d. Alfred Hitchcock / USA / 130 mins.
The one thing people seem to agree upon when it comes to Alfred Hitchcock's Marnie is that it's a fascinating movie; everything else is up for grabs. It's perhaps the most critically divisive of his fifty-one feature films, which alone makes it mandatory viewing. It was derided upon its release as hokey, meandering, and simplistic; it's been given second life by Hitchcock aficionados who, in remeasuring the Master's legacy, declare it neo-expressionistic, psychologically complex, and cinematically influential. The two most famous takes on it come from Pauline Kael and Robin Wood. Kael said it was "Hitchcock scraping bottom" and "hardly seems worth the trouble." Wood, wading consciously into hyperbole, said, "If you don't like Marnie, you don't like Hitchcock. If you don't love Marnie, you don't love cinema."
I'm somewhere in the middle. I don't think you can say, as Kael does, that Marnie is Hitchcock at the bottom until you've seen Torn Curtain and Topaz, released within the following five years. Unlike Wood, I think the socially responsible thing for Hitchcock (and film) lovers to do is approach this film with a right blend of reverence and skepticism. But what lover of cinema can't help but be fascinated by a film that's simultaneously lauded for harkening back to Hitchcock's roots as a title designer during the silent era of filmmaking in Germany, and conversely accused of being sloppy, lazy, shallow, and overtly artificial?
Throughout this retrospective on Hitchcock, I've placed emphasis on his collaborative nature, the names and talent that he used from film to film, particularly in his 1950s powerhouse heyday. Marnie is the end of the line for many of those collaborations. It was the last film edited for Hitchcock by George Tomasini, who died shortly after its release; it was the last film shot by cinematographer Robert Burks, who did not work with Hitchcock on Torn Curtain and died in a house fire on 1968;
For a director interested in staircases and all their metaphorical treats, it's fitting that his career should wind down in a way that mimics a stair-step descent. Psycho is his last masterpiece, his grand experiment and the film for which he will forever be remembered. The Birds was his final great thriller, the sort of movie that isn't flawless but is as good as any non-masterpiece that reflects the sort of high-quality production that most of his films possess. Marnie, for all intents and purposes, is the last Hitchcock film Hitchcock made. Everything else afterward — four more films, to be exact — wouldn't have the same twisted soul.
Tippi Hedren — fresh off Hitchcock's previous film, The Birds — is the titular Marnie, a kleptomaniac with a fear of thunderstorms and the color red who bounces from town to town, dyeing her hair and acquiring jobs as secretaries in order to swindle thousands from different companies. Her thieving streak runs afoul when she encounters Mark Rutland (Sean Connery), a widower who ranks in a printing company. Rutland is intrigued by Marnie's mania (actually, intrigued might be too soft a word; it's outright fetishistic) and blackmails her into marriage. Love, then you might say, is not the modus operandi. Mark approaches Marnie from his classically trained zoological past and his own psychological position, intent on curing her, even to the point of forcing her to attempt to overcome issues by raping her on their honeymoon.
Evan Hunter, the author of the first draft of the screenplay, was possibly fired because he was too disturbed by the rape scene, which was the essential element Hitchcock latched onto in Winston Graham's 1961 novel of the same name; when he wouldn't write it to Hitchcock's specifications, he was apparently let go. Hitchcock's wife, Alma, suggested the director bring a woman onto finish the screenplay, and thus Jay Presson Allen joined up. Hitchcock relished her straightforwardness, and she became one of his many co-worker crushes. Allen herself is the proponent of one of the theories as to why the film doesn't succeed like the director's others: "He loved what I wrote, he shot what I wrote, and he shouldn't have."
In other words, the light Hitchcockian touch was replaced with a Hitchcockian sledgehammer. As Marnie stands, things are Hitchcock-turned-to-eleven: characters reeling from tumultuous sexual psychology and begging to be analyzed to their Freudian extremes; dueling forces of dominance and submission; the obsession with blondes and the latent misogyny; the suspense, the melodrama, and the bizarre expressionism; and its utterly unclassifiable existence. The result, however, is somewhat unexpected. Because the director's themes and motifs are cranked up to their loudest setting, they tend to drown out the simple underlying mechanics of the movie. And for being so provocative, it's also a bit stuffy. There are a few great scenes, proving Hitchcock hadn't lost all his magic. A perfectly constructed shoeless theft by Marnie, for example, is about as suspenseful as anything else in Hitchcock's canon. But the good is slightly off-balanced by the strange, including pretty much everything about the ending.
Hitchcock was a man who had to settle perpetually in his career — he never snagged Gary Cooper for Foreign Correspondent, he never convinced the studio to give him William Holden for Strangers on a Train — but still, he often made the best of what he had. One of the curious aspects of his later films, however, is the profound and tangible sense of settling. The job of an actor is often to stand in for something larger, but many of his later films have actors who feel like they're also standing in for other actors, a sense that can mar a film from the start. Bond-era Connery and post-Birds Hedren do adequate jobs in performing roles Hitchcock clearly envisioned for Cary Grant and Grace Kelly. But this time, Kelly wasn't merely a pipe-dream for Hitchcock. She had been wanting to get back into a film, and her husband, Prince Rainier, signed off on the project. Without politics and contracts, she might have actually ended up in the film, but the citizens of Monaco (angry at the film's sex-charged themes) and MGM (who demanded Kelly return to fulfill her commitments to them if she was going to work for other studios) essentially nixed the deal. My bias is, like Hitchcock, to Kelly; I've never found Hedren to be an engaging screen presence, and with Marnie she's not even particularly convincing. It's unfair to the film to wonder what Kelly would have brought to it, but there is this undeniable feeling in me that the right level of subtlety on Kelly's part could have positively counterbalanced the heft of the expressionism.
Still, I hold firm to my original statement. Two factors make Marnie mandatory viewing, regardless of how you feel about it in the end: the divisiveness among critics and scholars, and the fact that it's Hitchcock's final film before he moved into the final stage of his career. It's flawed, but it's not void of entertainment. There are some wonderful set pieces, though not enough to save the entire film. It might not be the masterwork some claim it is, but it's also too often unfairly dismissed simply for not being as good as his forays into psychological realms.
09 May 2009
d. Alfred Hitchcock / USA / 130 mins.