Saturday, November 13, 2021

Hitchcock Friday #3: Marnie (1964)

Hitchcock was well and truly on a roll at the time he made Marnie. North by Northwest, Psycho, The Birds - not just major successes but movies that to some extent redefined their genres. North by Northwest took the spy film out of the shadows and the fog and sleazy back alleys and brought it out into the bright sunshine and added lots of style and wit. This was a world of rich sophisticated spies. It upped the ante for action-adventure spy movies. Psycho was a sensation, a 1960 feature film not merely made in black-and-white and in the old Academy aspect ratio but made in the style of his successful TV series. And it upped the ante in screen violence. The Birds challenged genre definitions - is it a science fiction movie or a horror movie? And Hitchcock dared to make such a movie without providing the audience with any explanations. The events depicted in the movie are as enigmatic at the end as they were at the start.

And then came Marnie. To some it’s the last truly great Hitchcock film. And it was also something of a sensation. It’s a psycho-sexual thriller with the emphasis on the sex. The whole movie is about sex.

Marnie (Tippi Hedren) is a thief and a liar. Having just stolen $10,000 from one employer she gets a job with the Rutland publishing company. She’s intending to rob them as well. She has however reckoned without Mark Rutland (Sean Connery). Her previous victims had been easy. They’d been entranced by her beauty and had no idea she was setting them up to rob them. Mark Rutland is certainly not indifferent to her feminine charms but he has Marnie’s game figured out more or less from the beginning. He’s playing a game with her. It amuses him and it excites him.

The key scene in the movie is the one in which Marnie sees a photo of a cat on Mark’s desk. He tells her the cat is a jaguarundi and that he’s trained her. When he tells her that the only thing he has trained her to do is to trust him Marnie is unimpressed. Mark points out that learning to trust is a very big thing if you’re a jaguarundi. He clearly intends to train Marnie the same way. He intends to train her to trust him.

It all sounds vaguely sinister but in fact, in both cases, Mark’s intentions are not sinister at all. It is in the best interests of the jaguarundi to learn to trust him. His feelings for the cat are entirely tender. He likes caring for frightened wild animals. And it’s in Marnie’s best interests to learn to trust him. She is a frightened wild animal and he genuinely cares for her.

As you may have gathered the political incorrectness levels of this movie are off the scale. These days you would hardly get away with a movie in which the hero trains a woman the way he trains an animal.

Marnie feels the way the cat felt at first - trapped and bewildered.

Training Marnie proves to be quite a challenge. It’s obvious from the start that she is terrified of men and that the reason for this is that she is terrified of sex.

They end up marrying, possibly a bad decision for both of them. The marriage is, predictably, a disaster. Marnie refuses to have sex with him. Mark is determined not to give up, he is convinced that her problems can be solved, but he soon finds he has even bigger problems to deal with as Marnie’s past catches up with her.

Casting Sean Connery was a masterstroke. Mark has to be incredibly charming and sexy. We have to believe that he is so charming and masculine and sexy that Marnie, in spite of her fears, cannot help being attracted to him, and that in spite of her terror of sex she does feel some physical attraction towards him. In 1964 there weren’t too many women who could have resisted Sean Connery. But Mark also has to be fundamentally kind. He really does not want to hurt Marnie. Connery gets this across very effectively.

Tippi Hedren has a tricky rĂ´le which she handles extremely well. Marnie has to be convincingly sexually repressed, a woman who never lets her guard down around men. At the same time we have to believe that under the repressed exterior she has a woman’s normal emotional and sexual feelings. She is the iciest of Hitchcock’s Ice Blondes but she has to convince us that there’s fire beneath the ice. Marnie is also a very unsympathetic character. The root cause of her problems is not her fault but she won’t let anyone help her and she reacts nastily and aggressively when someone does try to help her. And she just goes on lying. It’s probably a realistic portrayal of such a disturbed woman and you have to give Hedren credit for being prepared to let us see Marnie’s unpleasant side.

Marnie fits into a sub-genre of which I’m strangely fond - the psychoanalytic mystery thriller. The delicious thing about Hollywood psychoanalytic mystery thrillers is that they always get the psychoanalytic stuff hopelessly garbled and throw a lot of delightfully nonsensical psychobabble at us. In Marnie the psychological motivations are at least plausible. Sexual dysfunction resulting from some shocking event in the person’s past is plausible enough.

At the time audiences would also have been quite willing to see Marnie’s kleptomania as sexual in origin.

Marnie changed the rules of this genre by putting the focus squarely on sex. Marnie is not mad. The only thing wrong with her is her sexual problem, but it’s a problem that is blighting her life. She does love Mark but their marriage is not going to work until she learns to embrace the sexual side of marriage.

The film was based on Winston Graham’s novel Marnie which gives a lot more of Marnie’s backstory. The novel is worth reading.

My theory on Hitchcock is that he made his 60s movies at the wrong time. Torn Curtain was made in 1966 at the height of Bond Fever but it feels like a 1950s spy movie. Marnie should perhaps have been made a couple of years later. In 1964 the Production Code was crumbling but Hitchcock still had to pull his punches a little when dealing with the sexual aspects which are the core of the movie. A couple of years later he could have given it just a bit more of a sexual charge.

The extras on the DVD include fascinating interviews with Joseph Stefano, who wrote the original treatment, and Evan Hunter who was hired to write the screenplay and subsequently fired by Hitchcock. Both writers disliked changes that Hitchcock made to the story. When you watch the movie it’s obvious that they were dead wrong and Hitchcock was right. Hunter disliked the scene in which Mark rapes Marnie. Hitchcock, correctly, saw it as crucial. Stefano was unhappy that the psychiatrist character was eliminated for the movie. Personally I’m thankful that Hitchcock again made the correct decision and eliminated a character who could only have been tedious, unnecessary and annoying.

Marnie basically works because Hitchcock knew how to make the story work. His instincts were correct, and the movie had quite an impact at the time. It’s one of Hitch’s most interesting films and it’s highly recommended.

Other great psychoanalytic mystery thrillers are of course Hitchcock’s own Spellbound and (to a lesser extent) Psycho, the obscure but interesting Bewitched (1945), Shock (1946, with Vincent Price) and Otto Preminger’s criminally underrated Whirlpool (1949).

5 comments:

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    1. There's a lot of spam on Blogger these days so I've had to change the settings so that comments have to be approved. If a comment doesn't appear for a few hours it's just that I haven't had a chance to check for comments needing approval. I try to check quite a few times a day.

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    2. Dfordoom, understood. Now on to REAR WINDOW.

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  2. Dfordoom, I really enjoyed reading your fine write-up of MARNIE(filmed 1963-64, released 1964. MARNIE is one of my favorite Alfred Hitchcock movies. I never get tired of viewing his movies. I first viewed MARNIE on the NBC SATURDAY NIGHT AT THE MOVIES in 1967. The movie has intrigued me ever since. I think Tippi Hedren gave a remarkable performance and Sean Connery wasn't far behind her. Too me, Hedren's Marnie Edgar Rutland is one of Hitch's most complex characters. Marnie and Mark(Sean Connery) had quite a twisted relationship in this visual stunning sex mystery.

    Here is what was on a movie poster, which was in the Memphis, Tennessee's THE COMMERCIAL APPEAL newspaper: "On Marnie's wedding night he discovered every secret about her...except one!" Also, "Only Alfred Hitchcock could create so provocative a love story!" and there is more, "From Alfred Hitchcock with sex and suspense MARNIE." "Only Alfred Hitchcock could have created a woman so mysterious...so fascinating...so dangerous as MARNIE...
    She was a cheat...a liar...but more woman than any man could resist!" Sensational it was and it played in Memphis for a week, then was held over for two more weeks. Needless to say, but Memphis' controversial movie censor Lloyd Binford had died in 1956. So, now it was possible for movies such as MARNIE to play there.

    Look forward to reading more Hitchcock.

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