Jan 22, 2010

MARNIE (Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. 1964)

“You’re a cold practiced little method actress of a liar.”

Marnie Edgar is a beautiful but disturbed young woman with an aberrant fear and mistrust of men, thunder and lightning, and the colour red. Marnie is also a career criminal, who charms her way into jobs only to steal from her boss at the first opportunity, and then moves onto the next town and the next identity. And yes she is blonde, has a grey suit and a bag, but this is not your typical Hitchcock movie. In fact, it deals with subjects that were, and still are even today, not easy to watch.
Hitch himself had this to say about it, “One might call Marnie a sex mystery. That is, if one used such words.” Well, I’m less restrained than the fat man and I’m telling you now to beware, the film has very strong themes of implied sexual abuse and rape, which may offend some viewers. The rape scene is handled tactfully (if such a thing can ever be said to be so?) and as an interesting side note Hitch fired the first screenwriter because the guy removed it from the script, and hired a woman (Jay Presson Allen) to put it back in.
It’s debatable as to whether the film needs it, or recovers from it; nevertheless it remains.

Marnie continued Hitchcock’s proclivity for adapting suspense novels for the screen. It is based on the novel of the same name by British author Winston Graham and was originally perceived as a vehicle for Grace Kelly, with whom Hitch was keen to work with again after the successful Rear Window. However, Grace Kelly was too busy playing the pretty Princess of Monaco and so Hitch abandoned the project and thankfully went on to shoot The Birds instead, where he met Tippi Hedren. Despite their much publicised tussles, Hitch was impressed with Tippi and I for one am glad she got the role rather than the simpering Grace Kelly. The project was reborn with Tippi onboard as Marnie Edgar, and further casting began.

The leading man in Hitch’s movies is always superbly dressed and charismatic, but it’s not unfair to say they are usually very similar, almost stoical, “man on the run and on a mission” stock types. Here Sean Connery gives us his only Hitchcock performance, playing a man named Mark Rutland, a widower who owns a large printing company and is not only wealthy but also well educated. And for a change he’s not a man on the run, though he does have a mission. Fresh from his stint in Dr No, Connery was far from being typecast and he not only relishes such a challenging role, he throws himself into it completely. I was sceptical at first as to whether he was the right man for the job, but my doubts were assuaged when I saw him fit the shoes Hitch had provided for him. He has his detractors but reviews are subjective, so I make no apology.

Mark Rutland (Connery) likes to gamble. He likes to play dangerous games and is fascinated with animal instincts and behaviourism, which brings us back to Tippi Hedren. Rutland sees Marnie as a pitiable wounded animal that is crying out to be helped, and in his arrogance he concludes that who is more suited to help such a beautiful creature than he? Marnie, however, is reluctant to let him into her hermetically closed world, but can any woman resist the advances of Sean Connery for long? The sexual chemistry between the two leads is a little lacklustre when compared with, say, Kim Novak and Jimmy Stewart, but there is a reason for that, and their complex relationship is about more than just attraction.

Some of the key scenes are classic Hitchcock moments. A theft is especially suspenseful, where through an open door we are witness to a robbery on one half of the frame while unbeknownst to the thief a woman is on the left hand side of the frame, outside the room, cleaning the floor. So while one cleans out a safe and one cleans a floor both are oblivious to the other... but for how long? I’m not telling.
A scene between Hedren and Connery in his office as a storm rages outside is also notable. The angry storm, being both a trigger for a deep rooted memory and imbued with an associated and unwelcome symbolism, frightens Marnie but it also saves her from further enquiry. Ironically the storms only seem to appear when she needs them, or rather when the story needs them to advance.

I said previously that this not a typical Hitchcock movie, however it does have a number of the famous Hitchcockian moments that he used in previous films. Colours are a trigger for memory (Vertigo), there is a sexual fascination with the criminal (To Catch a Thief), we are the subjective observer taking a long and slow descent down a stairway (Notorious), we are the watcher, watching a man watching something off-screen (Rear Window) and finally the famous “zoom in / dolly out” he used in Vertigo to show Scotty’s disorientation surfaces again here. There are dozens more examples but I won’t go on, except to say that the camera movements are as beautiful as ever, and the editing is sublime.
Hitch’s goal with all his movies was to achieve what he called the “Pure Cinema” and with Marnie he almost nailed it. It’s been criticised by many people, and it performed poorly at the box office, but I believe they missed the point. It’s not a mirror for real life; it’s not supposed to be. It’s about filmic storytelling in its purest form. There isn’t a scene that isn’t necessary, perfectly timed, or played out to perfection. Forget the all too obviously painted backdrop and set based fake exteriors, and the often subdued performances, they don’t matter, for this is a film about form and about creative goals. (There is the theory that Hitch was so in love with German Expressionist cinema that he wanted the backgrounds to reflect that, this is certainly true for the lightning scene but I have studied the Expressionists and I’m not convinced Hitch was aiming for that at all; I would guess he was simply reluctant to go out on location.)

The final 20 minutes are heavy viewing and while initially unable to relate with what I was watching, I found Hedren’s believability in those last moments to grow more credible with repeated viewings. But the performances take second place to the technical side of Hitch’s filmmaking processes, and it’s this technical aspect that gives Marnie the classic status it deserves.
I would argue that Marnie is in fact the last great Hitchcock movie; what followed, while still of interest to aficionado’s, was under par for the great man. This too was the last time a film score by long time collaborator Bernard Herrmann was used, for more on that see cuckoo77’s music review.

I’ve tried here to show the importance of the film in the Hitchcock cannon without delving too much into the plot, for to see it unfolding before your eyes is how it should be appreciated. In closing I will simply say this: If you have ever enjoyed a Hitchcock movie, WATCH Marnie.

NOTE: The version I own is the Universal edition presented in a 4:3 ratio, but if you hunt online you can also find it in its proper 1:85 ratio. I would recommend that one.

***** out of 5.

1 comment:

cuckoo77 said...

nice job, man.

i know, i know...it's the blog's authors commenting for the most part....but that was great.

Your contributions to this blog inspires me to keep on going with it.