Sunday, 23 March 2008

Marnie (1964, USA, Alfred Hitchcock)

A commercial and critical failure upon release, 'Marnie' is now seen by many, myself included, as one of Hitchcock's masterpieces, and probably his last great film in fact (whilst 'Frenzy' was an admirable return to film making in the UK, it doesn't really compare too favourably with the films one identifies with Hitchcock). It's also one of his most psychologically daring films; in many ways re-exploring the themes of 'Vertigo' of warped romantic intentions and obsessions. It also coincided with Hitchcock acting as "star maker" to novice actress 'Tippi' Hedren, a former model who was cast in 'The Birds' off the back of a shampoo commercial and groomed as a substitute for Grace Kelly, who had retired from film after marrying into the Monaco royal family. It is alleged that Hitchcock's intentions with Hedren were as obsessive as Scottie Ferguson's in 'Vertigo' and one might suggest the same in terms of the central male protagonist, Mark, towards Hedren's Marnie. It would not be the first instance of the male protagonist being a substitute for the actor himself. Cary Grant was often said to be cast as the man Hitchcock would like to be, but James Stewart's more flawed and neurotic 'hero' pursuing an unattainable woman was always the more realistic persona. Whatever occured during filming, this spelt the end of the Hitchcock-Hedren relationship, and arguably the director never recovered.

The opening scene is typical Hitchcock. His roots in silent films made him the archetypal visual director; a close up shot on a handbag which is then revealed to be carried by a woman leaving a train. Then he cuts to the details of a robbery at Strutts being reported. The thief of course is Marnie (Hedren), and when she dyes her hair blonde and replaces the social security card in her purse, we know she's a career criminal - a kleptomaniac who steals from one employer to the next before vanishing and changing identity. Her luck runs out though when she starts work at the company of Mark Rutland (Sean Connery), who recalls her from Strutts (she is given the job at his request, eager to find out about the enigmatic Marnie). Naturally she steals from Rutlands, achieved in a precise and breathtaking scene - thinking a cleaning lady will hear, she tiptoes from the building but her shoes fall from her pocket seemingly ruining her carefully laid plans. The cleaning lady of course is deaf.

Mark, having taken an interest so far, realises what has happened and finds her. Then he embarks on a strange form of revenge - he marries Marnie. Until this point Hitchcock hinted at Marnie's psychological problems; her fractured relationship with her mother, her dramatic responses to the colour red and thunder and lightning, as well as dreams that hint at a childhood trauma. Hitchcock then reveals Mark to be equally psychologically and emotionally damaged. His fixation with Marnie goes beyond seeking to understand her - he wants to possess her; in her own words "You don't love me. I'm just something you've caught! You think I'm some sort of animal you've trapped!" Their honeymoon features the film's most contentious scene, which cost Hitchcock more than one screenwriter and has been discussed ever since; Mark's rape of Marnie. If you believe the reports of some, Hitchcock was unrelenting in his desire to keep this scene. His aborted 'No Bail For The Judge' was intended to include a scene of the rape of Audrey Hepburn. This does nothing to contradict the accusations of misogyny that has plagued Hitchcock. It's disconcerting to watch for sure, and whilst it might cost Mark the sympathy of the audience, it's somewhat in keeping with his dark and threatning sexuality. Viewing it in context of the director's obsession with his actress, it becomes all the more disturbing.

'Marnie' remains one of Hitchcock's most controversial and polarising films, infused with the degree of psychological depth that many films of this period (such as 'The Birds', 'Psycho' and 'Vertigo') featured. Marnie's frigidity and kleptomania are born out of a childhood incident that she cannot remember, that her mother has concealed, but gradually becomes apparent and explains her fears of various images and sounds. Hitchcock's most forgiving critics might look at the obviously fake backdrops and explain them as devices which highlight Marnie's alienation and detachment, though more likely is the fact that Hitchcock was one of the most studio-bound of directors filming during the end of the studio system, unable to change with the times. Accordingly, his fortunes would decrease after 'Marnie'; a combination of age and changes to methods of film making that would make directors like him less relevant, though as mentioned before, I believe this to be Hitchcock's final masterpiece and the most overlooked and unfairly neglected film in his entire ouevre. 5/5

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