Disclaimer: These essays presume you’ve seen the film in question. If you want to avoid spoilers, watch the movie first!
In 1994 I left my home in Tucson, Arizona and drove across the country with my dad to attend New York University film school. It was the fulfillment of my dream ever since I learned that film school was even an option. You could go to school and just watch movies! Maybe there would be a whole class about Hitchcock!
And get this: THERE WAS. It was a Hitchcock Seminar, taught by NYU’s Richard Allen. It sounded like heaven to me. Watching old Hitchcock films, talking about them and writing about them? Can you believe I’m getting a degree in this??! There was an issue with the requirements for the class though; I didn’t have enough credits. No matter; I appealed directly to Professor Allen, made my case, and was admitted in the Spring of 95, my second college semester.
Years later, I was talking with my friend Steve (who now has a doctorate in Cinema Studies, is a tenured professor, and is much smarter than I am), and he mentioned how he thought this was such a ballsy move. “You had no business being in that class,” he laughed. “Some freshman who just thought he’d bluff his way into an advanced seminar!”
And he’s not wrong! Somehow I conned my way into it, with the confidence of someone who couldn’t imagine any other outcome. I loved that class, but it was tough work, much of it instantly over my head. Yet I loved it. There was a divide between Film/TV Production kids (my major) and Cinema Studies students. A classic Sharks vs Jets situation, as Production people looked down on Studies people because they didn’t actually make art, man, they just criticize other people’s work (not true). Meanwhile, Cinema Studies people disliked Production people because they thought we were all pretentious Tarantino wannabes (mostly true).
But the Hitchcock Seminar was legit. Richard Allen had already taught my Intro to Film class, one of the few core criticism classes required for Film Production, and I loved it. On the first day, I’m guessing just to piss us off, he showed John Ford’s My Darling Clementine, a brilliant, moving masterpiece that is also impossibly dated and silly to unprepared modern audiences. It took me another twenty years to appreciate Clementine, and I remember being bored on that first day.
Allen was delightful, a British professor who took long pauses and stammered while he searched for the perfect word to describe the mise-en-scene of a particular film. He was straight out of central casting for a kooky film school professor. Allen was such a cult figure that one time, when the school was setting up for a conference, I stole his nametag off a table because I enjoyed imagining his befuddlement. But Allen also loved movies and that love was infectious, even if he came across as slightly ridiculous. He showed up in tons of student films and projects (including my own). He was a caricature, a visionary, and a scholar. And for the first class, he didn’t hesitate. He threw us into the deep end with his favorite Hitchcock movie, one of the director’s most studied movies: Marnie.
In 1962, Alfred Hitchcock was riding high off the success of Psycho, which had been a make-or-break moment for the director. For years he’d been making big-budget travelogue films and top-flight entertainment, yet he knew a younger generation considered him passé. In 1960, inspired and challenged by the French film Diabolique and low-budget horror films of the day, Hitchcock delivered Psycho, an audacious tour-de-force that embraced new techniques while shattering both narrative convention and box office records. The dual success of this film, and the Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV series, meant that Hitchcock was now the most famous film director in the world.
But what to do for a followup? For reasons known only to himself, he chose to begin work on an adaptation of Winston Graham’s novel Marnie. More importantly, he set his sights on landing Grace Kelly to star in the film as the title character. In 1955 Kelly had met Prince Rainier of Monaco and they married in 1956, effectively ending her screen career. Kelly was the perfect screen blonde for Hitchcock; breathtakingly beautiful yet also an accomplished (and underrated) actress who could seem both cool and alluring. Hitchcock only worked with her on three films (Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, and To Catch a Thief) yet it’s clear that she was his ideal actress. The role of Marnie was an incredibly difficult part, and there are rumors that Kelly was interested, but it never happened. Some have claimed that Kelly was legally bound to MGM and wouldn’t have been able to work for Hitchcock even if she wanted to, but this seems preposterous; Hitchcock was always willing to make deals with studio heads for talent.
More likely is the fact that the part was so lurid that the people of Monaco (or Prince Rainier himself), wouldn’t consent to their Princess playing such a role. Or maybe Kelly relished the attention but had no intention of throwing over her royal title for a return to Hollywood.
Either way, Hitchcock was discouraged and set Marnie aside. In 1963 he directed The Birds, which pushed his embrace of new techniques to the limit as he employed tremendous special effects, a non-musical “score’ of bird effects, and almost abstract sense of editing to represent the winged menace. It’s a brilliant, harsh film of almost pure cinema where dialogue, character, and story are all but irrelevant.
Which is makes Marnie (1964) so strange. For a film about theft, secret identities, rape, and psychological & sexual abuse, it’s very old-fashioned even for 1964. Gone are the innovative Saul Bass title sequences of Vertigo, North by Northwest, and Psycho; in their place is a 1940s-style glossy sequence where names are printed on title cards and revealed by hand. There’s no way that this wouldn’t be seen as a self-conscious throwback to audiences in 1964. The rest of the film is equally, stubbornly old-fashioned with gorgeous camerawork offset by laughably fake backdrops & rear projections. Some critics have argued that this was a conscious choice by Hitchcock, and I’m tempted to believe them. Perhaps he was creating a world of artifice that fit in with the effects used to simulate Marnie’s psychological repression. Or maybe he just didn’t care anymore; he was the biggest name in the business and he’d make his movie however the hell he wanted. His cameo in this film (Hitchcock made a cameo in almost all of his feature films) is his most obvious and teasing: he walks out of a hotel room, looks right at the camera, and then acts like he’s embarrassed. This is the cameo appearance of a man with zero fucks to give.
Marnie is a flawed, sexual horror show of a movie, wrapped up in an exquisite package. Bernard Herrmann (arguably the best composer in Hollywood history) wrote a lush, extravagant score that echoes his treatment for Vertigo, cinematographer Robert Banks delivers technicolor magic behind the camera, and costume designer Edith Head drapes the character of Marnie in custom suits & gowns. While Psycho and The Birds saw the coming of a new era and embraced it, Marnie is a self-aware rebuke to modern cinema and culture.
The film starts with Marnie (Tippi Hedren), a young woman embezzling money from a lecherous employer. She then changes her hair, has a very upsetting conversation with her mother, and starts a new job for Mark Rutland (Sean Connery), who knows her previous employer and suspects she’s up to no good. However Rutland is attracted to her because of her “abnormal” behavior, and he catches her stealing from the company. He then blackmails her into marrying him, all the while assuring her that she’ll fall in love with him even though she finds all men repellent. In a scene that we’ll talk much more about, Rutland rapes her on their honeymoon, then continues to try to find out what’s wrong with Marnie. Finally it’s revealed that Marnie’s mother used to be a prostitute and one night when a john got out of hand, a young Marnie killed him with a fireplace poker in an attempt to protect her mother. Hence the mother’s complicated relationship and Marnie’s own fear of men and sexual psychosis.
For lead actor, Hitchcock cast Sean Connery, who was eager to act in roles that showed he was more than just James Bond (by this point he’d already acted in Dr. No and From Russia With Love; Goldfinger would appear on screens just months after Marnie). For the lead actress, Hitchcock went with the woman he’d discovered for The Birds, Tippi Hedren. Hitchcock saw her on a television ad and liked her enough to film a test with Martin Balsam where we can hear Hitch talking behind the camera. In many interviews and books, people refer to Hitchcock’s “British” sense of humor, or how he liked to tease actresses to get a rise out of them, all in the name of improving their performances. It’s all so lighthearted, so blushing, so genteel. Tee-hee!
However, in this clip a different image emerges; that of Hitchcock the dirty old man. This is a man in a position of power over a woman and enjoying it, forcing her to chuckle at his little sexual innuendoes. I love Alfred Hitchcock, but this is upsetting stuff.
And sadly, as an actress Tippi Hedren just isn’t up to the demands of the story. Marnie requires that this character be instantly irresistible, both to the lecherous men who hire her with no qualifications and to Mark Rutland who falls in love with her for no discernible reason, other than the difficulty of her conquest. Which is fine for a fetish story but it’s a hard thing to hang a romantic redemption movie on. Hitchcock’s instincts were correct that Grace Kelly could have nailed this role as both an object of desire and a calculating thief who exploits her beauty to her advantage. As it is, Hedren often feels like a child at the adult’s table, and to be fair, this was only her second screen role. And she’s shouldering the brunt of a complex psychological mystery almost entirely on her own. Hitchcock, perhaps blinded by his discovery of Hedren or his power over her (she was under professional contract to Hitchcock), sabotaged his own movie through poor casting.
Yet the most problematic part of the movie by far is the scene that Hitchcock apparently loved the most. Spoiler: it’s the rape scene. In the movie, Rutland (Connery) is trying to deal with Marnie’s aversion to men, and on their shipboard honeymoon he promises not to touch her. Yet a few scenes later, drunk, he ominously declares that “he wants to go to bed,” and rips her clothing off. According to Evan Hunter, who wrote the first draft of the script, Hitchcock even gleefully described how he wanted to film the scene:
Hitch held up his hands the way directors do when they’re framing a shot. Palms out, fingers together, thumbs extended and touching to form a perfect square. Moving his hands toward my face, like a camera coming in for a close shot, he said, “Evan, when he sticks it in her, I want that camera right on her face.”
Hunter would later be fired from the project, probably because of his reluctance to write the rape scene. Interestingly, female screenwriter Jay Presson Allen, had no qualms about writing this scene, and ended up with the onscreen credit. And I’m not saying “oh, it can’t be a rape scene if a woman wrote it” or anything like that, but it’s curious to think about what a woman brought to this story.
Hitchcock has a bad reputation with a lot of modern filmgoers and critics, and it’s not undeserved. Yet I do think that, for the most part, you can make a case for the women in his films. Yes, Hitchcock is obsessed with blonde women, sure. But so what? That only affects the narrative in two films: Marnie and Vertigo. Hitchcock made popular big-screen entertainments where the guy gets the girl and everything is all right in the end. And many of those movies were populated by, if not feminist roles, then at least examples of the type of women that Molly Haskell talked about in From Reverence to Rape: strong, self-possessed women who are more than just arm candy. Ingrid Bergman in Notorious. Nova Pilbeam in Young and Innocent. Grace Kelly in Rear Window and To Catch a Thief. The list goes on and on.
Somewhere there is an alternate-universe version of Marnie that’s a feminist classic. With just a few tweaks, it becomes a searing expose of how men use women, and how a mother & daughter finally reconcile and find peace. A film where a man is murdered but no one goes to jail, and Marnie herself steals from countless lecherous businessmen with no jail time. It even passes the Bechdel test, multiple times! The sequences from Marnie’s point of view elegantly communicate how difficult it was to be a woman in 1964, and how all these impossible expectations (both societal and sexual) are forced on her from an early age. Marnie’s reconciliation with her mother is the film’s central core, and this resolution, while too neat to truly explain such psychological damage, is nonetheless extremely moving. It’s great stuff.
But then there’s Mark Rutland, and that rape scene, filmed exactly as Hitchcock described. It’s shot like a horror movie, as though Rutland were possessed and later came to his senses. It would be fitting if this was the act of the villain in the movie, as it confirms all of Marnie’s fears. Yet this is the ostensible protagonist, the man who solves the psychological mystery, the man who tames and frees Marnie. And what’s strange is that the movie is aware of the damage is causes; the morning after the rape Marnie tries to kill herself. The film makes it clear that Mark can’t help Marnie by forcing himself on her, that she won’t start to “enjoy it” (As many other movies have done. Straw Dogs, I’m looking at you). If you removed this scene from the film, the whole thing becomes a thousand times less problematic.
But you can’t remove it, because it’s there, because Hitchcock wanted it there. I’m not here to speculate about Alfred Hitchcock’s sexual fetishes and peccadillos; there’s a whole cottage industry of books about this ranging, ranging from the reputable to the sleazy and everything in between. Still, it’s well documented that this rape scene was the big moment for him, the reason he wanted to make Marnie in the first place.
The spring of 1995 in that class was the first time I saw Marnie. I remember the excitement of the day. I had finished my first semester, taking a lot of core classes but still fooling around, learning the ins and outs of technical production and cinema studies.
Now I had bluffed my way into the big time, meeting with Richard Allen and making my case that I should be allowed into an advanced seminar just because I was young, eager, and I loved Hitchcock. I remember walking down Broadway, entering the Tisch School of the Arts building, walking past the lackadaisical security guards, and taking the rickety elevator to the sixth floor. It was a small, windowless classroom with maybe twenty chairs, a table, and a large screen with a video projector. I arrived early and nervous but full of the confidence that comes with being eighteen years old and not knowing any better.
And then we jumped into the class, really jumped into it, with a talk about the use of color in Marnie. I didn’t even touch on this, even though Marnie is probably Hitchcock’s best use of color in any of his films (yes, even Vertigo! Settle down!). His color palettes were always remarkably controlled and confined and Marnie is a superb example as Tippi Hedren is constantly dressed in faded earth tones that threaten to disappear into the wallpaper. She’s hiding from everyone, so when we see the pops of red that trigger her flashbacks, the red itself practically jumps off the screen.
Strangely I don’t remember a lot of discussion about the rape scene, although we had plenty of spirited feminist discussions in later classes. I’m certainly embarrassed that I didn’t think more of it at the time. Even now it’s something I’m struggling with, as I almost feel ashamed to be writing this year-long project about a director I love more than any other, even though he painstakingly committed this atrocity on film. That complexity is something I haven’t made peace with.
My time in New York in the 1990s, living with a socialist roommate in the East Village and being exposed to the whirlwind of culture in Manhattan, helped make me into the liberal person that I am today. It also imbued me with a semi-straight-edge sense of right and wrong. Don’t sell out. Good is good, bad is bad, and that’s the way it is. Fuck the man. There’s no black or white. It’s still my go-to position, even as that pure-hearted aesthetic gets harder and harder to hold onto as you get older. Not because I’m getting more conservative, but because you’re aware of the compromises we all make, on a daily basis. Life isn’t that easy or that simple.
I can’t close my heart off to Alfred Hitchcock and the joy of his films. I just can’t. I can’t let go of the thrill of the booming overture to North by Northwest, or Thelma Ritter’s quips in Rear Window, or the sad ironic fate of Mr. Memory in The 39 Steps. These moments, and the work Hitchcock created, are part of my memory, part of me, part of who I am and what I became when I sat in that tiny classroom with a British madman who thrilled at the possibilities of cinema.
But I also can’t condone Marnie. It’s an almost brilliant film, an almost terrific statement about how men drive women to madness and murder. Yet it’s also a movie that uses a rape scene as a plot point, and even though it ultimately shows how pointless the act was, it doesn’t condemn the man who did it. That’s not acceptable now, nor in 1964, nor at any time. Marnie is a movie about how violence against women destroys families and mental states; it’s a shame it doesn’t hold its own characters to that logic.
Watch It: Marnie is not available on any streaming services (Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, HBO). It is available to rent or buy on iTunes or Amazon Prime, and can be found at almost any existing rental store or library collection.
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