Marnie is one of the most fascinating failures of Alfred Hitchcock. The film was a critical and popular dissapointment when it premiered in 1964. Many critics were turned off by the film's eclectic blend of mystery, crime, sexual dysfunction, and psychoanalytical elements. But the film has come into its own to be widely acknowledged as one of Hitchcock's most interesting and misunderstood films.
Marnie is also one of Hitchcock’s most operatic films, if there was ever one. By combining a great number of elements such as his stylized approach to story telling and the high drama and romanticism of grand opera, Mr. Hitchcock has fashioned one of his most fascinating films, if not completely perfect. The film is somewhat comparable to Vertigo in its use of psychological dysfunctionality as the catalyst to the suspense of its story.
Marnie (Tippi Hedren) is a kleptomaniac who moves from city to city, embezzling from her employers as she goes. That is until she meets Mark Rutland (Sean Connery) as the client of a previous victim who figures out her gig. Obsessed with Marnie, Mark blackmails her into marrying him. "You don't love me, I'm just something you caught. You think I'm some kind of animal you've trapped." screams Marnie at a key point in the film. And she is right. Mark has his own fetish; a fascination towards Marnie’s kleptomaniac tendencies and a desire to tame her. The whole movie revolves around Mark’s obsession in finding out Marnie's deep dark secret.
The film was critized for its heavy use of Freudian psychology to explain the mystery. Some reviewers even criticized Mr. Hitchcock for taking himself too seriously -- perhaps the result of listening to too many cerebral interpretations of his other films. But these critics were missing the whole point of this movie.
Marnie’s long list of issues include kleptomania, the loathing of men, her need to be loved by her icy mother, and her detached nature blended with childlike innocence. Similarly, there are questions raised about Mark Rutland's intentions. But all of these story elements are what makes Marnie so much fun to watch. What most critics dismissed as cheap pop psychology tricks were Hitchcock’s McGuffins’ in which he layered his mystery to build his high drama very similar in the way that approached his material previously in Spellbound and Vertigo.
The film is aiming at mystery, romance and adventure and Mr. Hitchcock never fails to deliver in these areas. Jay Presson Allen's script, psychological explanations put aside, is clever enough and involving to do justice to Hitchcock’ s style. It is slightly episodic at times, but its three main characters ( Marnie, Mark and Marnie’s mother) are well developed and cement the progression of the story . The writing is peppered with wry humor and sophistication.
Ms.Hedren’s performance is perhaps the film’s biggest weakness. Ms. Hedren was more effective in The Birds, Hitchcocks previous film. In The Birds her role simply required her to use her icy beauty to maximum effect, but in Marnie she is required to go through a wide variety of emotional states outside her acting range. Connery’s performance is adequate but lacks complexity. He seems like an odd choice to be playing a Philadelphian with his Scottish accent but his physical presence makes up for the what he lacks in depth. Diane Baker has a a bit of fun as Mark's manipulative sister-in-law and Louise Latham does quite an impressive job as Marnie's mother even with her limited screen time.
Mr. Hitchcock has always been a trickster and Marnie has some spectacular and suspenseful set pieces to engage us into his story telling. Very typical of Mr. Hitchcock’s work during the late 50s and the 60s, his character’s inhabit a Technicolor world filled with elegant mansions, spectacular locations, stylized sets, sophisticated talk with a heavy serving of Hollywood magic. The Baltimore street were Marnie’s mother lives is a Hollywood set with a matted shot in the background of a symbolic ship in the harbor. When Marnie participates in a hunt and looses control of her horse, this sequence is filmed with a combination of real location shots, studio shots, real and not so real horse shots while Bernard Herman’s sweeping score is heard. Marnie’s aversions to the color red and loud noises gives Mr. Hitchcock ample opportunity to display his visual artistry. Hitchcock insists that we pay attention to his technique. He uses artificiality to distance us from reality so we can accept the fantastic elements of the story and it works.
Marnie has also one of Hitchcock’s best set pieces ever put in any of his films. In the first half of the film, Marnie tries to sneak out of a building with her stolen goods past a cleaning woman. This sequence involves meticulous planned camera work and editing involving Marnie cracking a safe, noticing the cleaning woman, taking off her shoes to avoid making noise, and finally sneaking out. This is an extended dialogue free sequence that brilliantly uses silence and natural sound to build tension.
The film features a sweeping score by Bernard Herrmann. The score is both hauntingly beautiful and dramatically piercing. At times it has a grandiose romantic aura of operatic quality, and at other times it reminds us of the piercing strings of Psycho.
Marnie is a fascinating exercise in suspense and melodrama that aims for operatic heights and at times achieves it. It is not a film without flaws, but it makes up more for what it accomplishes than for what it fails.
The sixties started strongly with groundbreaking horror Psycho, and The Birds was just as successful, but then Hitchcock went into decline with uninspired thrillers like Marnie, Torn Curtain and Topaz. The seventies saw a return to form with Frenzy, but his last film Family Plot was disappointing. Still, a great career, and his mixture of romance, black comedy, thrills and elaborate set pieces will always entertain. Watch out for his cameo appearances in most of his films.