Alfred Hitchcock's 1964 film adaptation of Winston Graham's novel Marnie marks the end of master's great films. Even though Hitchcock would go on to make a handful more films—Frenzy, Topaz, Torn Curtain, and Family Plot—none of those subsequent films measures up to his best work. Marnie itself received very little positive notice when it was released; it has only been re-discovered as vintage Hitchcock in recent years. Audiences and critics grew to expect romance, thrills, and suspense from Hitchcock and Marnie appeared to come up short in all these areas. Billed as a “suspenseful sex mystery,” Marnie turns out to be more of a character study than anything.
The title character, played by Tippi Hedren (The Birds) is haunted by a persistent nightmare initiated by tapping sounds before shouting out about her mother, but that's only the least of her psychological problems. For some reason the approximately 30 year old woman has a phobia about the color red, an extreme fear of thunderstorms, has never had a relationship with a man (and can't stand to allow a man to touch her), and obsessively attempts to gain her mother's love by showering her with gifts. Adding to the dysfunction her mother Bernice Edgar (Louise Latham) warns her against attracting men after Marnie dyes her hair blonde, and she can't bring herself to show normal affection to her daughter. Add to this the fact that Marnie is a compulsive liar and thief, who first charms employers before ripping them off, and you have a classic psychological nutcase.
To remedy Marnie's deep-seated problems Hitchcock introduces Mark Rutland (Sean Connery). After all, if James Bond cannot make a woman forget her frigidity, who can? Rutland is a well to do business owner from Philadelphia, who suspects that Marnie is the same woman who had stolen from supplier Sidney Strutt (Martin Gabel) but becomes as intrigued by her skills as Grace Kelly does of Cary Grant's cat burglar expertise in To Catch a Thief. Hitchcock never allows extraneous material to filter into his work; thus, Mark's early words to Marnie convey his suspicions:
“That paper deals with the instincts of predators. What you might call the criminal class of the animal world. Lady animals figure very largely as predators.”
Mark's initial intrigue turns to pity when Marnie becomes terribly frightened by a thunderstorm, and she even allows a slow seductive kiss (but, hey, Connerly has just come off playing James Bond in Dr. No). Before long, Mark will feel betrayed when Marnie steals from him, yet he senses that she has deep seated psychological problems, covers for her, and tracks her down and presents an offer that she can't refuse—namely to marry him. According to Mark, “Somebody's got to take care of you and help you. I can't just turn you loose.”
Not until the honeymoon does Mark realize how messed up his wife is—she is way beyond frigidity and is truly afraid of his touch. Although sexually frustrated, Mark shows remarkable caring and attempts to figure out his wife through reading books like Sexual Aberrations of the Criminal Female. Questions remain to be resolved: will Marnie's past crimes catch up with her, what has made her such a mess, and can she ever be helped?
Hitchcock uses his camera as masterfully as ever to create suspense. When Marnie steals from the Rutland Company safe, she leaves the door wide open so that the wide-angle camera can watch Marnie while the cleaning woman comes into the office. Then when Marnie sees that the cleaning woman has her back turned, she places her high heel shoes in her pockets to tip toe out, but Hitch's camera continues to churn suspense much like the seams in Norman Lloyd's Saboteur coat—will Marnie make it to the exit before her shoes clunk onto the floor?
Another suspenseful moment reminiscent of the boom shot in Notorious during the party scene that gradually zooms in on the critical key in Ingrid Bergman’s hand occurs during the party at the Rutland house. Beginning from above the camera closes in on the door, making us wonder why Hitchcock is doing this. Suddenly we realize the reason, as the door opens for Sidney Strutt—he is the key figure at the party, invited by the slyly smiling Lil Mainwearing (Diane Baker), who also vies for Mark’s affections. Strutt is the only man who can identify Marnie as a criminal thief, but will he do so?
Although the actors nearly always play second fiddle to Hitchcock's camera, both Tippi Hedren and Sean Connerly carry the movie well, especially considering that Hitch initially designed the leading role for Grace Kelly and was greatly distressed when she backed out of the project. (Hitch’s disappointment becomes all the more apparent when we realize that Diane Baker was cast due to her resemblance to Kelly) Hedren veers from her manipulative behavior to psychotic terror quite naturally, which contrasts with Connerly's masterful portrayal of the sophisticated and charming amateur psychologist/detective. Both give what Hitchcock is looking for with their performances.
Marnie remains a classic textbook example of film technique even if it does appear a bit dated—the flashes of red filtering to signal Marnie’s internal psychosis, the fake thunderstorms, the use of blue screen for moving car and horse scenes, and the obviously fake Baltimore harbor painting outside the mother's home. Marnie marks the end of the classic studio film period when Hitchcock uses German impressionism effectively. But Hitchcock had always been reluctant to shoot on location, preferring the greater controls that he had within a sound stage where everything could be planned out meticulously.
A critical and box office failure when first released in 1964, Marnie ranks as a vastly underrated film. After thrillers like Psycho and The Birds, audiences expected another film along this line. With Marnie Hitchcock offers us a psychological character study more along the lines of Vertigo but this one doesn't touch us as deeply nor explore the psyche as profoundly as that masterpiece.
Despite Marnie's bizarre symptoms, the pop psychology here is a little too easily attached to a single Freudian moment to satisfy completely, and the supposed romance never comes across as convincingly as it does in Vertigo. Yet with a current film culture that relies so heavily on CGI, special effects, and shallow plots, it's refreshing to watch a professionally crafted film that focuses primarily on character development. Thus, Marnie's stock has risen in artistic merit and enjoyment. Film fans should check it out, and Hitchcock fans will want their own copy to add to the collection.