Tuesday, January 29, 2008
Whenever Alfred Hitchcock indulged his intense interest in Freudian psychoanalysis, as he did to greater and lesser degrees in many of his films, it always promised a truly bizarre experience. It's thus no surprise that Marnie, one of his strangest films, is also probably his most overtly psychological, even including the psychoanalytic thriller Spellbound, which in comparison seems positively down-to-earth. Marnie opens as though it's a conventional thriller, with a mysterious woman, seen only from behind at first, leaving the scene of a robbery where she stole $10,000 from her employer shades of Psycho, and the woman is even named Marion, just like Janet Leigh's Marion Crane. The opening sequence of the film is masterfully orchestrated, from the first shot after the titles, a closeup on this woman's bright yellow bag, slowly pulling back to watch her walk along a train platform, to the hotel room scene where she changes her identity, removes the black dye from her hair, and is finally revealed in a closeup. This is Marnie (Tippi Hedren), and her introduction, with the sustained mystery about her identity and the intrigue of the robbery and fake IDs, is a classic Hitchcock setup.
That the film starts in such classic suspense territory only to retreat into a dark character study of tortured psychology and manipulation, might have been a surprise to the few people who bothered to show up for this flop at the time, unless of course they'd already seen Vertigo a few years earlier. Indeed, Marnie is structured, in some superficial ways, much like its spiritual predecessor in Hitch's oeuvre. In both films, the first hour or so is essentially a thriller/mystery with a man tracking and trying to understand a woman, before a pivotal change thrusts the male protagonist (Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo, Sean Connery here) into an ambiguous, cold, and psychologically fraught relationship with the target of his pursuit. The differences, though, are perhaps more profound. Whereas in Vertigo Stewart's character is central to the narrative, here Connery is definitely a secondary figure, a businessman who all but forces Marnie to marry him in order to "protect" her from committing further crimes or getting in trouble for the ones she's already committed. Connery's struggle to understand Marnie is sidelined; Marnie herself is the film's center. In this sense, Marnie might be thought of as an answer to Vertigo's Madeleine, who is only ever seen voyeuristically, through the eyes of a male viewer. Marnie, though still a sex object to be possessed, is at least privileged as the center of the narrative and the film's subject; the film shows her unfiltered by her pursuer's gaze in a way that Vertigo never does.
Nevertheless, Marnie also finds Hitchcock revisiting the necrophiliac theme that underlies Vertigo's second half, here in a chilly (and chilling) scene in which the sexless Marnie finally gives in to her new husband's advances on their honeymoon. Hedren's blank-faced stare, flawless makeup, and carefully pinned hair make her look like a mannequin, a doll, as Connery embraces her and kisses her unmoving face. It's a deeply unsettling scene, with Hitchcock cutting around the immobile Marnie, shooting from odd angles that accentuate the hard lines of her face and her stasis as Connery engulfs her. The marriage's consummation is implied with a shot of Marnie's head moving backward, the camera tracking with her, followed by a shot of Connery that zooms in on his eyes. Hitch then discreetly pans away towards the window, but the lingering distastefulness of this frigid sex scene nevertheless leaves its impact.
The marriage between Connery and Hedren is fraught with these kinds of scenes, so unsettling because they so thoroughly upset the idea of what marriage should be like. At times, it seems like Hitch himself is even sympathetic to the paranoid Marnie's terror of the opposite sex and her disgust with sexual relations, and Connery's character often comes across manipulative and conniving. His marriage to Hedren, though in some ways selfless and even weirdly loving, is tainted by more than a hint of sexual blackmail, as he himself acknowledges to her, and whatever his intentions he becomes one more in a long line of men using women for sex. When Marnie exclaims, "I'm just something you've caught! You think I'm some sort of wild animal you've trapped," Connery coolly replies that she's right: "I've tracked you and caught you and by God I'm going to keep you." This predatory view of sexual relations is maintained throughout the film (up until the predictable cop-out ending), and subtly echoed in the scene where Marnie goes out on a hunt and witnesses a pack of dogs snarling and gathering around some prey.
Obviously, the film is rich in such subtextual psychological and sociological dimensions, and in this regard Marnie is fascinating, subject to almost endless unpacking of its underlying themes. On a surface level, though, the Freudian content of the film can often be distracting. Hitchcock's dedication to Freud's theories is such that he attempts to make dramatic twists and plot points out of Freudian interpretation, much as he did in Spellbound, and it doesn't work any better here than it did there. The tracing back of Marnie's problems with men and sexual frigidness to a childhood trauma, besides being a lamentable cliché, is a remarkably shallow and surface-level application of psychology, especially for a director who in other ways, even in the same film, shows a tremendous understanding of psychological nuance. The film's second act, after the marriage, increasingly delves into this kind of pop-Freudianism, with Marnie's attacks of repressed memory indicated by a red filter flashing over the image, and Connery and Hedren engaging in endless discussions of psychology, even conducting a free-association session that turns into a predictable breakdown. The film's resolution, in which Marnie's repressed feelings and coldness are "cured" by an act of remembrance and confrontation, is a pat solution that doesn't do anything to suggest the great complexity of the human mind and its workings.
Despite these flaws, Marnie remains an oddly compelling work from Hitchcock, at least partly because its examination of warped sexual feelings is more potent than the dialogue's often glib discussion of Freudian principles will admit. If the film's ending suggests, Hollywood-style, that even a lifetime of psychological pain can be cured by the power of love, there is much else in the film to counter that love itself can be part of the problem rather than the solution. This contradictory film has a lot more going on under its surface than Freud could ever explain, and it's consequently far more interesting for what Hitchcock shows than for what he has his characters say.