DVD Review Of Marnie

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 3/6/07


  After his back to back commercial and critical triumphs of Psycho and The Birds, Alfred Hitchcock decided to go ‘interior.’ By that, I mean he decided to get unfortunately Freudian in his approach to crime, as he had throughout his career. Unfortunately, all but a few of his films suffer from their reliance on the outmoded and simplistic approaches to psychology that he employed. One of them was Marnie, his 1964 color follow up to the two terrific films mentioned at the start, starring his The Birds female lead, Tippi Hedren.

  While the film flopped at the box office, latter day critics have tried to overcompensate for this fact by declaring the film a masterpiece. It’s not, but it is a good, solid film that is better than originally thought. Its first hour is a nearly flawless study of a female thief, Marnie Edgar (Hedren)- aka Margaret Edgar, Peggy Nicholson, and Mary Taylor, who is sort of what the Janet Leigh character in Psycho may have become had she not been killed so early in that film. Her development is evenly paced and believable, never forced nor rushed. Then, when Marnie is caught by her boss, a widower named Mark Rutland (Sean Connery), and blackmailed into marriage, the film goes downhill, as Marnie’s freakouts over the color red, highlighted by Hitchcock’s over the top usage of red fade-ins and interludes (compare them with Ingmar Bergman’s similar later technique in Cries And Whispers), lead to even greater and sillier melodrama.

  This is what really kills the film, penned by Jay Presson Allen, from the novel by Winston Graham. The screenplay and its length- 131 minutes, are just too much, for while one can accept the outmoded technical devices Hitchcock reveled in- such as matte paintings and background screens for rear projections, the gobbledygook stew of guilt and possible sexual abuse is too much, especially given all that has come to light in the intervening decades. By film’s end we learn that Marnie is scarred not only by possible sexual abuse by one of he prostitute mother’s johns, a sailor (Bruce Dern), but also with the fact that she bashed in the man’s skull as he was fighting with her mother- one of the many filmic adaptations and twists of the then recent real life melodrama of Lana Turner and Johnny Stompanato. The sight of all the blood from the dead man’s skull traumatized young Marnie. Her mother, Bernice Edgar (Louise Latham), whose back was permanently injured in the tussle, took the blame for the killing, and Marnie blocked the whole thing out. Ok, so far, a believable premise. Also that Marnie is a frigid manhater is believable, even if the man is a hunky young Sean Connery. But, how the sexual abuse or murder twisted her into a pathological liar, thief (suffering from kleptomania?), and safecracker is simply fantasy, even if all her victims are men.

  But, one can go with that- with a suspension of disbelief, if the rest of the tale played out better and more realistically. We see Mark wants to help his love, but why does he even love her? He has his own sister-in-law, Lil Mainwaring (Diane Baker), hot for him, and she is not nearly as laden with psychological baggage as Marnie is, even if she does vindictively set Marnie up for a confrontation with a man, Sidney Strutt (Martin Gabel), whom Mark realized was Marnie’s former employer she stole from, and has to dissuade from prosecuting her. Yet, Mark is as obsessed with her as she is with stealing from men. Then, two thirds of the way through the film, he hires a private eye- never seen onscreen, and easily reveals all the pieces at the end, when he confronts Marnie and her mother, and Marnie breaks down blubbering in an overwrought baby voice. That flush of a toilet you just heard was the screenplay.

  Nothing much else happens in the film, at least nothing of great import. Yet, it makes one wish that the first half’s realism had been hewed to a bit more closely, and that Marnie’s pathology was not so damned silly. For example, there is a scene, early on, when Mark and Marnie are at an Atlantic City racetrack, and a man from Detroit claims he knows Marnie from one of her earlier criminal incarnations. This would have been a good follow up for the film to pursue, and as a catalyst for the eventual revelation of whatever it was ailed Marnie. Instead, the film too often telegraphs what is coming, such as Marnie’s abuse, or the fact that Lil loathes her and is manifestly setting her up for a confrontation with Strutt.

  Despite narrative flaws, there is, however, much to be said for the technical framing of shots by cinematographer Robert Burks, and how well composed and choreographed certain scenes are, such as when Marnie robs Mark’s safe, and a cleaning woman comes by to mop. Marnie takes off her shoes, but one drops out of her coat. Is she caught? No, for the cleaning lady is deaf. This is Hitchcock at his string-pulling best. Another good scene, albeit controversial, is a scene where- on their honeymoon cruise, Mark rips off Marnie’s clothes, then seduces her. Some feminist critics have called this a rape scene, but Marnie clearly succumbs to Mark’s charms, just as she had during their fist kiss at his office, during a thunderstorm. That kiss is far more disturbing, in its context, for how it occurs, than the faux rape, because it comes wholly out of nowhere, and would be grounds for sexual harassment today; thus likely making Marnie a sexual predator who blackmailed her bosses rather than stealing from them, if remade nowadays. The ‘rape,’ however, is merely an extension of the couple’s psychodramatic mating dance. The score, by Bernard Herrmann, is one of his worst, and only reemphasizes the soap operatic nature of the film with its over the top crescendos and lulls. It’s little wonder that this was the last score he did for a Hitchcock film.

  The acting is hit and miss. Hedren is clearly out of her league as Marnie, for she has no range, and her regression to a little girl is twee, to say the least. Also, her reaction to the injury she subjects her horse Florio to, before shooting him, is atrociously out of control. Connery is very good as Mark, although the character’s deeper motivations are never fleshed out, and his psychologizing throughout the film can be a bit much. Is it merely lust, or is he a sadomasochist- as implied in the film, who merely hunts women like big game trophies? Louise Latham is ok as Marnie’s mom, but her makeup as the older version, is too much, and quite poor- not in quality, but in relation to the character’s supposed age. Less than twenty years have passed since Marnie was a girl of six to eight, and since she’s on the south side of thirty, and since we learn her mother gave birth to her at fifteen, that would put the mother in her early forties. Yet, her makeup makes her look no younger than fiftysomething- a key continuity error. Diane Baker is quite good as scheming Lil, and one wonders why she had no better career after this film, for she is simply stunning to look at- the brunet equivalent of Grace Kelly, especially endowed with great cheekbones and alabaster skin.
  The DVD is part of Universal Studio’s The Alfred Hitchcock Masterpiece Collection, and is well transferred in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio. It lacks any audio commentary- I guess Hitchcockian sycophant Peter Bogdanovich was unavailable, but it does include some stills, a five minute original trailer- laced with Hitchcock’s great dry humor, and has an hour long documentary called The Trouble With Marnie, by Laurent Bouzereau, filled with trivia like the film’s supposedly being Grace Kelly’s comeback vehicle; and that when she pulled out, Hitchcock made The Birds in the interim, and went with Hedren in the lead, instead. The supposed ‘rape’ scene is touched upon, and what is interesting is that the male writer- Evan Hunter (aka Ed McBain), originally hired to do the screenplay was fired for he questioned the rape, while Presson- who is female, had no problems with the script, and did not think it a rape scene, at all. She’s correct, of course. Also discussed is the fakeness of the film- due to the matte shots and rear projection car rides. Some argue this fakeness depicts Marnie’s psychosis, and another claims it shows off Hitchcock’s German Expressionistic silent film roots. These are clearly wrong, for they inflict all Hitchcock films, and are thus after the fact rationalizations. For those obsessed with the director’s cameo appearances in his films, it comes about five minutes into the feature, as he enters- stage left, a hotel corridor from a door as Marnie passes by.

 All in all, Marnie is a flawed, but worthwhile, entry in the Hitchcock canon, and better than some more highly regarded earlier films. That said, it’s a transition film which led the way to Hitchcock’s final film of merit, 1972’s Frenzy, and embodies all the best of Hitchcock, as well as his worst. In that sense, one could argue it is the Master Of Suspense’s most Hitchcockian film, even if it is not too heavy on the suspense. In a more real world sense, it is a film that could have been great, yet also shows why Hitchcock was a flawed artist; thus a film that should be studied by students of the craft; a not too bad way to fail, after all.

[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the NewCritics website.]

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