Classic Film Review: "Marnie" (1964)
If your list of favorite Alfred Hitchcock films does not include Marnie, you need to rethink your list. The 1964 film, adapted from the novel by Winston Graham, finds the Master of Suspense and his collaborators at the top of their game. Bernard Herrman's score is equal parts grand and hypnotic. Edith Head's costumes inform as much of Marnie's character as the script does. The production design is among the best in any Hitchcock film. It's a suspenseful psychodrama that allows Hitchcock to do what he does best. When it was originally released in July 1964, the film received mixed reviews from critics, ending a hot streak for Hitchcock that included North by Northwest, Pyscho, and The Birds. In the years since its initial release, Marnie has rightly become known as one of the films that best define Hitchcock's style.
Tippi Hedren plays the titular Marnie, a thief who takes office jobs only to steal money from the company and then skip town. She has an irrational fear of the color red and a more understandable fear of thunderstorms. She also says she cannot stand to be touched by a man, a sharp contrast to Hedren's role as Melanie Daniels in The Birds, whose very existence as a worldly sexual being disturbs the whole order of a small town. Marnie is forced to confront her demons when Mark (played by Sean Connery), a publisher Marnie steals from, falls in love with her and learns of her crimes. He offers her an ultimatum: marry him or go to jail. Backed into a corner, Marnie agrees to marry him but emphatically resists his attempts to sleep with her. Mark doesn't listen and rapes her on their honeymoon. The next morning, Marnie unsuccessfully tries to kill herself. The rest of the movie concerns Mark's attempts to keep the police away and investigate Marnie's mysterious past. [This movie is more than 50 years old, so I'm not sure if a spoiler warning is entirely necessary, but here's one anyway.] It eventually comes out that the reason Marnie is the way that she is is because of a traumatic event from her childhood. Her mother was a prostitute and one night during a thunderstorm, one of her mother's clients attempted to comfort a crying Marnie, and her mother, to keep him from molesting her daughter, began fighting him, at which point Marnie picked up a fireplace poker and killed him with it. She had repressed the memory of that night, although it manifested itself in her fears and bad dreams. The film ends with an emotionally distraught Marnie telling Mark she wants to stay with him.
Hedren's performance is certainly an effective one. It might be a little too much for my personal taste, but it is generally regarded as one of the best performances in any Hitchcock film. I should mention that Hedren has claimed on multiple occasions that during the filming of Marnie, Hitchcock became obsessed with her, sexually harassed her, and vowed to ruin her career after she rebuffed his advances. I see no reason to doubt the veracity of Hedren's claims, but it's worth noting that the situation (the director obsessively attempting to control his actress) closely mirrors the actual plot of Marnie.
The only major problem I have with the movie is the happy ending it seemingly gives to Mark and Marnie's relationship. In light of everything Mark has done to Marnie, them ending up together feels sort of icky. Apparently, this isn't a problem for everyone, as I was shocked to find so many romantic montages of their scenes set to love songs on YouTube, primarily from French Youtubers. Evan Hunter, who had also written the screenplay for The Birds, was hired to write the screenplay for Marnie, but fired after pleading with Hitchcock to not include the rape scene from the original novel, fearing it would cause the audience to lose sympathy for the male lead. Apparently, that scene was what interested Hitchcock in making the film in the first place. But Hunter was totally right, after that scene I no longer wanted Marnie to end up with Mark. And at the end of the film, when she says she wants to stay with him, I felt nothing but confusion. Mark is obsessive and possessive and controlling. Why does Marnie find this appealing? But then I thought back to an earlier scene, the one set in Connery's office before a thunderstorm frightens Marnie. In that scene, Mark shows Marnie a picture of Sophie, a jaguarundi who he's trained to trust her. He essentially does the same thing to Marnie over the course of the film. By forcing her into marriage, raping her, and controlling her life, he trains her to be the kind of woman he wants, not the independent, if flawed, woman she is. Helping Marnie overcome her fears and move past her emotional trauma seem like ostensibly noble goals, but in light of his other actions, they come across as more of an attempt to tame Marnie rather than help her.
The influence of Marnie on modern cinema is not talked about enough. Just look at the above side-by-side comparison of a shot from Marnie (left) with the opening shot of David Fincher's Gone Girl (right) and you'll see that Fincher must have looked to Hitchock's film for inspiration for his own film about a dangerous blonde with disturbing secrets. Another film that I will mention as being a descendant of the Marnie type of female antihero is Miss Meadows, a little-seen indie from 2014 that starred Katie Holmes as a prim and proper school teacher with impeccable manners and a retro wardrobe who is secretly a vigilante who shoots everyone she sees breaking the law. Through unsubtle flashbacks, we come to understand that childhood trauma is the reason for Meadows' warped sense of justice. It's not a great film (the script's heavy-handedness squanders a promising premise and a terrifically calibrated performance by Holmes), but it's a perfect example of the type of emotionally stunted, law-breaking female character archetype that Marnie perfected back in 1964.
If you have not seen Marnie, I highly recommend you check it out, especially if you are a Hitchcock fan.
What are your thoughts on Marnie? Let me know in the comments below! Thanks for reading!