(SPOILERS) Hitch in a creative ditch. If you’ve read my Vertigo review, you’ll know I admired rather than really liked the picture many fete as his greatest work. Marnie is, in many ways, a redux, in the way De Palma kept repeating himself in the early 80s only significantly less delirious and… well, compelling. While Marnie succeeds in commanding the attention fitfully, it’s usually for the wrong reasons. And Hitch, digging his heels in as he strives to fashion a star against public disinterest – he failed to persuade Grace Kelly out of retirement for Marnie Rutland – comes entirely adrift with his leads.
That didn’t matter so much with The Birds, because the title characters were everything. Here, the title character is woeful. Which isn’t to say Hedren isn’t a decent performer – although Hitch does his best to undermine her abilities at various points through doggedly emphasising incidents of terrible cheese – but that she doesn’t have that something that makes you want to watch her, to go on a journey with her. Particularly in a story like this one, that quality is crucial.
Hitch reserved his criticism for Hedren’s co-star (although interviewer Francois Truffaut was effusive about his qualities). His is a not dissimilar complaint to Ian Fleming’s initial one of the then-Bond actor: “…I wasn’t convinced that Sean Connery was a Philadelphia gentleman… In a story of this kind you need a real gentleman, a more elegant man than what we had”. Hitch isn’t wrong in his point, but he might have got his gentleman elsewhere and then found he had a less charged screen presence. As Truffaut says, “…he has a sort of animal-like quality that fits perfectly with the sex angle of the story… Only by watching his face very closely can one sense your intention to lead the script into a less conventional direction”. Connery, as one who refers to “arboreal predators of the Brazilian rainforest” – perhaps pre-empting Medicine Man – and studies The Sexual Aberrations of the Female, is definitely less the refined aesthete and more the swaggering jock on a bold adventure.
Of course, one might take issue with Truffaut’s assertion that Connery’s Mark Rutland “is presented to the viewer simply as a protective character”. He does, after all, rape Hedren’s Marnie after initially responding with understanding over her disinclination towards physical intimacy. As with the same year’s Woman of Straw, Connery is consciously playing against the Bond image while profiting from it to pick more varied roles. Now, one might suggest, given some of the actor’s remarks during that era, that he might have seen Rutland as something of a hero, but that seems unlikely. Jay Presson Allen’s screenplay – Joseph Stephano and then Evan Hunter first had a go, the latter objecting to the rape scene – may conclude with the implicit message that Rutland’s particular brand of rough psychology is a success, but his perverse obsession with her problem and attraction to the woman who robbed him but cannot bear to be with him elicits an “I’m sick? Well, take a look at yourself, old dear”. And “You don’t love me. You just think I’m some kind of animal you’ve trapped”. There can be little doubt the kind of man he is.
I tend to think Marnie brought out the worst in the director. Someone else might have relished its absurdity (I can just imagine Verhoeven let loose on it), but every decision Hitchcock makes feels heavy handed. Marnie’s thief is drearily fixated on approval/love from her mother (Louise Latham, heavily made up and acting like it; she was only eight years older than Hedren). She’s even jealous of the little girl who comes visiting. Every scene between them is crudely over directed and just waiting for the reveal of the dark secret at the heart of this mother-daughter relationship (courtesy of a flashback featuring Bruce Dern).
On top of which, Marnie’s literal seeing red is hilariously daft and overwrought; it would have been much more at home in Mel Brooks’ spoof High Anxiety and is tantamount to “Cleaning lady?!” in Dead Men Don’t War Plaid (when Marnie gets red ink on her blouse, the screen flashes apocalyptically red). I’m not sure Hitch is clever enough to deal with such psychological material, because his instinct is always to go for the jugular: whatever will create the most impact. Which isn’t to say Marnie is dramatic – for the most part it’s as meandering as Vertigo – but that when it comes to it, Hitch gets as leery as he possibly can with Marnie’s sexual distress.
He sort of sets up Marnie as a “What if?” his Psycho opening hadn’t been detoured. But instead of a rash deed, the perpetrator robs her company with her eyes wide open. And yet, after the opening, he drops the ball. Connery’s much better than his rather bland character, while Hedren simply makes Marnie as shrill and pierced as anyone playing her too literally would. A few incidents stand out, but not necessarily for good reasons. During Marnie’s extended (over-extended) “wooing” and “treatment”, we meet Diane Baker as Mark’s hanger-on ex-sister-in-law. She has a thing for him and offers a frisson of feline friction. Marnie’s love of horses also leads to a particularly overripe sequence in which she must put her injured nag out of its misery (some of Hitch’s backdrops are downright appalling, none more so than his attempts to convey Marnie riding in the studio). But there’s also an expertly managed vignette in which Marnie robs Mark’s place of work and attempts to tiptoe out to avoid a cleaner. She noisily drops her shoe, but fortunately the cleaner is deaf as a post
As I revisit Hitch’s last handful of pictures, I’m more than willing to give the ones I didn’t rate another chance, to discover hitherto unrecognised merits. But there’s something rather drab and beaten down about Marnie, for all the strident manner in which its lead sees red at intervals. It may go back to the issue I had with Vertigo, that I’m not really interested in any of the characters. Hitch pointed to a problem with the supporting parts, that “I had the feeling that I didn’t know these people, the family in the background”. But it’s more that his main ones are a cod-psychology diagnosis masquerading as a character, and James Bond attempting to fashion something out of nothing. And then there’s its sexual politics, which were rather reactionary even in 1964.
Pauline Kael dismissed Marnie as “Hitchcock scraping bottom”, although I assume that was prior to her seeing Topaz. Geoff Andrew called it “neither thriller nor psychodrama” in Time Out, but a “perverse romance”. However, he loses me completely when he goes on to describe it as “lush, cool and oddly moving”. I don’t think Kael’s quite right – I’d sooner eke out hidden nuggets in this than his The Man Who Knew Too Much remake – but we’re definitely straining for bona fide positives.