Crooked Marquee’s Bad Romances: Marnie

For Valentine’s Day, we’re looking at the wide variety of onscreen relationships: movies about ill-fated couplings, toxic partners, and unconventional romances, to help offset the sticky-sweetness of the season. Follow along here.

Alfred Hitchcock’s messiest and most divisive film, 1964’s Marnie found a director whose name is synonymous with control losing it, big time. It’s a movie in hyperbolic thrall to its own most basic instincts, fueled by a filmmaker’s deeply unhealthy obsession with his muse. A lush spectacle of deliberate artifice engorged with icky sexual politics and retrograde fantasies, Marnie is a sinister, unpleasant picture, yet you can’t stop thinking about it. When the movie’s over you want to take a shower, and then talk about it some more.  

Hitchcock first became fixated on Tippi Hedren in 1961, after seeing her in a TV commercial for Sego Liquid Diet Food while watching The Today Show. He tracked down the 31-year-old model and signed her to an exclusive seven-year contract, giving her the starring role in The Birds despite Hedren’s total absence of experience. As the story goes, after the actress rebuffed his amorous advances, Hitchcock took to terrorizing her both onscreen and off. Marnie wasn’t even supposed to star Hedren in the first place;  he’d originally intended to make it back before The Birds, with Grace Kelly in the lead, but she was a little too busy being Princess of Monaco.

Probably for the best, as one can’t imagine that the royals would have signed off on this screenplay, which Jay Presson Allen adapted from a 1961 novel by Winston Graham. The title character is a serial kleptomaniac who travels the country under fake identities, insinuating her way into bookkeeping jobs, where she uses her feminine wiles to keep her horny bosses off guard for just long enough to clean out their safe before moving on to the next town. Marnie’s big mistake is applying at a firm run by Sean Connery’s Mark Rutland, a suave captain of industry (and part time zoologist!) who she doesn’t remember meeting at the office of one of her previous marks. 

This Mark hires her anyway, mostly to amuse himself. He’s an odd, imposing globe-trotter obsessed with behavioral studies. On his desk, where most men keep framed photos of their family, he has a picture of a jungle cat he tamed in Africa. “I got her to trust me,” Mark tells Marine, allowing the ominous foreshadowing to hang in the air. Her ensuing heist is one of Hitchcock’s most effortlessly impressive set pieces, casually tossing off more suspense than you’d see in a summer’s worth of contemporary blockbusters with barely a shrug. This kind of thing came easy to him, and throwing it away so early in the movie is the director’s way of telling us that Marnie is after something more than just thrills.  

So is Mark. When he catches her, he doesn’t bother calling the police, instead using the evidence to blackmail Marnie into marrying him. She’s incredulous but has no other options. Next thing you know she’s meeting the Rutland family on his expansive ranch, a slightly surreal sequence in which Hitchcock seems hell bent on reminding us that horse people can be really weird. But not as weird as Marnie. Sometimes she sees red, literally –  the whole screen goes crimson whenever she’s having one of her spells, which are typically triggered by thunderstorms or the sounds of knocking at the door. 

The film is full of such expressionistic flourishes, with boldly artificial matte paintings and exaggerated rear projection process shots from odd angles that lend the movie a woozy, dreamlike texture. (Dario Argento is to Marnie as Brian De Palma is to Vertigo.) Some of the performances – especially Louise Latham as Marnie’s overwrought mom – are keyed right up to the edge of camp, while Connery hangs back with a cruel smirk and approaches every scene like he’s playing with his food. Hedren is kind of all over the place. I’ve seen her performance described as one of the greatest in the history of cinema and also one of the most embarrassing. Two things can both be true.

But it’s impossible to talk about Marnie without talking about the boat scene, which the film’s initial screenwriter Evan Hunter was fired by Hitchcock for refusing to write. Marnie has an intense phobia about men touching her, which as you can imagine, becomes something of an issue on their honeymoon cruise. Connery resolves the problem with much the same delicacy he would bring to Goldfinger’s notorious hay barn scene six months later. (1964 was a great year for movies if you liked watching women being raped by Sean Connery.) It’s a brutish, discomfiting sequence during which all the life seems to drain from Hedren’s eyes, and it’s impossible to disentangle from the abuse we now know the actress was suffering at the hands of her director.

But then, that’s what Marnie is all about, isn’t it? The Connery character’s illogical, obsessive need to control and attain ownership to “fix” this problematic female is the filmmaker smearing his own psychosis all over the screen. Except here, Hitchcock has envisioned himself as James Bond instead of a morbidly obese, 65-year-old bald guy, indulging the infantile dream that damaged, difficult women can be tamed like jungle cats.

“Marnie” is streaming on Peacock and the Criterion Channel.

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