Shakespeare said “All the world’s a stage.” With Alfred Hitchcock, you might rephrase that to “Most of the world is a soundstage.” The director had a rather agoraphobic approach to filmmaking, preferring the controlled environment of the set whenever possible. However, in a time of films like The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia and even the new James Bond movies, when audiences were accustomed to seeing actors performing against the backdrop of real, exotic locales, the seams of Hitchcock’s stage-bound style were beginning to show. Never was this more apparent then in his 1964 film Marnie, especially with the obvious painted backdrop behind the street where Bernice Edgars lives.
This was meant to be a comeback film for Grace Kelly, now Princess Grace of Monaco, but neither the royal family nor the residents of the Principality were happy with their princess playing a common thief. So the role of Marnie went to Tippi Hedren, whom Hitchcock had discovered when casting The Birds. Hedren’s performances in both of these films were not well received at the time, but from a vantage point of forty years later, I can find little wrong with them, leading me to believe that her acting style was perhaps a little too modern for 1964. She is completely convincing as the frigid, closed-off and angry person that she’s supposed to be playing. And when Marnie begins to remember the key event of her childhood and Hedren’s voice changes to that of a little girl, quavering with vulnerability. While no one is going to place Hedren in the same category as a Jessica Tandy or even Grace Kelly, the critical lambasting she took at the time seems overwrought and unfair.
Marnie is a thief. She gets herself hired to work for a company, usually in a menial clerical position that needs few or no references. Once she figures out where the cash is kept, she helps herself to whatever is in the safe and disappears. She uses the money to buy gifts and hopefully with them the affection of her distant mother. Apparently, the only thing her mother gave her was a pathological distrust of men. The only living creatures for which she has any affection are horses, particularly her stallion, Forio.
She has a lot in common is Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), the heroine/victim of Psycho. Marnie does instinctively what Marion did impulsively, but in both cases, their final theft leads them into a trap. Fortunately for Marnie, this trap is not set by a cross-dressing serial killer, but by Sean Connery.
By coincidence, she targets the publishing company run by Mark Rutland (Connery), which happened to employ the tax accounting firm she last robbed. Mark thinks he recognizes her but hires her anyway. His attempts to get close to her and learn more lead to an unexpected consequence. He’s in love with her.
When Marnie strikes, Mark easily tracks her down. He’s replaced the money she stole but he still has the evidence to send her to jail. She has two choices: the cops or marriage. Unfortunately, he realizes on his honeymoon cruise that, sexually speaking, she’s frigid enough to sink the Titanic. When Mark refuses to take no for an answer, this only leads to a half-hearted attempt at suicide. Rather than give up on her, Mark determines to find up what’s got Marnie so tied in knots.
Unfortunately for both of them, there is another woman in the picture, Lil (Diane Baker), the sister of Mark’s late wife. Apparently, she fully expected to be the next Mrs. Mark Rutland and doesn’t take kindly to his and Marnie’s sudden marriage. Like Suzanne Pleshette in The Birds, she is the sensible brunette who would have been far better for the hero than the screwed-up blonde he does take up with. Baker’s performance is subtle blend of the sympathetic and the threatening. If looks really could kill in this film, Lil would have, in the words of Gene Wilder, killed more men than Cecile B. DeMille.
Sean Connery’s character is the real anachronism, the unapologetic chauvinist, the kind of guy an old school romance gothic novel would describe as “masterful.” It works today largely because James Bond is playing the role. There’s far more meat on this role than Connery’s work as the super-spy and the actor shows why, from the start, he had a lot more to offer than his most famous part.
Louise Latham, who plays Marnie’s mother, has to cover a very wide range, playing both the young “woman who lived off the touch of men” and the bitter, crippled middle-aged woman she became. She pulls it off admirably.
This film would mark the end of the collaboration between Hitchcock and composer Bernard Herrmann. He would record a score for Torn Curtain but it would not be used. His departure had less to do with Hitchcock than with the studio’s pressure to produce a score that would sell more records. It also would be Hitchcock’s last work with several members of the crew with whom he had worked for years, including his editor, George Tomasini, who died soon after this film was made. Thus Marnie represents the end of the “golden age” of Hitchcock’s career. While he would go on to direct some solid films after this, none of them seemed to match the level at which he operated in the fifties and early sixties.
At the time and even today for some Hitchcock fans, Marnie is a polarizing film. People seem to either love it or hate it. While I wouldn’t put in the same level with the films that immediately preceded it, I found it a worthy entry in the master’s canon.