadelphia, but he’s so charming in the role that you just accept it and go on. The film is a little longer than it needs to be, but the shattering climax makes it worthwhile. This is a film, like Vertigo again, that was completely ahead of it’s time. It has aged very well, and it deserves to be treasured.
Marnie is available on a couple different DVD’s, the Hitchcock Signature Collection, and the Hitchcock Masterpiece Collection. Both DVD’s are essentially the same, Universal knows they can milk Hitchcock for all he’s worth, but the Masterpiece Collection is available in a box set that has 15 of Hitch’s best films. I highly recommend it. The image and sound are adequate, and the features are entertaining.
A bit of a sidenote for those who are interested: Marniewas more famous for it’s drama behind the scenes. Hedren has claimed in recent years that Hitchcock had become obsessed with her. He eventually made some sort of comment to her, that really upset her. The rumor is that she replied by making fun of Hitchcock’s weight. As a result of this, Hitchcock kept her locked into a lengthy contract, but never used her again. When other filmmaker’s asked if he would lend her out for other films, he refused. Hedren says that this is why she never got more interesting roles throughout her career. I have no idea if any of this is true. Hedren stands by her comments, and so does her daughter, Melanie Griffith. Like I said, I have never read that this has been confirmed by anyone else, but I will say this, I believe he was obsessed with her, and it is evident in every frame of Marnie. Nonetheless, Hitchcock stands as the world’s greatest director, and whether he ruined her career or not, Hedren should be extremely proud of her work here. I’m sure Grace Kelly had more important matters to attend to, she was the Princess of Monaco, but she missed out on the role of a lifetime.