"Oh Ms. Marnie-penny, sometimes a phallic symbol is just a horse's mouth."
Marnie (1964)- Alfred Hitchcock
Some of us folks here at the Booth have decided to play a little friendly game of film recommendation with our intent being that we post our impressions after watching the films. For this kick-off post I was recommended the 1964 Hitchcock film Marnie by the master of the ten-film review, Patrick. Now I must admit beforehand, that I am not a big fan of Hitchcock's work in general and that I always enter into one of his films with a skeptical eye. I have found his work for the most part to be alternately hackneyed or bombastically overbearing, and generally consider his films to be lesser works in comparison to his English compatriots Carol Reed, Michael Powell, David Lean (in his early years) and Anthony Asquith. With Marnie though, Hitch really outdid himself in that he finally let his hackneyed and bombastically overbearing sides merge into a completely stupefying whole.
Marnie stars Tippi Hedren as the titular character, a compulsive thief who goes through life trying to gain her mother's love and affection with ill-gotten gains. Her trick is to fall into the confidence of her leering male bosses and then, while working a little overtime, rob the office safe of its contents and split town. It's a good gig until she applies at a publishing house that does business with her last place of employment/heist. The publishing house owner, Mark Rutland (played by Sean "007" Connery), recognizes her from her last job. He hires her knowing full well that she stole ten-thousand in cash from her previous employer, and it is with this knowledge that he plans on trapping Marnie and forcing her into the most compromising position of all.
What starts out as a controlled thriller à la Vertigo, soon gives way to some of the most ripe melodrama Hitchcock has ever produced. In the mix we get: A grown woman speaking in a little girl's voice, a disapproving mother straight out of Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie that speaks (of course) in a full-on magnolia drenched drawl (... after living most of her adult life in Baltimore? Really?), one of the most ridiculous old-moneyed New England families ever put to screen and, last but not least, the most disturbingly ambiguous rape scene since Rhett took Scarlett upstairs in Gone With the Wind. All the while, Freudian nonsense (repression as a self defense mechanism, transference, sexual sublimation) is flying off the screen fast and hard. In one scene Marnie and Mark even go tête-à-tête with a little free association that could be considered comically heated if only this was a screwball comedy. As for the ending- I won't spoil it for those who haven't seen the film but- Oh my! What an ending it is! Marnie ends with so much overwrought emotional bloodletting (literally) and pop-psychology mumbo-jumbo that it had to be Hitchcock's intent to push the film over the cliff into pure camp. There is no way that he believed that this stuff could have been taken seriously by even the most unsophisticated audience of its day.
I shouldn't give the impression that Marnie is a complete misfire though, as it has a lot going for it. Some scenes are well handled and in their own way prove to be iconic examples of filmmaking, such as the opening scene with Marnie walking down the train platform or the scene where she shoots her horse after a riding accident- all we see is her gloved hand in the foreground carrying the pistol forward and firing, while in the background her horse's legs kick one last time. The most controlled and impressive scene has to be the the first Rutland heist scene where Marnie is emptying the safe while a cleaning lady is mopping the floor close by. The way that the tension of the scene is resolved is pretty fantastic and funny to boot.
These moments though are not enough to overcome what the film asks of my suspended disbelief. In addition to the aforementioned "heightened emotionalism" and Freudian bunk in Marnie, there are also some moments of shear laziness in the filmmaking. One example is with the character of Mark's sister-in-law who is introduced as a lesbian (maybe bi-sexual) tigress on the prowl but then is later shuffled off in a abruptly dismissive manner as just a caring sister with a proclivity for Nancy Drew-like antics. There are also moments of over-explanation in the visual storytelling that become almost ham-fisted motifs in their use and repetition. In Marnie, Hitchcock shows either a lack of confidence in his material or a lack of confidence in his intended audience. It amazes me that he, being the master craftsman that he was, was not able to eschew the blatantly clunky elements in the film. I mean how many times do you have to fast zoom in and out on the money to show that Marnie is having a moment of troubled conscience or how many times does a character have to repeat an action to show that he hasn't memorized the combination to his own safe and that the said combo is in his drawer. After a while, all of these little things pushed the film past the point at which I could continue to enjoy it. Watching it just became a chore to trudge through. It also didn't help that Tippi Hedren and Sean Connery felt like a couple of also-rans in the casting of their respective rolls. Neither one ever came close to producing the on screen magic of either the James Stewart and Kim Novak pairing (Vertigo) or that of Cary Grant and Grace Kelly (To Catch a Thief). Both performers run the gamut from bland to comically bad in this film.
Having said all of that, I think it's time for Patrick to give his take on the film.
Well, sure it's over the top. That's one of the things I liked about it. I'll grant you that it belabors some points heavily - didn't bother me, but I'll grant it - but saying it starts out as a controlled thriller which then turns into a ripe melodrama sounds like it's as a bad thing, which I certainly don't believe.
This was recommended to Mr. Bishop with the proclamation that it took many of the themes running through Vertigo to extremes. For me, if it pushes it into melodrama, if it uses unrealistic effects - a tree ten stories up, a rear-screened process shot of a horse ride - to highlight the emotional state of the characters, so be it. It adds to the overall feel of the film, even if elsewhere Hitch has been subtler and slyer. I've never been one to be upset by a filmmaker who takes a sledgehammer to things to drive an interesting point home.
It takes a lot of ideas out of Vertigo and gives them a different spin here - in particular, I focus in on the obsessive drive of the male character to take control of an errant woman and in some ways, break her. In the case of Marnie, he's breaking her to reset the bone and have her heal properly but like Jimmy Stewart's Scottie in Vertigo, it seems he's got to go to some real ugly lengths to do what is supposedly right and along the way we begin to question not just how pure the man's motives are but if what's he's doing to the lady in question is really in any way a good thing. In fact, I'd say that this one's even more brutal in how it portrays Mark's behavior as compared with Scottie's, given that Madeline/Judy could've actually walked away from Scottie if she chose to - though then she'd probably be in deep trouble with the even more sinister Elster - while Marnie is left little choice by Mark and he manipulates her knowing that at any time he could turn her over to the law.
Again taking a trick from the Vertigo bag (maybe even the Spellbound bag), the horse rides, the red screens, the Poltergeist-y evil tree branch - all are effects the aren't necessarily meant as realistic, they're more expressive in the way that the green light of the Judy's hotel room reflects back to her green dress the first time Scottie met her (as Madeline) or the famous telescoping "vertigo" shot puts us inside Scottie's head when his acrophobia kicks in or the hazy, dreamlike quality of the cemetery and redwood scenes. For me these are merely visual referents intended to express the mindsets of the characters (though it may just be Freudian hoo-hah to you). You may be right, Mr. Bishop, that these in conjunction with repeated dialogue that also offers these same ideas is too much - it's been years since I saw the film and I don't remember if they too frequently double up ideas that could have been expressed visually - but I also don't remember it bothering me in the slightest.
Long story short - Vertigo's a better film, nobody's arguing that. It's subtler, better shot, requires less suspension of disbelief and Stewart's performance is terrific (though I think that I might actually prefer Hedren's Marnie to Novak's Judy (but not her Madeline)). It's a masterful and beautiful film. Marnie takes some of its ideas and motifs and takes them in a different direction. Certainly it veers to melodrama but it's nothing that turned me off, and I was quite taken with parts of the film - the central relationship is a fascinating extension of the Scottie/Judy relationship and even if the overall technique of the film is blunter, rawer, less refined, it doesn't make it less fun for me to watch.