Alfred Hitchcock is one of the most highly regarded and popular filmmakers who ever lived. His aesthetic and narrative tropes are as immediately recognizable signifiers as the music of Bernard Hermann and the face of Cary Grant. His films Rear Window (1954), North By Northwest (1959), Vertigo (1958), Psycho (1960) and Notorious (1946) are regular staples on critics’ “must see” lists. Yet somehow the most Hitchcockian film the director ever made, the one that best represents the filmmakers encapsulated film aesthetic is one of his most often over looked films, Marnie (1964).
Adapted from Winston Graham’s novel of the same name by Jay Presson Allen, Marnie concerns itself with the title character (played by Tippi Hedren), a compulsive thief and liar who is morbidly afraid of the male touch. As she flees one crime scene to find work in Philadelphia at Mark Rutland’s (Sean Connery) publishing firm, she does not expect the rich playboy to blackmail her into marriage. Despite the fact that the source material is inherently chauvinistic, Hitchcock’s brand of visual storytelling (infamous for its objectification of women) pushes the film into the arena of self-psychoanalysis.
Throughout the film the frame isolates parts of Tippi Hedren’s body in long tracking shots, focusing the audience’s gaze. This technique gives the film an inescapable masculine perspective. The audience must therefore navigate the narrative from a man’s perspective, regardless of the fact that the film’s narrative arc is a classic example of the thriller sub-genre of “women in trouble” films. The design of the script calls for our sympathies to lie with Marnie, yet the language of the film insists that a distance is maintained in so far as empathy for Marnie is concerned. Likewise, Rutland is hardly likeable, manipulating Marnie, objectifying her, and even raping her. So the entire cast of characters is quickly laid bare as corrupt people with pathological obsessions. Hitchcock takes these unruly characters and instead of imbuing them with sympathetic traits he presides over the entire affair as a sort of objective spectator, willing his observations onto the audience, and by proxy revealing himself to be equitable at times with both Marnie and Rutland.
Hitchcock in his choosing of how information and what information is presented to the audience transform each character, at different times in Marnie, into a mouthpiece for his own views. For instance, there is a paradox at work throughout the film, given voice by each sex and in opposition of the other. Consider Marnie’s exchange with her mother (Louise Latham) early in the film. Both women agree that men are “worthless”, and that a “real lady” has no need of men. This is the philosophy of Marnie, which dictates every interaction she has with a male character in the film. In opposition to the feminine perspective is Mark Rutland, amateur zoologist, who equates women with predators, a class of animal he terms as “nature’s criminal element”. Rutland’s ideas of femininity explain his masculine desire to contain and control Marnie, directing her every action in much the same way as Hitchcock himself directed actresses. This paradox is not a subtext in Marnie; both sides of the argument are equally celebrated so that the paradox itself becomes the point of the film and the viewing of the film as kind of meditation on this paradox.
This paradox is also central to the male and female relationships in Rear Window and North By Northwest, but to a considerably lesser degree. The superficial tone of its treatment in Marnie, coupled with the film’s visual style constructs an insular world of highly stylized action and behavior more akin to a dream state than anything Hitchcock had done since his film Spellbound (1945). All of these components that work to make Marnie exist within a separate insular world are indicative of a cinematic trend Hitchcock observed during his time working for Fritz Lang in the 1920s, German Expressionism.
The implementation of rear projection and matte paintings, and their deliberate obvious artifice coupled with a heavy use of shadow recall the Expressionist development of a cinematic world that exists exclusively within a character’s mind, most notably in Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). In the case of Marnie, the mind in which the film’s world and narrative exists is Hitchcock’s. In this way Marnie is the acclaimed director’s most reflexive film in which the artifice of narrative filmmaking is perverted to directly correlate to a heighten extreme with the psychosis of the film’s author, becoming a self-portrait in themes. Of course this sounds like Andrew Sarris’ take on the French Auteur Theory, but that theory was not designed to accommodate an extreme case such as Marnie. One could even go so far as to compare Marnie and its position to Hitchcock with that of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Epilogue to Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980).
The heightened stylization I speak of is most evident in two sequences in Marnie. The first is the rape scene. During their honeymoon, Rutland forces himself on Marnie. The space between the two characters is exaggerated; neither appears with the other in a single shot. Hitchcock cuts from a close-up of Rutland to one of Marnie. Rutland’s close-up is ominous and bathed in shadows as his face moves toward the camera and into soft focus. In contrast, the images of Tippi Hedren are idealized, flatly lit to flatter her beauty, and framed to suggest as much nudity as the censors would allow. Marnie’s expression is frozen in horror or disgust, and she makes no variation to this expression just as the shot itself never varies. In this way the masculine image is dominating, aggressive, and mysterious. The female image is one of idolized unchanging beauty. In the vernacular of Hitchcock’s cinema, both represent their subjects’ ideal, and therefore are representative of Hitchcock’s view of the sex as a whole.
The second notable sequence is the flashback at the end of the film. The camera move at the beginning of this sequence is a deliberate reference to Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960) to which Hitchcock’s own Psycho has often been compared. This shot establishes a psychological subjectivity to memory recall, and sets this sequence apart from the world of the rest of the film. This sequence cuts back and forth between film present and flashbacks, with overlapping sound. The characters in the flashback are framed much like the figures in Eisenstein’s Bezhin Meadow (1937), with portions cropped by the frame. The quick cuts isolate body parts and actions, creating an obscure and disjointed visual narrative that is held together only by the sound design. Once the child Marnie has murdered the sailor, the camera cuts to a trickle of blood on the floor, panning to reveal more blood, until the entire screen turns red and glows with the color, finally cutting back to Tippi Hedren as Marnie. The red flashes in the film, of which this is the last, are signifiers meant to represent when Marnie has been motivated to fulfill the conditions of her pathology. This flashback sequence also establishes that it is Marnie’s mother who is responsible fore her daughter’s pathological condition, and is thus a continuation of Hitchcock’s treatment of mothers as villains begetting villains.
The most disturbing part of Marnie is the film’s resolution. After Marnie has come to terms with her half remembered past, she is prepared to surrender herself to Rutland. Rutland’s terms are those of total ownership, and represent a rejection on Marnie’s part of female independence in preference of being the captive trophy wife of Sean Connery. There can be no doubt that this resolution represents Hitchcock’s idea of how women should behave and what it is they should strive for. But for all of these disturbing sociological elements at work in Marnie, one can also not deny that it is Hitchcock to an extreme, representative of his most honest and personal expression.