I belatedly close out Hitchcock week with the film that tore his professional relationship with actress Tippi Hedren. Hedren, despite the issues she’s recounted of working with the director, cites Marnie as her best work and there’s no denying she’s above and beyond her role in The Birds (1963). This psychological sexual thriller could very well be Hitch’s own attempt to portray his own relationship with Hedren, wrapped up in the problematic story of a frigid woman that, though filled with problems I couldn’t abide by, is unusually enjoyable.
Marnie Edgar (Hedren) is a professional thief whose crimes are discovered by businessman Mark Rutland (Sean Connery). Rutland tells Marnie he won’t turn her in if she agrees to marry him. A relationship built on hatred, soon turns psychological as Mark tries to discover the source of Marnie’s mistrust and frigidity.
Hitchcock’s treatment of women, Hedren in particular, has been well-documented, but it’s almost impossible not watching Marnie through the lens of Hitchcock’s own catharsis. Marnie is a frigid misandrist whose antipathy for the male sex stems from her mother’s past as a prostitute, and an implied uncomfortable encounter with Bruce Dern. She pushes husband Mark to the point of raping her, and later allows him to mold her into the perfect society wife, expunge her unsavory past, and ultimately find the root of her male hatred. Hitchcock himself thought Connery was the ideal man, and one could argue (and by “one,” I mean me) that Hitchcock uses Connery to represent himself, molding and shaping Hedren into the perfect actress and being cruelly rebuffed for his rough wooing. (In thinking on the subject, Hitchcock has a thing with rape, see this and Dial M for Murder.)
Wow, so that explanation sounds worse than I anticipated, but there’s a lot about Marnie that requires a stern constitution. In all honesty, I enjoyed the film in spite of its philosophizing. Hitchcock’s metaphors aren’t as quiet as they once were, if they ever were, and his flashes of the color red look to be emulating directors like Stanley Kubrick. It’s a wonder Hedren gets out from under the weight of Hitch’s directorial style and makes Marnie an indelible performance. In comparison to her breakout role in The Birds, Marnie gives her something to work with.
Marnie’s a chameleon, with multiple aliases, looks, and personalities. She’s spent her life being what others want her to be, whether it’s the obedient little girl for her mother (Louise Latham) or Mark’s sophisticated wife. Like a junkie drawn to drugs, Marnie can’t resist the compulsion to steal, at one point struggling to stop her hand in front of a stack of money. And because the Code was crumbling by ’64, Hitchcock makes no attempts at hiding Marnie’s sexual past, even going so far as to slut shame her (better known as pointing out her flaws back then). The first lines we hear are from her former boss/mark who points out her dress size and huffily complains about her tendency to pull “her skirt down like there was some national treasure.” Later, when Mark asks her “how many jobs have you pulled” it’s obvious they’re discussing Marnie’s lovers.
But Hedren soars above everything Hitchcock throws at her. Her slow descent into madness is beautifully executed, aided by how gorgeous Hedren is, swathed in Edith Head outfits no less. She’s further challenged by Diane Baker as Lil, Mark’s thirsty sister-in-law, Lil. (Seriously, how Lil doesn’t end up shoving Marnie off a cliff to get at Mark is beyond me.) Simultaneously hero and villain or, as she explains, “Guerilla fighter. Purjerer. Intelligence agent” – Lil spends a portion of the runtime investigating Marnie and Mark’s weird relationship – mostly as a means of luring Mark into her arms – and plotting against her new…kind of sister-in-law? Baker should be a household name because she’s fantastic, with a side-eye on par with Margaret O’Brien, a housecoat that’s as green as her envy, and a yearning for Connery. The true interest stems from the almost antagonistic lesbian relationship that simmers between the two, which could explain why Lil disappears from the third act.
As for Connery, he has trouble hiding his accent so he talks like he’s gargling marbles. The core issue is that, as a woman, I couldn’t get behind him as the hero. It’s been quoted by those in the production that Connery’s natural charisma and good-looks would compel women to like him despite the fact he rapes his wife. I couldn’t like him at all. Not only does he commit conjugal rape, but he’s an entitled jerk well before that. Compare him to the character Rod Taylor plays in The Birds (and, boy, are there so many similarities to The Birds other than Hedren; both have raven-haired other women and questionable mothers); Taylor Mitch judged Hedren’s Melanie, but his arrogance was in response to her snobbishness. Here, because Marnie is a criminal, that’s supposed to justify Mark’s blue balls! (Sorry, guys, but it’s true!) You never feel bad when Mark complains about how his wife doesn’t want him, and when he does finally get his way, the camera closes in on Hedren’s face, and she don’t look too happy. Hitch was quoted as saying he wanted to capture the fear on her face when Mark “sticks it in.” Hitch kept it classy!
Mark’s psychoanalysis of Marnie is meant as redemptive, but if anything it shows how unnecessary he is as a lover. When Marnie deconstructs her own childhood is where the film’s true exploration of psychology takes wing. Louise Latham is utterly amazing as Marnie’s mother, and it’s astounding to realize she plays the younger version of herself as she transforms utterly. Marnie and her mother, Bernice, have a deep love, but it’s flawed and broken due to circumstances thrust upon them by being women. They can’t help who they are. It is the society that is broken and can’t respond to them.
Marnie’s a highly unorthodox feature, but would you expect anything less from Alfred Hitchcock? The extremes in tone, though not as broad as in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), vacillate from heavy violence and sex, to a typical Hollywood approach, and there are several different stories fighting for prominence. Hedren, Baker and Latham are the best, and you really have to turn your brain off in how Hitch portrays the genders. I can’t say it didn’t make me think.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.