Like THE BIRDS, MARNIE was released by Universal on DVD in the wrong ratio at first. This was the first time Fiona and I have seen it in widescreen.
MARNIE has an unusually protracted history for a Hitchcock film. Hitch had acquired the novel by Winston Graham around 1960 as a vehicle for Grace Kelly, who expressed her willingness to take time off from being a princess in order to star in it. PSYCHO screenwriter Joseph Stefano began work on a script, but when he was halfway through it became clear that Grace would not be available that year, so he stopped work and Hitch threw himself into THE BIRDS. After completing that project, finding Stefano unavailable, he brought BIRDS scenarist Evan Hunter on board, and Hunter produced a complete script (from Hitch’s fairly detailed scene breakdown) but balked at the idea of the hero raping the heroine. Hitchcock removed Hunter from the project and hired Jay Presson Allen, fresh from her success adapting Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie for the stage. At some point during this gestation, the people of Monaco let it be known that they would not accept their princess playing a sexually dysfunctional thief in a Hitchcock picture, so suddenly Grace was out and Tippi was in.
Winston Graham’s Poldark novels have been adapted by the BBC, and decorated the airwaves in my distant youth (the 1970s): Cornish bodice-ripping yarns, they were. Hitchcock is strangely connected to Cornwall by all the Du Maurier stories set there, although the one time he filmed there it was doubling for the Isle of Man in THE MANXMAN. With MARNIE, as with THE BIRDS, the English setting would be rewritten for America.
Three films had been made previously in Britain based on Graham stories, including one by Ronald Neame (TAKE MY LIFE), a former camera assistant on BLACKMAIL, and one by Launder and Gilliat (SHE PLAYED WITH FIRE aka FORTUNE IS A WOMAN), the screenwriters of THE LADY VANISHES. Although it doesn’t quite come off, the latter film does seem designed somewhat on the Hitchcock model.
As has often been pointed out, the Hitchcock film MARNIE most relates to is SPELLBOUND: it’s a psychological detective story or, as Hitch says in the trailer, “what one might call a sex mystery, if one used such words.” Role reversal makes the woman the psycho-neurotic character, and imaginative writing changes the investigator from a shrink to a businessman and amateur zoologist (Sean Connery).
A shame Connery didn’t work with Hitch again! They got on extremely well. Hitch said: “He came early, knew his lines, and hit his marks. I was pleasantly surprised. He directed himself and you could always find him.” Connery later recalled that Hitch only offered two pieces of direction: “When I’m listening to another actor I have a tendency to let my mouth hang open, so he would say, ‘I don’t think the audience is interested in your dentistry, Mr Connery.’ And when I’m excited I have a tendency to talk too fast, so he would say, ‘Let’s try that again, only with a few more dogs’ feet,’ by which he meant pauses.”
Since Hitchcock next planned to make MARY ROSE, for which Jay Presson Allen again write the script, and since he planned to star Tippi again, and since the story takes place entirely in Scotland, it’s hard to resist the suspicion that Connery would have been offered a major role. But the failure of MARNIE, and the benign-seeming but ultimately strangulatory control of Lew Wasserman, Hitchcock’s former agent and now his boss at Universal, put paid to all that.
Theory: I don’t think Universal was ultimately very good for Hitch. They meant well, but by their very benevolence they were more restrictive than another studio might have been. Rather than trying to protect the Hitchcock brand, they might have trusted this highly successful, talented and commercially astute man — a major shareholder in the company but unable to make at least two of his dream projects, KALEIDOSCOPE-FRENZY and MARY ROSE.
After another personalized studio logo, the credits unfold to Bernard Herrmann’s strenuous, strident and anxiety-laden theme, which plays like a love theme with a mental block, lurching to spasmodic halts when it seems to aspire to Wagnerian orgasm: the music of tormented frigidity and suppressed longing.
The superb, Langian opening, with the sexy yellow purse tucked under Tippi’s arm (hey, at least it’s not a pink purse) and the angular jut of the railway station, then the dependably beady-eyed Martin Gabel (see and admire his single directorial outing, THE LOST MOMENT) barking “Robbed!” and a helpful cut to the empty safe.
Now, Hitch was increasingly anxious, one can deduce from his comments, about being “old-fashioned” — he’d stayed with the times and even moved ahead with PSYCHO, though in films like NORTH BY NORTHWEST he’d pursued classical rather than current fashions to avoid his films dating. In interviews at the time he said that montage was now an old-fashioned approach, so the major safe-robbing suspense highlight of MARNIE was staged in a single shot. His falling-out with Bernard Herrmann on his very next movie was based around his desire that the music should provide “a beat and a rhythm” to appeal to the “young vigorous and demanding” audiences of the 1960s. So MARNIE’s precise, formalist opening, which could come straight from a British thriller of the 30s or a Lang one of the 20s strikes me as an odd note to strike.
MARNIE — an excellent film — was, and often still is, terribly undervalued because it is a film out of its time. Older directors can often make the best films, but they seldom make with-it ones, and attempts to do so are frequently embarrassing. MARNIE succeeds best when it is removed from the fashions of 60s film-making.
Why else is MARNIE thought of as, in William Goldman’s words, an awful, awful film? The dodgy matte paintings and fake process shots are often cited, and there is much to be said against them, no doubt, but that’s a pathetic reason to dismiss an entire film. And indeed, if we accepted it as a valid excuse, we’d have to dismiss practically EVERY Hitchcock film. In fact, these minor flaws are more glaring because Hitch had survived into an era of filmmaking that had moved out of the studio and abandoned the special effect as a means of achieving an outdoorsy feeling. So the problem is one of old-fashionedness, and need not concern us anymore, since every other film from 1964 is now old-fashioned too, in one way or another. As the man says at the end of BARRY LYNDON, “They are all equal now.” Except in terms of quality.
In terms of its script, Jay Presson Allen was as harsh about her job of writing for Hitchcock as Evan Hunter had been about his. She felt she wrote long, linear scenes, and had there been more time, more compression could have livened things up. I tend to agree, but the problem isn’t severe. Hitchcock’s weakness for “quirky” humour is evident in the dialogue, and I do blame him, as filteur if not auteur, of the lines.
SPELLBOUND: “You have mogo on the gogo!”
NORTH BY NORTHWEST: “He probably has his suits mended by invisible weavers.”
MARNIE: “I’m Minnie Q Thief!” and “I’m queer for liars,” and “The idea was to kill myself, not feed the damn fish.”
But these are all quibbles.
Marnie washes her hair, the basin fills with squid-ink, Marnie emerges blonde. Fiona scoffs. NO dye could achieve that effect and then just wash out. I ask if it’s bizarre, Hitch including a detail that half the audience would know was bogus. “Not that many women dyed their own hair back then,” mused Fiona. So maybe only the professionals would be scoffing in ’64.
Marnie’s mom’s house: Hitch was very specific about the whitewashed steps in front. Of course, the setting is utterly unreal, but this is intentional. Designer Robert Boyle, quoted in The Wrong House: The Architecture of Alfred Hitchcock by Steven Jacobs, said “Hitchcock was trying to get at something you couldn’t see. He was trying to tell a story of things that are not at all overt… He was trying desperately to really dig into the psyche of this woman.”
Having observed the surreal effect of ship’s masts jutting from above the rooftops with no sign of water, Hitch commissioned a painting of the background. To my way of thinking, the best way to achieve that surrealism would be by photographing the reality: I’d feel cheated in a modern film if the director resorted to CGI masts. But there’s something splendid about the painting, it has a primitive/naive quality, and the diminishing perspective with the ship’s hulk crammed in at the end mirrors the train station shot and adds to the film’s sense of constriction and confinement, forward movement but without a sense of freedom.
Again, a musical motif, the children singing in the street. The number of Hitch films WITHOUT some kind of recurring musical element that’s part of the plot is looking awfully small, as we look back on Hitchcock Year from December. Even some of the silents (THE RING, DOWNHILL) foreground source music.
Very bizarre perf from Marnie’s mom. And gray floral wallpaper: what a great design concept: all the patterns of nature, but with the life sucked out.
Casting: the allegation that the film is miscast in the only two roles that matter would be a devastating fault if true. But Tippi has grown considerably in ability since THE BIRDS, and she has a great trick of letting her voice crack into shrill, little-girl panic when she yells. Connery is maybe the only man who could make Mark Rutland, the arrogant, over-privileged sexual blackmailer (and rapist) remotely appealing. Even more than the Bond films, MARNIE capitalizes on his ability to be both sympathetic and simultaneously a big swinging dick.
(I’ve been quoting plentifully from interviews in Charlotte Chandler’s It’s Only a Movie, Alfred Hitchcock, A personal Biography, so here’s some more –)
Jay Presson Allen: “The casting of Sean was amusing. We didn’t know who to get for the part, an upper-class Southern man. [...] One day he said, ‘They’re making one of those Bond books, and I hear the guy who’s doing Bond is worth looking at. Let’s get some footage.’ So we got all this footage of this incredibly handsome young man with that thick Scottish accent. We looked at each other and just burst into laughter. ‘Let’s take him anyway.’ We had no regrets about that. He was darling.”
Fiona’s response to the young Connery: “Help!”
And Allen wasn’t fazed by writing the rape scene. She didn’t view it as rape, but as marital misunderstanding. Hunter worried about how to redeem the character of Mark for the audience. Allen decided to rely on star charisma. Hedren wondered how she could be frigid against Connery. “Fake it,” advised Hitch.
It’s quite a plot. It has been remarked, and perhaps with some justice, that having Connery’s character blackmail Marnie into marriage — so he can “tame” her by curing her psychological malady — opens up all this interesting stuff about how sick HE is (which Marnie helpfully points out: cue tiny eye-roll from Connery, as if to say “But of course, but we’re not talking about me.”) — which the film then doesn’t have time to get into. Marnie is cured, alright, but she’s now married to this controlling, twisted crazy man. Or has he been healed by helping her? He does find some compassion, I guess.
Hitch is actually somewhat evasive about whether Marnie is genuinely cured or just better informed at the end. And his treatment of the mother is very interesting — adding a touch of compassion here, then taking it away. She’s left alone at the end, a prisoner of her ideas of “decency.” There seems a real push-pull towards/away from sympathy.
Diane Baker sure is cute: again, as in THE BIRDS, I find the brunette more attractive than the blonde, but Tippi has come on as a performer and isn’t threatened by Baker. And in fact, Baker, who regretted that her character didn’t really have an end note, just dropping out of the story, isn’t really necessary. She attempts to sabotage Marnie by inviting her former boss to a party, but he could easily have arrived by mistake, invited by Dad. Remove Baker’s character altogether and you could shave off ten minutes (the movie is excellent but perhaps a little long) without losing anything except some dull exposition where Baker has to overhear stuff, at enormous length, and become suspicious.
What else don’t I like? Not much. The suicide attempt is frankly absurd, and seems to suggest that Marnie isn’t that distressed and doesn’t really want to die, which is the opposite of the intended effect, as far as I can see. The problem with Mark raping Marnie is less that he does so — he’s something of a swine anyway — than that he’s promised not to touch her, and his motivation for this betrayal isn’t sufficiently clear.
Marnie crashing her horse is filmed by Hitch in a fascinating series of angles, the whole assemblage utterly artificial, and several of the shots containing blatant fakery. A real horse was photographed cantering on a treadmill against the rear projection screen, although in one early shot it seems to be standing still, looking around idly as the scenery scrolls past. If the sequence isn’t as electrifying as it ought to be, it has to do with George Tomasini’s cutting. He died shortly after this movie was released, and I wonder if he wasn’t ailing slightly already. Each shot seems to linger a few frames too long, performing its role in the sequence and then lingering on to break the flow and draw attention to its unreality. Even if the horse legs are stuffed and the rear projection is noticeable, the moment ought to work and be painful just by the power of montage. But it’s a little ungainly.
Against these flaws, and accepting the story’s dollar-book Freud, we have an intriguing story, strong leads, and some real cinematic frissons. The big safe robbery is exciting, with Hitch using a split composition to show the robbery and the threat of discovery in a single frame, and the various dream-psychosis effects are all fascinating.
The hand tap-tapping on the window — pan onto Tippi, who is DREAMING THE HAND — pan onto Connery in the doorway who is really there, but silhouetted to resemble the nightmare-mother. Exponential zoom tromboning the family home as if it were made of elastic. Red-outs flaring up along with surges of Herrmann’s freak-out music. Goofy zooming in and out on money, which is kind of daft, and reminds me of THE BURBS, which repeats the effect and also features Bruce Dern.
Marnie’s childhood hiome is located thanks to an unseen private eye named Boyle, a homage to designer Robert Boyle, who helped Hitch “find” all his houses.
That final flashback… one assumes, with symptoms like Marnie’s and a family history like Marnie’s, and the Freud angle looming over everything… one assumes a background of sexual molestation. Yet Bruce Dern seems like he’s trying to be a nice guy. It’s inappropriate, him fussing over the daughter of the prostitute he’s just paid for, but he appears to mean well. Kind of odd — having seen THE NAKED KISS, I’m aware that Hitchcock could have implied sordid intent in the Dern character (and why cast Dern otherwise? Not meaning to be unkind, but… you know…) so it’s interesting that he makes the poor sailor basically innocent, and bludgeoned to death as a result of two unfortunate misunderstandings.
I found the ending moving, which is not something I’d say about many Hitchcocks. I think Jimmy Stewart achieves pathos via his concern for Grace Kelly in REAR WINDOW and his disintegration in VERTIGO, but MARNIE aims for deep identification as one of its primary goals and I felt achieved it. Despite appearing outdated to audiences at the time, it also looks forward to developments in European art cinema, in its concern with subjective states of consciousness and the evocation of disturbed emotions through cinematic language. Hitchcock protects himself with a psychological detective story, but the memorable sequences remain mysterious despite the resolution.
Hitch and Horse and the recurring perspective.
The Wrong House: The Architecture of Alfred Hitchcock
UK: Marnie [DVD]