As I work my way through Hitchcock’s filmography, I haven’t encountered one of his films that I’ve wanted to talk about more than Marnie. This is one of the few Hitchcock films with a female protagonist (brilliantly played by Tippi Hedren), and at first glance the character of Marnie seems like a militant feminist. How refreshing! Except it turns out her strong will and complete distaste for men is just another classic Hitchcock smoke screen.
Marnie the film has been described as a great expression of sexual and psychological distress, but the content feels a bit too mishandled for me to agree. Marnie does examine the effects of repression on the mind and the use of therapy/analysis as a method of understanding deviant behavior. Of course it’s all wrapped up in an exciting thriller for our enjoyment. I can’t speak for the source novel by Winston Graham, but I did add it to my “to read” shelve on Goodreads! Here’s to hoping it’s just as exciting.
The film, however, is much deeper than any other Hitchcock I’ve seen to date. It’s also the closest Hitchcock comes to discussing feminism and real women’s issues. Unfortunately, it’s more of a dismissal of feminism than anything. It also has an overtly misogynistic male lead in Sean Connery. He definitely rapes her.
Tippi Hedren stars as Marnie Edgar, a kleptomaniac with an irrational fear of thunder storms, the color red, and men. She makes a living by filling secretarial positions and then embezzling from her employers. She then changed her identity for the next mark, skipping from “job” to “job” quickly. The theme of the resourceful-with-a-wink woman isn’t new in Hitchcock, and it’s one of my favorite.
The character of Marnie is so strong and willful. It feels too good to be true that we get to spend an entire two hours with her as the primary focus in a commercial film from the 1960s. Unfortunately, it is too good to be true. It’s a travesty that in the end she needs to be rescued from her own wilfulness by Mark Rutland (Sean Connery), who methodically strips her of all her feminine power under the guise of helping via at-home psychology and self-help books (and his own “manliness”).
We begin Marnie with some very lovely title cards. I know they’re lovely because our Amazon Prime streaming had a “network error” no fewer than four times, causing us to restart the movie over and over again. They are really nice title cards, though. The film opens at the tail end of one of Marnie’s conquests, and we see an example of her life, that is, the life of an experienced thief and liar.
Soon we meet Marnie’s crippled mother, Bernice (Louise Latham). It’s revealed that Marnie is supporting her, despite the fact that Bernice seems to have a strange aversion to her only daughter. Marnie clearly has issues with feeling unloved, which is later pegged as the cause for her kleptomania. It’s also clear that Marnie’s distaste for men comes directly from her mother. When her mother expresses concern for Marnie’s financial state, Marnie proclaims that they don’t need men to take care of them, which at the time is a great moment. Later on her feminist proclamations are approached as mere symptoms of her craziness, which cancels out anything profound that her character has to say.
After her visit with her mother, Marnie quickly moves on to her new “job”. While she expertly observes all the nuances of her new office, she fails to notice that she’s being expertly observed as well, by owner of the company Mark Rutledge (Connery). The wealthy widower promptly falls in love with his subservient secretary. When she has a panic attack during a thunder storm, he “makes it better” by kissing her face — ALL OVER her face. It’s weird and awkward.
Mark then learns the truth about Marnie and busts her when she robs his offices. But he’s ready with a proposition: marry him and she will escape the law. This is Marnie’s nightmare. She’s done everything in her power to stay self-sufficient, but is now backed into a corner. If she goes to jail, who will support her mother? So she enters into the arrangement. When Mark makes sexual advances toward her, Marnie makes her feelings perfectly clear. She can’t stand men touching her and does not want to sleep with him. He thinks she’s mentally troubled (to be honest, you’d have to be mentally troubled to turn Connery down, right?), but agrees to keep his distance… UNTIL HE CAN’T!
Mark respects Marnie’s wishes for a while, but after a verbal confrontation he violently rips her nightgown off (although, it does fall off with astonishing and hilarious ease). She is mortified and goes into a sort of trance. Mark apologizes, covers her with his robe, and then lowers her onto the bed. We are left with the juxtaposition of the following three images: Marnie’s trance-like eyes, Mark’s predatory stare, and then a nice view of the peaceful ocean. The next morning Mark finds Marnie face down in a pool. He pulls her out just in time, much to her dismay.
As the film progresses, Mark continues to try to psychoanalyze Marnie and push her into therapy. While she protests and points out the chauvinistic flavor of his actions, Mark is actually successful in revealing that she has odd triggers that throw her into an irrational hysteria. Something is definitely wrong here, and I bet Mark felt very vindicated. I bet he wrote his marital rape off as “therapy.”
I don’t normally warn you guys about spoilers (sorry), but I enjoyed this movie so much I’d like to keep Marnie’s troubled past a secret for those who want to figure out the mystery on their own. Proceed with caution…
The trauma that causes Marnie to develop irrational fears and lose her memory is not totally predictable, although you can certainly guess part of it. Her mother, it turns out, was a teen mom who ended up making money as a prostitute, catering to sailors in particular. One night while her mother had a guest, Marnie got worked up by a loud thunderstorm. Her mother’s client came out to comfort her, but it made Marnie nervous and she started to cry. This caused her mom to start yelling at her client. That escalated to violence, and Marnie (at the ferocious age of 5) ended up killing the sailor with a fire-poker. Her Mother took the fall, however, and had to endure a long and painful trial before being found not guilty due to self-defense.
My boyfriend and I laughed a lot during this reveal. We actually laughed at many parts of this movie, mostly for its shoddy special effects and the sometimes overwrought performances. But this just didn’t add up. That experience would be traumatic, don’t get me wrong, but the entire situation seemed to escalate very quickly (and for no reason). Most importantly, who really believes a 5-year-old is capable of bludgeoning an adult to death. It felt so constructed that I guessed the book probably had a very different scenario in place, and it did.
Graham’s version still has the mother as a prostitute, but the traumatic experience involves infanticide. Marnie’s mother becomes pregnant and kills the child after giving birth in order to shield herself from her shame (probably not the best way to go about that) and to hide her infidelity from her husband, who was away at war. She then brainwashed Marnie to hate all men so she could maybe live an independent life.
In my opinion, these are all weak! My first guess was that she was sexually abused as a child, but apparently that is too scandalous for 1964 (although marital rape is fine). I was impressed by the mother-daughter dynamic, however, and thought it was explained and wrapped up nicely. The theme of mother issues is very common in Hitchcock, but seldom do we see it resolved.
In the end of the movie, after Marnie is forced to confront her mother by Mark and everything is aired, Marnie is determined to go to the police and set the record straight. But at the thought of jail, she quickly changes her mind and lovingly tells Mark that she wants to go home with him. WHAT? So now that Marnie has faced her past head on, she is completely free of her hang-ups and therefore realizes how much she actually loves Mark? Really? REALLY?? Ugh.
Visually, the film is rich and lovely. It fits in perfectly with Hitchcock’s other work around this time, particularly Vertigo. And his suspense work might be the best I’ve seen since Rear Window! At one point in the film while Marnie is conducting one of her classic burglaries, my boyfriend turned to me and said, “I’m getting a master class in Hitchcockian suspense right now.” It was very thrilling and a lot of fun.
Another point of interest, at least for me, is the real-life relationship between Hitchcock and Hedren. Describing it as toxic would be generous. Hitchcock was delusional when it came to Hedren. He repeatedly made unwanted sexual advances toward her, and when he was rejected he turned his lust into spiteful resentment. I wanted to include this blurb from Ken Tucker’s write-up of HBO’s The Girl on Entertainment Weekly’s website:
“Hedren’s reactions are both what you’d expect — she’s repulsed — and admirably brave: There probably weren’t many women during that time who could have withstood Hitchcock’s treatment of her with such dignity. One of the key sequences in The Girl was the filming of a bird attack upon Hedren’s character, Melanie Daniels. By this time, Hitchcock is all spurned spite, so instead of mechanical or prop birds, as he’d been using up to that point, he sequesters Hedren and a bunch of real birds in a fenced-off-section of the set and allowed them to swarm and peck at her for hours. If it wasn’t true, you’d have a hard time believing anyone could get away with this, but Hitchcock did. Then when filming was completed, he refused to allow the distraught Hedren out of her contract, and she had to make Marnie with him, which was probably the psychological equivalent of being pecked to death by birds…
You could say that the bottom line is that Hitchcock got a very good movie out of all this: The Birds holds up as fine suspense. And he got a very mediocre movie out of all this as well. Contrary to a note at the end of The Girl, Marnie is not “hailed as Hitchcock’s final masterpiece” by anyone other than fevered auteurists.”
The Girl specifically focuses on the abusive relationship between Hitchcock and Hedren, and highlights the circumstances under which she made Marnie. You can read Tucker’s entire article here.
It’s funny that I keep internet-yelling about this movie, because I really did like it. It was the most thought provoking Hitchcock I’ve seen since Rebecca. I give it a B+ (I’m taking a point away for the misogyny). Please please go watch it! I want to have someone to talk about it with.