Alfred Hitchcock Flashes Back with “Marnie”

19 02 2011

“What really bothered me about ‘Marnie’ were all the secondary characters. I had the feeling that I didn’t know these people, the family in the background. And I wasn’t convinced that Sean Connery was a Philadelphia gentleman. You know, if you want to reduce ‘Marnie’ to its lowest common denominator, it is the story of the prince and the beggar girl. In a story of this kind you need a real gentleman, a more elegant man than we had.” – Alfred Hitchcock

“Marnie,” released in 1964, was an odd movie for Alfred Hitchcock. Described by the director as a “sex mystery,” it is certainly a melodrama, one that was strangely out of step with its era. Starring Tippi Hedren and Sean Connery, the film was based on a novel by Winston Graham about a woman who’s a compulsive thief and liar.

Hitchcock worked on the treatment for “Marnie” with writer Joseph Stefano, molding it into the story he wanted to tell. As always, Hitchcock pushed to get things past the censors; in that way, its racy content and violence are ahead of their time.

We begin with Marnie Edgar, her hair jet black, clutching a yellow bag under her arm as she walks confidently down a railroad platform away from the camera. At that moment, her employer, Mr. Strutt, is reporting to the police that his assistant has made off with thousands of dollars. While he makes his report, a client of his firm enters the office. This is Mark Rutland (Connery), who listens to robbery’s details with some pleasure, especially since Strutt had pointed her out to him before as “dressing up the office.”

Marnie checks into a hotel and washes the black out of her hair, then makes two stops: First, to ride her horse, Forio, and then to her mother in a dockside Baltimore apartment. Marnie and her mother quarrel, and Marnie seems on the verge of terror when she spots a vase full of bright red gladiolas, a terror that is expressed by Hitchcock by turning the entire screen red.

Taking up residence in Philadelphia, Marnie happens to land a job at Rutland Publishing, run by Mark Rutland, who, unbeknownst to her, is intrigued by this strange young woman he recognizes from Strutt’s office.

Marnie takes up bookkeeping, but again becomes extremely agitated when a drop of red ink lands on her sleeve. Rutland decides to get to know her better, and invites her to do some overtime at the office with him. But when a violent storm renders her almost catatonic, Rutland tries to comfort her, not realizing that his touch is not welcome.

Fearing that Rutland is getting to close to her, Marnie makes her move, slipping into an office and breaking into a safe. Hitchcock builds the suspense beautifully here, as we see Marnie on the right of the screen, opening the safe, and a cleaning woman mopping the floor on the left, getting closer and closer.

Rutland tracks Marnie to her stable and takes her with him, explaining that he could easily turn her over to the police – unless she agrees to marry him. Left with no choice, Marnie agrees, but on their honeymoon cruise, Marnie refuses to sleep with him, saying that she can’t stand to be touched by any man. Rutland tries to be patient with her, thinking that she just needs to warm up to the idea of marriage, but she becomes increasingly hostile, until, after several days, he refuses to take no for an answer and forces her to have sex with him.

Back in Philadelphia, Marnie attempts to act like a society wife, getting to know Rutland’s family, including a meddling sister-in-law (Rutland is a widower) who has been prying into Marnie’s past. She tells Rutland that his wife has been lying to him, that she has stolen more than once, and that her mother is alive in Baltimore.

Rutland tries to convince Marnie to visit a psychiatrist, or at least read some

Marnie has a nightmare, expressed in a red haze.

books on psychology to gain some understanding of her own behavior, but Marnie refuses. At a party, she runs into Strutt, who recognizes her. Rutland’s response to this is to blackmail Strutt by threatening to take away his business if he goes to the police.

Marnie joins a fox hunting party in Virginia, but the sight of a red jacket sends her into a panic, and she rides her horse wildly, until she finally jumps him over a high stone wall. The horse’s leg is broken, and, as if in a trance, Marnie shoots him.

Just after that, Rutland catches her in his house trying to steal money from the safe. He takes her to her mother’s apartment near the docks in Baltimore, where, as another thunderstorm rages, he makes her mother reveal what strange incident traumatized Marnie so badly.

In a flashback that stands out from the rest of the movie, we learn that the mother was a prostitute who catered to sailors on shore leave, and on a stormy night, a sailor tried to comfort Marnie. The mother fought with the sailor, thinking he was trying to molest her daughter, and Marnie came up behind him and killed him with a fireplace poker. It was the sailor’s blood that instilled a fear of red in Marnie. While we now understand her fear of red and her horror at being touched by a man, Hitchcock does not try to explain Marnie’s compulsion to lie and steal or her love of horses, which seem to be the only creatures she can relate to.

With the story out in the open at last, Rutland and Marnie leave the apartment as Marnie says that she’s going to try to make her marriage work.

It is, of course, difficult to get past the rape scene in “Marnie,” although Hitchcock shows almost nothing beyond Rutland’s intensely staring eyes; between this and the two instances of blackmail, Rutland is not very likable. But Sean Connery, then in his early years as James bond, is extremely charistmatic, and it’s hard not to sympathize with him. Hedren, still a novice as an actor, is sort of over the top, but it suits the character she’s playing.

The film also features Diane Baker as Rutland’s dark-haired, brazen sister-in-law, Alan Napier (better known as Alfred the butler from the Batman TV series) as Rutland’s father, and Bruce Dern as the doomed sailor.

Hitchcock began developing “Marnie” during the filming of “The Birds” as a comeback vehicle for Grace Kelly, who had expressed interest in the story. Unfortunately, several factors kept Kelly from taking the role, including an outcry from the people of Monaco at the idea of their princess playing a liar and a thief; also, when Kelly retired from acting she still owed MGM another movie, so coming back to make a movie for Universal would have been impossible. Hitchcock was understandably frustrated to lose Kelly, and offered the role to Hedren instead.

Hitch worked on the treatment with Joseph Stefano, writer of “Psycho,” then turned to Evan Hunter for the screenplay. Hunter could not get past the rape scene, though, and wrote a different version of the scene in which Rutland does not commit the rape; for his troubles, Hitchcock fired him, then brought in another writer, Jay Presson Allen, who carried out the director’s wishes in completing the story. Both Hunter and Allen have said that for Hitchcock, the rape scene was the most interesting thing about “Marnie.” Given Hitchcock’s impotence, it’s hard not to wonder if he were bringing to life his own sexual frustrations here.

From the start, “Marnie” feels old-fashioned; after several films with modern, flashy title sequences, this one goes back to the 1940s standby of credits on pages in a book. The story recombines elements of “Spellbound” – the disturbed protagonist who can’t control her actions – with the fascination with thieves from “To Catch a Thief.” But it’s the melodramatic staging, the theatrical thunderstorms, the purposely unrealistic psychotic episodes, that must have made it seem almost quaint in comparison with the growing realism of the 1960s. Even more out of place was the scene from Marnie’s childhood at the end of the movie, which felt like it had been pulled out of some German expressionist film, shot in a distorted, claustrophobic way, with every color in a sort of washed-out sepia palette.

Marnie’s problem with the color red drove Hitchcock to make some truly inspired color choices in the movie. Although Marnie’s red haze feels trite – it’s the same gimmick Hitch used in “Rear Window” when James Stewart holds off Raymond Burr with the flashbulbs, although it’s used metaphorically here rather than literally – the rest of the film is shot with subdued colors; the actors are clothed in gray, brown, cream and white. Red, when it is shown, stands out strongly, heightening the anxious mood of the moment.

After a run of three very successful, slick movies with plenty of excitement – “North by Northwest,” “Psycho” and “The Birds” – “Marnie” was a letdown for moviegoers, and the film was not a hit. Even Hitchcock seems less than certain of how to present “Marnie” in the trailer. He can’t seem to get a handle on what to say about it, and his flip attitude does not convey the darkness of the story.

“Marnie” marks the end of an era for Hitchcock; although he did not know it at the time, it would be the last time he worked with several of his key collaborators, including cinematographer Robert Burks, editor George Tomasini and composer Bernard Herrmann. (For the fox hunting scenes, Hitchcock again got help from Walt Disney, who had developed a convincing fake horse an actor could ride in closeup.) Still, it is the fullest exploration of a damaged psyche in his career, following up on “Spellbound” and “Vertigo.”

Hitchcock’s powerful need to control Hedren’s performance and appearance led to clashes on the set; the two would never work together again. Diane Baker, who worked with Hitchcock just this once, explained that Hitchcock directed her not by giving her any insight into what her character was thinking or even doing, but rather by posing her, even arranging her expression with his fingers, then rolling film.

Next, Hitchcock’s run of box office disappointments continues with “Torn Curtain,” starring Paul Newman and Julie Andrews.

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4 responses

22 02 2011
Ron Hobbs

Marnie has to be one of Hitch’s most off-beat thrillers, and is quite good, although not necessarily on the first viewing. I first saw it as a child on tv and couldn’t understand Marnie’s reluctance to Sean Connery. I mean this was Sean Connery. Her remoteness annoyed me.
As an adult I find it more interesting. Stylish, in an era of cinematic realism, it shows childhood trauma impacting adult sexuality. Her kleptomania is a sex substitute. The movie’s opening shot is of her purse. She spends her life trying to buy her mother’s love, while being unable to make love to a man.
Marnie has no typical Hitchcock villain. The characters are tortured by their own selves. The movie’s ending does not have a final resolution. She realizes she can never get her mother’s love, but transfers it to Mark. They embark on a mission of psychological healing, in an adult relationship. I was choking back the tears.
By the way, I’m a big fan of Diane Baker in this movie. She was stunning.
And yes, that is one bizarre trailer.

1 12 2011
Tv Food and Drink

I’ve always been fascinated by this film, but will admit that anyone I’ve ever watched it with ends up disliking it enormously. Hitch has still got one foot firmly planted in old-school filmmaking, and his techniques would have been better suited to a movie made twenty years earlier. But I could watch the fox hunt sequence endlessly…. and that Herrmann score!!

1 12 2011
Ron Hobbs

Once you get past the archaic style, it is a subtle and nuanced film. The psychology that the film relies on, which was dismissed at the time, has been validated in recent times. I love the Freudian symbolism.

7 10 2012
BFI Hitchcock Season – Marnie (1964) « Minty's Menagerie

[…] four years later in 1980, his cremated ashes sprinkled over the Pacific ocean. I don’t regard Marnie as a masterpiece unlike some aficionados, it has some bravura moments and the insights it reveals […]

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