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.


DavidEhrenstein said...

Fascinating from first to last, especially as the first thing we see on screen is a close up of a vagina.

Yes, it's a woman's handbag, but come on !

I've always taken the pop Freudianism much like Simon Oakland's third act aria in Psycho. In trying to "explain" -- even "explain away" -- nothing is truly explained.

What's haunting about the film is the oddly underpopulated world it shows (remindful of th twilight Paris of Rivette's Duelle) There's no one but Marnie on that railway station platform in the first scene. Outside of a party few people come to the house. Mark's office seems underinhabited as well. And then there's the street where Marnie's mother lives with that big painting of a ship at the back.

Almost The Cabinet of Dr. Hitchcock in a way.

Marc Raymond said...

I think the film is far more sophisticated in its Freudian aspects, especially if you are familiar with the notion of counter-transference. One of the key lines in the film is Marnie asking Mark, "What about your dreams, daddy dear?" Mark is one of the more troubling protagonists in the history of American film (and has any other director but Hitchcock given us more), from the relationship with his father (note the mise-en-scene of the father's first appearance on top of the staircase, not unlike the mise-en-scene between Scottie and Elster in VERTIGO) to his desire to control the "deviant" Marnie.

And while it may be debatable, I think the sex scene you describe is not Marnie giving into Mark; it is a rape. In fact, the rape scene was apparently one of the reasons Hitchcock wanted to do the film, and fired Evan Hunter (screenwriter of THE BIRDS) as a result and replaced hIM with a woman (Jay Presson Allen) who haD had the guts to write the scene Hitchcock wanted (check out the making-of doc on the DVD). All that said, I also agree with Robin Wood that Mark does change by the end of the film, and I also think the end is far from pat (did the sailor really intend to molest Marnie?). Apparently Victor Perkins once asked the following exam question on the film: Does Mark cure Marnie? Obviously, he felt the answer was hardly straightforward, otherwise it would be a short exam.

One of my favorite Hitchcock films, and also one in which, maybe for the first time, Hitchcock almost deliberately chose to alienate his audience to try to compete with European art cinema (before making THE BIRDS and MARNIE, Hitchcock apparently had been screening Antonioni and other European films of the time, and this was also the time when Hitchcock's reputation as we know it today was beginning to take shape). Robert Kapsis offers a useful reception history of the film in his HITCHCOCK: THE MAKING OF A REPUTATION.

In addition to Wood, there is a great piece on the film from a feminist perspective by Michele Piso, "Mark's Marnie" which is available in the collection A HITCHCOCK READER (1986).

Ed Howard said...

The opening railway station is also notable for its eerie quiet and stillness -- I mean, it's a train station with two trains visible on the nearby tracks, but there's no train noise, just the click of Marnie's heels on the platform. I know a lot of people don't like the artificiality of that big boat painting, but it's definitely in keeping with the heavily stylized environments of the film as a whole. There's also the scene on the boat, when Mark goes running around looking for Marnie, and the entire boat seems to be devoid of life.

It's a great film, despite my reservations about the second-half explanations, which also bothered me at the end of Psycho. Hitch seemed to lack some confidence in his ability to get across his ideas and characters without resorting to these kinds of surface explanations. It may have been a necessary attitude for him to take in relation to a mass audience, and may be why Vertigo, in which the psychological underpinnings are obvious but unexplained, was such a flop at the time. The Birds also completely lacks this explanatory impulse, but in that case character psychology isn't much of a concern in the film at all.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks for your comments as well, Marc. You're right of course that the sex scene is a rape -- although that doesn't contradict the fact that Marnie essentially gives in by going distant and turning herself into an immobile doll. She's clearly not a willing participant at all. It's also interesting how Hermann's score accompanies this scene with a sweeping romantic theme, an obvious ironic commentary on what's happening, as is Hitch's discreet pan away to the window, usually a whimsical gesture associated with more traditional love scenes.

The second half of the film contains some very interesting tension, in my opinion, between the elements that are left ambiguous and the surface attempts to explain and psychoanalyze Marnie. It's definitely to Hitchcock's credit that the film allows for much more complex readings than Mark's Freudian dialogue would suggest. You raise some interesting points about the end, and I'd particularly be interested in hearing how you think Mark has changed. Throughout the film he seems to vacillate between genuine concern for Marnie and a more predatory sexual desire, a complicated mixture that I don't really think is resolved by the ending. After all, his quest to cure Marnie is hardly selfless, since presumably once she's cured she'll finally be willing to have sex with him. Though the ending has quite a sunny tone, those unresolved undercurrents are still lurking underneath.

Marc Raymond said...

As far as Mark is concerned, at the conclusion he states that: "When a child cannot get love, it takes what it can get. It's not that hard to understand." I may be slightly misquoting. Although he is talking about Marnie, I think it can be read as also being about himself. Also note that the children are still singing that song, "mother, mother, I am ill, send for the doctor over the hill."

I see the film as very Lacanian, suggesting that the notion of a pure "cure" is impossible because the very act of splitting from the imaginary into the symbolic (which is passing into language and the creation of desire that is unfulfillable) means unified identity is a myth. We will always be alienated. The best we can hope for is to understand and come to terms with this. To the extend that Mark changes, I think it may be his recognition of his own weakness. It is only then that he can help Marnie confront her own. I've always found Marnie's admission about her being a thief and a liar but being "decent" (ie asexual) very moving. Love Hedren in this film and THE BIRDS as well.

To answer Perkins question, I don't think Mark cures Marnie, but that he helps her recognize her psychological problems while beginning to, however implicitly, recognize his own.

Marilyn said...

Ed, You mention Marnie as a companion piece to several other films Hitch produced, but what immediately sprang to mind for me was a combination of Luis Bunuel's El and Viridiana. It's apparent how influenced Hitch was by Bunuel, going so far as to rip off the belltower scene in El for Vertigo.

I think Hitch strove to break out of his sexual repression, using the free-wheeling delight Bunuel always had for sexual perversions as a template, but unable to find a psychological breakthrough for himself. Thus, the heavyhanded Freudianism of so many of his films, this one the most overt of them all, IMO. I think this is what makes Marnie so problematic for me.

I've come to appreciate it much more over the years, but its refusal to allow these two people to be sexually free has created frustration in me as well. The rape scenes in Viridiana and Marnie are both deeply disturbing, as well as their result--an acquiescence to male authority.

But Hitch refuses to deal with the trauma of this marital rape, deflecting criticism to Marnie's childhood trauma. Viridiana mirrors Connery's fall from grace as a pure helper/healer. Both characters get a comeuppance--a very brutal one in Viridiana's case but one truly did unleash her true nature--but Connery is pretty much let off the hook.

Ultimately, Bunuel could live with his contradictions as a Catholic and a surrealist. Hitch, the ultimate control freak, had to have an answer for everything, even as he hinted at something deeper.

DavidEhrenstein said...

You're quite right about the deflection, Marilyn. Hitchcock was fascinated by rape, but not all that interested in its consequences (see Frenzy)

Makr does change after Marnie's suicide attempt. He starts to see her as a person rather than a wild animal he's trapped (as she so wisely observes.)

Marilyn said...

But is this change really enough? Has he given up his superior position? Maybe he can only see her for herself because he thinks he cured her. If she had remained as before, I venture to guess that he would have despised her for his failure.

I think Hitchcock wanted Mark to become a better man, but I don't think he really executed it.

DavidEhrenstein said...

True, but he seems to be making a start. That's all we can expect at this point. For Mark to become a mensch overnight would be too much.

Amidst all the extreme stylization Diane Baker's character stands out as quasi-naturalistic. She's a caustic version of Midge in Vertigo, with a bit of Suzanne Pleshette in The Birds,.

Ed Howard said...

I rewatched the opening few scenes again tonight. Maybe it's just the power of suggestion, but damn it that bag really does look incredibly vaginal, especially in the longer shot as Marnie walks away. I'll never be able to look at handbags the same way again.

Is the bright yellow also a signifier that the Hitchcock blonde is lurking somewhere nearby? Indeed, Marnie doesn't even get her identity, really, until she removes the black dye and becomes a blonde again -- only then do we finally see her from the front, as she shakes her wet blonde hair away from her face. It's a perfect opening.

DavidEhrenstein said...

It certainly is -- and incredibly glamorous too. Herrmann's swelling score rises as Tippi tips her face up into the camera. A true goddess.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Marnie also pivots on Hitch's ambivalence about stars. He felt Psycho proved he didn't need them. Yet as anyone who loves his films knows some of his best work came about when he could play a solid star persona (Grant, Stewart, Bergman) against the thriller plots he'd create for them.

He wanted Grace Kelly for Marnie and BEGGED her to come out of retirement for him. But she refused. One can easily see from both To Catch a Thief andRear Window what a Kelly Marnie might have been like.

Tippi Hedren was his very elaborate and complex attempt to create his very own star. He succeeded -- but she still wasn't Grace Kelly. In a way it's a real life version of Scottie in the second half of Vertigo trying to turn Judy into Madeleine.

The gossip in Donald Spoto's book has been wildly overplayed. She's been very professional about it, but I doubt what happened between them was as Spoto suggested. Hitchcock's feelings about both Hendre and the character she was playing shifted about during the film's making, and you can see the results right there. Marnie is a deeply ambivalent film.

BTW, have you ever seen the costume tests Hitch created for Hedren? They're really something. You can hear him giving her simple "Now move over there" directions and everything.

Pacze Moj said...

What always strikes me about Marnie -- and I stay away from the psychoanalysis! -- is the artificiality of it: from the images of Marnie's childhood home to the Marnie riding her horse, it's all so obviously fake. And not by accident, I'm sure.

Someone mentioned woman as dolls and Frenzy, and you get that artificial quality there, too.

Jason Bellamy said...

Ed: I watched MARNIE the other day for the first time; it had been one of those lingering Hitchcock omissions. What a movie! Instantly in my top 10 Hitchcocks, which is saying something.

Good review and discussion here, as expected. One thing I was thinking about that didn't get touched on in the comments here has to do with this passage:

"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."

My question is: I realize Freud, etc, is self-standing psychology. But when did the 'hidden childhood trauma that unlocks everything' become a cinematic cliche, I wonder. I don't mean to imply it was in MARNIE. But obviously since MARNIE this has become a go-to device for TV and movie screenwriters. By comparison, at least, back then it must have felt daringly original.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks for weighing in, Jason, good to hear from you! Marnie is definitely a fascinating one, and despite my reservations about the film's psychology and its ending, I do like it quite a lot. It's one of Hitch's most formally interesting films, and very rich in its contradictory characterizations and themes, as well.

You bring up a good point in that what seems to us most dated about the film now - its now-hackneyed "childhood trauma" theme - may well have played much differently at the time, before pop-psych interpretations of Freud became de-rigeur at the box office. Regardless, I still find this aspect of the film fairly unfortunate, as it shrugs off Mark's manipulation of Marnie and Marnie's own complex psychology for a pretty simple explanation of what made her the way she is.

Brian Dauth said...

I just re-watched MARNIE last evening and the Freudian take did not bother for once in a Hitchcock film since the behavior shown is mostly spot on and not dependent on a Freudian understanding of personality. Though it is dangerous to psychoanalyze a two-dimensional image, as a character Marnie displays the expected phasing of a person with borderline personality disorder, and people with such a condition overwhelmingly have histories of child abuse and neglect. A great deal that we know about the disorder was learned after 1964, so it is interesting that Hitchcock got so much correct (in my real -- as opposed to reel -- life I am intimately acquainted with BPD and how it presents. Prior to this acquaintance, I dismissed MARNIE for what I perceived as Freudian theorizing, but after some dearly won experience, MARNIE seems more and more like a documentary to me).
Also, this diagnosis is not dependent on coming from a Freudian perspective -- the touch-me-not/frigid physical responses of people who have been abused is well documented across all psychoanalytic approaches.

Also, David E's point that at the end of the film Mark Rutland makes only a start at changing is well taken. Mark's continued attraction to Marnie shakes his own understanding of who he is and what motivates him. His inevitable rape of Marnie is consistent with Hitchcock's career-long delineation of heteromale pathology (Rutland is Scottie Ferguson with a tad more self-awareness), but interestingly, Rutland's obstinate determination to stay with Marnie is an attribute that therapists are said to need in order to work with patients suffering from BPD -- successful treatment requires a therapist to act in ways counter to the methods she would use in almost all other situations (the approach is called dialectical behavior therapy and was developed in the 1990's).

Finally, the film's mise en scene of emptiness is a perfect correlate for the sense of isolation people with BPD feel. When Rutland runs about the deserted boat looking for Marnie, it is as if he were entering into an understanding of the profound isolation in which Marnie lives -- expressed by the lack of others on ship.

As there still is no cure for BPD, the film ends with an appropriate sense of two people on the threshold of learning how to live with the illness. Very often a person will tell their partner of childhood abuse only several/many years into their relationship, so the "revelation" of Marnie's abuse works as both a) a classical narrative device -- we are shown the "explanation" (MARNIE is a stubbornly old-fashioned film) and b) a representation of Marnie's willingness to reveal her past now that she has entered into a relationship and not been able either to leave or to drive her partner away.