I consider Marnie to be the last truly great Alfred Hitchcock film. It is also in a way, simultaneously a Hitchcock film that does fit his usual thriller formula and a film that is Hitchcock’s formula unleashed.
Marnie stars Tippi Hendren as a woman who is a compulsive thief and liar. This brings her to the attention of Sean Connery’s Mark Rutland who is the client of her current target. Marnie makes her way to Philadelphia (my home) to make make Rutland next. Despite a new alias and disguise, Rutland recognizes Marnie and plays along eventually blackmailing her into marrying him to keep quiet about her crimes.
You learn very quick that Marnie seems to be facing some demons. She’s terrified of thunder and lightning. She also freezes at the sight of the color red. So what we think is going to be a thriller on if a thief will get caught, we are given a journey to uncovering a woman’s tragedy.
Typically when the discussion comes up of the performances of actresses in Hitchcock films, we’ll discuss Grace Kelly, Janet Leigh, Kim Novak and even go back to Joan Fontaine in Rebecca. However Tippi Hedren gives one of the best acting performances in any of his films. A lot of the other players were in iconic roles, but Hedren displays so many varying degrees of emotional fragility and never once does the acting feel over the top as it could be in a movie on this subject. Seeing Sean Connery in a role during his Bond years makes it hard to separate the characters. Rutland feels like James Bond. Yet this didn’t ruin the picture. It was just a case of a star being a star. This would prove useful when it comes to a vital scene halfway through.
The scene where Rutland assaults Marnie is shocking and because it occurs halfway through, you wonder how does the audience get through the rest of picture? Even though Mark now genuinely wants to help Marnie confront what’s been haunting her, we have this terrible knowledge. The answer was a surprising one from the screenwriter Jay Presson Allen (who I did not know was a woman until I watched the special features on the dvd). Allen says that she expected the audience to forgive this character’s transgressions because he was played by Sean Connery. This just gives major insight into the role star power played even as that classic Hollywood era was winding down.
Horses play a role in the story of Marnie. Before Rutland makes the change to help Marnie, he treats Marnie as a horse meant to be broken. As we approach the 3rd act of the film, Marnie has a terrible accident with a horse that requires her to shoot it. That act represents the film finally breaking away from the idea that Marnie doesn’t need training, but rather help.
For as much as Hitchcock had no problem with inserting sex into his films, he always did it slyly despite it still being obvious. Here he puts sex and sexual violence on full display here. This is what I meant by saying it’s both not your usual Hitchcock film and Hitchcock unleashed. Marnie makes a great double feature with The Birds, his prior film with Hedren. In The Birds, Hedren’s character represents sexual freedom and the response of fighting against that. With Marnie, Hedren’s character is the consequence of sexual assault. I’m sure there are far more academic writings on this than mine.
Marnie really does feel like the close of an era for Alfred Hitchcock. Yet he closes out his prime years with one of his most psychologically complex films that is anchored by a truly great performance.