Marnie (1964)

 ★★★★☆ 


The Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock creates a spellbinding portrait of a disturbed woman, and the man who tries to save her, in this unrelenting psychological thriller. ‘Tippi’ Hedren is Marnie, a compulsive thief and liar who goes to work for Mark Rutland (Sean Connery), then attempts to rob him. Mark impulsively marries the troubled beauty and attempts to discover the reasons for her obsessive behavior. When a terrible accident pushes his wife to the edge, Mark forces Marnie to confront her terrors and her past in a shattering, inescapable conclusion.

I had not seen Marnie for many years and perhaps never properly, so this has been a pleasant surprise because it’s not a fondly remembered film from Hitchcock’s career, but I found it to be an engrossing and powerful film that recalls Vertigo and Spellbound in its mentally flawed lead characters.

The film seems very old-fashioned and the credit sequence feels like it’s from the 40s. So do the characters, with a story somewhat based on class conflict (Mark would be high society in any other time) and that infuriatingly outdated view of marriage, although it is part of the plot this time at least. He adopted a nostalgic style for Psycho to deliver a very modern narrative and this is similar, but the old-time feel is more sustained so can be a detriment too. Still, he’s making the sex thriller he couldn’t possibly have made before, so probably the creaky techniques amuse him more than anything. Certainly there is nothing as inventive as you would find in Vertigo.

It’s daring in its delivery and fools the viewer somewhat. The start could be a breezy caper, like To Catch a Thief, but as with Vertigo it quickly takes a dark turn and digs in for the duration. While it can be dry and talky, it is a fascinating study of psychology, which Hitchcock has dealt with before. For the first time, the typical Hitchcock romance is the primary plot.

Marnie is a troubled woman and her light-fingered habits are a symptom of something more disturbing. Sean Connery is perfect as Mark, obviously turned on by Marnie’s problems, making him pretty unstable too! He is a great character, supremely confident and charming, exactly what Cary Grant used to do (Hitchcock pretty much invented Bond, now gets to use him), now with him a manipulative sexual predator, taming the frigid Marnie by unravelling her mysterious past which is acting as a chastity belt!  It makes for a suffocating effective chemistry between the leads, with an early uncomfortable peak as Mark pretty much rapes her. That is nasty, but for the most part there is a lot of fun to be had between Connery and Hedren as they toy effectively with one another.

Apparently Mark wasn’t an accomplished psychiatrist in the book or early screenplay draft. Instead he sent Marnie to see one. It takes a small contrivance explain how he can pull this off, but the plot benefits ten-fold. Another character would have interrupted the dynamic between them. Another change is the character of Mark’s sister-in-law, Lil (Diane Baker). Often Hitchcock romances involve two men for one woman and “Lil” was the other man in the book, so ready-made for the director it seemed. Except having her fighting for Mark’s affections is much more interesting, especially as it is never explored fully and just adds to the enigma that is Mark.

This isn’t outwardly ambitious visually for Hitchcock, which could be surprising given the work that went into Vertigo. Instead it’s a simply effective, with key scenes that linger. The stark rape scene for one; Marnie’s silent robbery in another; a heartbreaking conclusion to the hunt; and a superb flashback, which is very unusual (he did one for I Confess, but this is could have been a cul-de-sac for the plot, so he brilliantly takes it head on).

Much of the films unfair reputation may be down to the fact it was adapted specifically for Grace Kelly, but she had to refuse. After The Birds, Hitchcock was sure he had found a suitable replacement in the earthy Hedren, but she would always be in the shadow of a Princess. That’s a cruel twist though because Hedren is good enough in a role probably very different from the one offered Kelly considering the changes, and is she really the lead, considering how passive and smothered the character is?

Marnie isn’t for everyone. It can be uneven and may disturb as much as entertain, but go in with the right frame of mind and you’ll reap its rewards. It deserves a re-evaluation.

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