Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Marnie might just be the beginning of the end for Alfred Hitchcock. It’s the first film following the last of his most well-known pictures, 1963’s The Birds which itself was the culmination of a run of films that included Vertigo, North by Northwest and Psycho. And you know, basically all of the 50’s went pretty well for ‘Ol Hitch. And the 40’s. He was the most famous director of his time with a career that had spanned multiple decades, and Marnie is at the tail end of that career.
It’s a film that recalls some of his previous (most notably the obsession quality of Vertigo), and Marnie is very distinctly a Hitchcock picture. There is deception, moments of high tension, suspicious characters and a feeling of intense fear and anxiety. It’s everything you expect in one of his movies, but it’s also surprisingly intimate.
The story is centered on the peculiar, uncomfortable relationship between a thief, Marnie (Tippi Hedren), and one of the men from which she steals, Mark Rutland (Sean Connery). When Mark catches Marnie, he blackmails her into marrying him. She does and then spends the rest of the film desperately trying to break free of him.
Marnie is our hero. She’s the person we meet first, she’s the titular character, and she’s the one we’re meant to empathize with. In many Hitchcock movies, this type of character has an everyman quality. They’re like you or me, and they simply find themselves caught up in something beyond their control. In Rear Window, James Stewart is just a regular dude who thinks he witnesses a murder from his apartment window. In The Birds, a young woman finds herself stuck in a small coastal town where birds inexplicably swoop down and kill people. In Vertigo, our hero becomes pretty deranged, but he starts out as a normal private eye who’s roped into a case that challenges all rational belief.
The same dynamic influences Strangers on a Train and The Man Who Knew Too Much and yes I’m trying to list as many Hitchcock movies I’ve seen as possible.
So in these films there is often a normal character caught up in something twisted. That could be a situation influenced by someone’s greed or another person’s simple insanity. A Hitchcock movie encourages the idea that darkness is all around us, hiding in plain sight. Regular old businessmen-looking people suddenly concoct insane murder plots (Dial M for Murder). A shy young motel manager is a serial killer with disassociative identity disorder, or an ordinary old retired police officer finds himself obsessed with the image of a dead woman and works to turn another (or the same person) into the object of his obsession.
In these movies things are normal until they’re not, usually after the camera starts rolling. In Marnie, however, our protagonist is a longstanding thief with a pattern of burglary, multiple identities, a complex relationship with her mother and a paralyzing fear of thunder and the color red. So even before the plot invades this character’s life, there’s already something wildly wrong. When she steals from and is caught by Mark Rutland, he turns out to be just as twisted as she is, choosing to force her into marrying him and ignoring all of her objections.
So the Hitchcockian plot adds to an already rotten core. These aren’t normal, ordinary people getting caught up in something beyond their control. It’s a character deeply in trouble who gets caught up in something beyond her control, sort of. The dynamic between Marnie and Mark plays out like many other strained, loveless relationships. It’s similar to the relationship in the recent Phantom Thread or the marriage between the Underwoods in House of Cards. They’re married, but they don’t want to be except that we never quite understand Mark’s motivation until he starts to slowly push Marnie to analyze her crippling fears and anxieties.
Mark becomes Marnie’s therapist in a very strange way. His obsession with her is straight out of Vertigo, only this time we remain in the female’s perspective. Whereas in Vertigo we observed Scottie’s descent into madness (so that it was romanticized), in Marnie we watch that same level of obsession but from the point of view of the person subjugated by the other.
So a moment in Vertigo plays like this:
And a moment in Marnie plays like this:
Alright, so the Bernard Herrmann score kind of blurs the lines. His music makes everything feel just a little romantic, but the Vertigo scene feels particularly so. We’re in Scottie’s head as he looks at Madeleine, made in his own chosen image. In Marnie the scene is quieter, at least at first, and very unromantic. It’s just two people staring at each other. When Mark embraces her (and really begins to assault her), we’re given a haunting shot that shows just one of her eyes as she looks off into the distance, almost as if picturing her own death.
In both cases, a man in a private room pulls a woman in and takes control over her. In the first, the woman is dressed to look the way the man wants, and in the second she is stripped naked. The effect is the same, however the first scene shows this from the man’s perspective, and the second comes from the woman’s point of view. The music, in each case, my play the same, but given the images onscreen it can be read as romantic in one and horrific in the other (something similar to the Kuleshov effect).
What’s so discomforting about Marnie is the way she ultimately relents to Mark’s efforts to control her. She fights the compulsion to steal from him again, in order to get money to run away, but he always monitors her from a distance. In several instances, he takes the time to explain how he figured out Marnie’s plans, like he’s a movie villain demonstrating hubris to the hero hanging on the edge of a cliff.
Eventually he takes her to see her mother, implying that he knows something about her past that she doesn’t, and he pushes Marnie to remember the moment from her childhood that made her so fearful, not just of thunder and the color red but of a man’s touch as well. We learn that her mother was once a prostitute, and when a sailor she had over (Bruce Dern) tried to kiss young Marnie, both she and mother reacted as you might expect. Her mother stepped in, then fell into an altercation with the man, so Marnie took over and hit him with a metal rod which killed him. It’s a repressed memory now brought to light, and Mark seems satisfied, believing this must have cured Marnie’s touch phobia. So it’s just a story about a guy who wanted to get laid, I suppose.
The way the movie ends, though, is a bit strange. It suddenly justifies Mark’s behavior which isn’t really okay. He has constantly battered Marnie, pushed and pulled her around, and he controls her like a marionette puppet. He invades her life in a way maybe made reciprocal by the fact that she stole from him, but it’s incredibly sadistic. Maybe it’s also that Sean Connery plays a sneering, conniving character so well.
Marnie was released the same year as the third of the James Bond movies starring Connery, so it might just be that Hitchcock wanted to have him work against type, using the actor’s famous persona to trick the audience and tell a story about a many who is anything but heroic. But then again, the end implies a disturbing justification of the means.
Up Next: Michael Clayton (2007), Anatomy of a Murder (1959), Field of Dreams (1989)