Marnie (1964) / Drama-Thriller
MPAA Rated: PG for sexual themes and a scene of violence (I'd rate it PG-13)
Running Time: 114 min.
Cast: Tippi Hedren, Sean Connery, Louise Latham, Diane Baker, Alan Napier, Martin Gabel, Mariette Hartley, Bruce Dern
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay: Jay Presson Allen
A commercial and critical failure upon its release, Marnie is one of the Master's failures that has gained a following over time, and some critics actually rank it among his very finest of films. I won't make that far of a leap, as much as I like it, because I do feel that Hitchcock (To Catch a Thief, Rear Window) had done much of this material before, only much, much better. In some ways, one might accuse Hitchcock of being on "auto pilot", taking shortcuts for convenience's sake, relying on already used camera techniques, and cruising through familiar territory by reaching in his old bag of tricks to stimulate audience reaction. Still, it's a mark to his craftsmanship that he is still able to make this character study on sexual repression and its relation to criminal deviancy worthwhile, even if the thriller elements aren't up to snuff. Marnie deserves better appreciation, and so it has gotten it, but the substantial flaws kept this one from gelling into another masterpiece for Hitch.
Tippi Hedren (The Birds, Citizen Ruth) stars as Marnie, a thief who moves from city to city using her looks to land herself jobs where she can work until she finds a way to rip them off for thousands of dollars, whereupon she changes her appearance and name, resurfacing somewhere else to do the same. As crafty as she's been, she finally slips up when one of the places she shows up in is owned by Mark Rutland (Connery, Goldfinger), a client of her previous employer. Mark recognizes her immediately, but his attraction and intrigue for her is enough for him to take a chance to keep her close by hiring her. Marnie still proves to be up to her old tricks, but when she is caught by Mark, he isn't angry or offended -- he actually finds her all the more appealing for it! Ever the huntsman, Mark obsesses in trapping Marnie and breaking her down, despite her lies and sexual repression, to the point where he blackmails her into marriage. Try as he might to dominate her, Marnie just won't crack, leaving Mark no alternative save to solve the mystery of her strange behavior, which includes hatred of men, nightmares, and an irrational fear of the color red.
Hitchcock's own fascination with Freudian behavioral theories provided the impetus for his interest in Winston Graham's novel, although he does contort the plot in such a fashion as to provide for a better cinematic presentation (and more censor palatable reason behind Marnie's weird behavior). Marnie is far from Hitchcock's finest, but it is often fascinating, as we watch a man trying to break a woman of her awful compulsive behavior, while never coming to grips with his own. The irony is, forcing the most stubborn of women into marriage so he can break her down and finally claim her isn't even what Marnie really explores (although Marnie does manage to hold the mirror is mental illness up toward him), but the duality of the union between controlling male and mercurial female (not dissimilar from Shakespeare's "Taming of the Shrew") is what ultimately make Marnie such a subtly complex work.
At the same time, Marnie is a mixed-bag movie for Hitchcock, who does seem to rely on some crutches to get by in some scenes. Scenes such as the zoom-in, zoom-out repetition as Marnie reaches out for money she can't seem to make herself grasp, or Mark seeming nonchalant about a huge branch flying through his window during a thunderstorm only to become obsessed with using the moment to kiss Marnie, are difficult to watch, as they seem alternately overdone and underdeveloped for someone with Hitchcock's visionary gifts. Obviously, Hitchcock hasn't always been a stickler for realism over the years, but very few of his films have seemed as artificially manipulative as Marnie does on occasion.
Marnie is a beguiling work from a cinematic genius, and the label of "flawed masterpiece" that others have given it seems warranted here. This is a movie that has its weaknesses, but the strong points are so intriguing, that it commands attention and respect for its complexities and shades of brilliance. Perhaps more interesting is the parallel between Hitchcock and Hedren during the making of this movie, with Hitch trying so very hard to put Hedren in the mold of his making, and Hedren obstinately fighting him every step, which is almost a mirror of the plot of the movie itself. Life imitating art while art imitates life -- one couldn't possibly ask for more irony surrounding a film full of such realistic artifice, and artificial realism.
©2004 Vince Leo