This year marks the 50th anniversary of Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie, which many call his last masterpiece. I agree it’s a masterpiece of technical filmmaking, but in some areas it hasn’t dated well, and at times is quite ludicrous.
The film deals with one of Hitchcock’s favorite themes–psychology. As with Spellbound, Vertigo, and Psycho, Hitchcock shows a fascination with psychoanalysis–the why of aberrant behavior. “You Freud, me Jane,” Tippi Hedren, the actress in the title role, says at one point.
The first shot of the film is Hedren, from behind, carrying a canary-yellow valise. It is a grabber of a shot, what with the raven-black hair and her walking away from the camera on an empty train platform. It turns out she is a serial thief, who takes jobs in payroll departments under assumed names and works long enough to find the money and steal it. She has just liberated nearly 10,000 dollars from a tax firm when the film begins.
The entire film of Marnie is a psychoanalysis of her. We then see her visit her horrible mother (yet another older woman in Hitchcock’s oeuvre who is monstrous). Hedren becomes jealous of the attention her mother shows to a young girl, and then frankly asks her why she doesn’t love her. In a bit of dime-store psychology, we can assume that her kleptomania is a reaction to her feelings of not being loved by her mother.
But there are other disturbing attributes, such as her going into a bit of seizure whenever she sees red, and she has a lot of trouble with thunderstorms. She also, we will find out, is not only one of Hitchcock’s icy blondes, she’s downright frigid.
After she steals the money at the start of the film, she tries again, this time in a publishing house run by Sean Connery. He thinks he recognizes her from her previous job (he was a client) and hires her just to make sure. He is kind of turned on by her psychoses, and our clue to that is his passion for studying animal behavior. He is also something of an amateur psychologist (we later see him reading a book about the sexual behavior of criminal women).
Connery figures out Hedren is the thief, and in a bit of deviance that is rival to hers, he blackmails her into marrying him. It’s a very creepy section of the film–she calls him out for what he wants–a zoo specimen. On their honeymoon, after she makes it very clear she is repulsed by the thought of any man’s touch, he rapes her. Screenwriter Evan Hunter expressed his disapproval of the scene (we see a closeup of a zombie-eyed Hedren while Connery has his way with her) and ending up getting fired. He was later told by the eventual writer, Jay Presson Allen, that the very reason Hitchcock wanted to make the film was that very scene.
Hunter thought Connery’s character couldn’t be redeemed after that, but by god he’s wrong–Connery ends up trying to crack the childhood trauma that reduced Hedren to a frigid, thieving woman, and he succeeds, in a climax that is alternately thrilling and ridiculous. Part of the problem is that Hedren just doesn’t have the chops for the role, and her regression into her five-year-old self is completely unconvincing. Another problem is that, like Spellbound and Psycho, the psychology is just too neat and tidy. In reality, the mind just isn’t that cut and dried.
But on a technical basis, this is one of Hitchcock’s most virtuosic films. Every camera angle, every cut, every lighting effect just seems perfect. I will add the caveat that we get a lot of Hitchcock’s main flaw–his use of process and matte shots. There are some scenes, particularly of a fox hunt, and then of a painted backdrop suggesting a ship, that are eye-rollingly funny. But aside from those, the film bristles with visual energy. There’s a spectacular sequence with Hedren robbing a safe, and we the audience can see that a cleaning lady has entered the office. It is there that Hitchcock proves that we will root for the lead character, even if she is committing a felony–we don’t want her to get caught.
Hitchcock also borrows from himself (in a scene from Notorious) with a crane shot that takes place during a party. Instead of focusing on a key, this time he zooms in on the arrival of a guest who is the last person Marnie wants to see.
Some trivia: future well-known actors Mariette Hartley and Bruce Dern appears in small roles. Hitchcock’s cameo appears early in the film, when he exits a hotel room. Hitchcock conceived the film as Grace Kelly’s comeback role, but she dropped out when the people of Monaco objected, especially since she would be playing a sexually deviant kleptomaniac. Connery wanted the role because he didn’t want to be typecast as James Bond.
So, like Vertigo, Hitchcock has shown us is dexterity as a filmmaker, but also a disturbing look at his particular sexual fantasies.