Saturday, February 25, 2017

Hitchcock’s 'Marnie': Misunderstood Masterpiece or Fascinating Failure?


Is 'Marnie' ...a sex story? ...a mystery? ...a detective story? ...a romance? Don't know about that last one, Hitch!
The making of Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie has become as much a part of the 1964 movie’s legacy as the film itself. I will review Marnie here; I’ll post soon about the accounts of its controversial creation. It’s key to keep the two separate, though the troubled production certainly informs the film. Revisionists have muddied the waters in elevating Marnie’s status by denigrating Hitchcock’s personal reputation, and not by judging the picture’s artistic merits.

Tippi Hedren and Sean Connery looking terrif as Marnie and Mark!
Marnie is fascinating to watch—I’ve seen it about a half dozen times in my life—where beautiful moments mix with absurd ones. Viewing Marnie as a story feels cold, and is probably why it underperformed at the box-office. Yet, it’s always intriguing to watch Hitchcock, even at his most uneven. The “What if?” scenarios in my mind bump up against “What the hell?” moments when I see Marnie. What Hitchcock excels at still works beautifully. What doesn’t is Hitchcock’s clinging to conventions that were dated even in ‘64. At Marnie’s worst moments, I feel as if I am watching Mel Brooks’ Hitchcock parody, High Anxiety.

Tippi Hedren as 'Marnie,' a frigid thief who meets her match...
The tale of a frigid thief on the fly is dark and more than a bit dicey. This subversive type of material always turned Hitchcock on. Yet, Marnie is dressed up with a lushly romantic score, gorgeous photography, and lavish Edith Head clothes and elaborate Alexandre of Paris hairstyles for Tippi Hedren. Even Sean Connery is high style in his suits, toupee, and waxed eyebrows! But the story and the presentation feel at odds with each other—and not in way worthy of the Master of Suspense. Is Hitchcock trying to dish this up as traditional romantic suspense movie? Or is the seamy story his way of pumping new blood into a genre he helped create decades ago?

Hitchcock seems to have had a love-hate attitude toward actors. He was self-conscious around beautiful actresses and actors. Yet, he was highly aware that he needed them to ensure his films’ financial backing and box-office success. Later, with the erosion of the studio system, Hitch became frustrated with actors who now had the audacity to make financial and family demands, or worse, have artistic ideas of their own.

Grace Kelly, circa early '60s, when 'Marnie' was filmed.
Grace Kelly and Cary Grant were two of Hitchcock’s favorite actors. By the time Marnie came up, Hitch had been deeply disappointed by actors a in the last seven years or so. Hitch’s first protégé, Vera Miles, kept getting pregnant. Audrey Hepburn, poised to be the first ideal Hitchcock brunette, dropped out of a proposed film because of script issues and then, pregnancy. Then there was Grace Kelly, now Her Serene Highness of Monaco. Grace was eager to return to the screen. Several things prevented Princess Grace’s comeback: Marnie’s script was considered distasteful; Prince Rainier had big policy problems in tiny Monaco; and Grace had retired from MGM—if she returned, she would have to honor her old contract. So, she re-retired.

Tippi Hedren, toiling away on The Birds, was chosen as Marnie. Cary Grant was now too old to play Marnie’s husband, Mark. But in choosing young Sean Connery, then known for two James Bond films, Hitch was obviously trying to recreate his most famous Hitchcock blonde and brunette in Hedren and Connery.

Tippi Hedren as compulsive thief Marnie...and about as warm as that safe!
The stars are the first big problem with Marnie. Though they each have their moments, Hedren and Connery are flat through most of this film. The recent revisionism of Marnie claims that Tippi was unfairly compared to past leading ladies of Hitch. My thought is: What Hitchcock blonde hasn’t been compared to previous ones? Another revisionist rationalization is that Hedren’s inexperience actually works for Marnie, which I agree with—to a point. It’s also been said that Tippi and Sean only seem wooden because they were judged by the over-emoting styles in vogue back then. Well, Grace Kelly and Cary Grant weren’t known for over-acting, but they did have charisma, charm, and confidence in front of a movie camera.  I would not describe Tippi and Sean with any of those terms in this film. Their acting is like bad acting from the golden era: they are stiff and artificial movie mannequins. Watching it twice recently, I’d say that Connery is worse than Tippi, partly because his character is downright inexplicable.

Scottish Sean Connery as an Philadelphia old-money millionaire, with an eye on Marnie. And we got our eyes on him!
Tippi Hedren certainly looked like the epitome of a Hitchcock blonde, but she lacked the softer, perfect looks of Grace Kelly, and had little underlying warmth. Hedren is adequate in the early scenes, with Marnie pretending to be a secretary or a happy wife. Tippi’s detached air works—but I don’t think it was intentional—it was likely the best Hitch could get from Hedren.

Tippi Hedren as Marnie, trying very hard to remember what happened suddenly last...oh, wait, that's another movie!
The scenes where Tippi is supposed to crack and emote are cause for eye rolling. Hedren’s voice, when pushed, sounds nasal and metallic, and her line readings limp. The climactic scene, where Tippi recalls her haunted past, is reminiscent of Elizabeth Taylor’s in Suddenly, Last Summer. Taylor, not a well-reviewed actress in her time, and often criticized for her voice, yet she gives Tennessee Williams’ tongue-tying monologue emotional depth and variety. The difference is Taylor started acting at age 10, whereas Hedren had zero acting experience when she started just two years prior at 32. Typically, Hollywood gave promising actresses the build up when they were in their late teens or early 20s. By the time they were Tippi Hedren’s age, actresses like Taylor, Audrey Hepburn, Sophia Loren, or Marilyn Monroe, were at the height of their careers—not just starting out.

There was a cool new blonde in town that made Hedren look even colder-Deneuve!
The other big problem when Marnie was released was this: the Hitchcock blonde, along with many other Hitchcock conventions, had quickly become passé. The only star at this point with a cool, classic blonde image was French actress Catherine Deneuve, who once said she’d liked to have played Marnie. Instead, she went ahead of the curve with Hitchcock’s heir apparent, in Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, and Luis Bunuel’s Belle du Jour—which ironically have themes Hitch admired.

Two years later, this was what a sexy suspense film looked like!
 Vanessa Redgrave was the cool new reddish-blonde mystery woman in Blow-Up, two years after Marnie. Instead of dated “daring” dialogue and two perfect Hollywood specimens posturing, Blow-Up offered audiences two androgynous actors who matter-of-factly undress and copulate in exchange for incriminating information. A far cry from Marnie or To Catch a Thief, but surprisingly, Hitchcock screened Blow-Up and loved it!

Hey Hedren, Crawford called and wants her wig back for 'Strait-Jacket 2!'
With Marnie, Hitchcock wants to shock and awe with the tawdry story of a frigid klepto who perversely turns on a rich guy, who wants to possess her—but then presents it in the most obvious, old-fashioned way. This also happened to director Billy Wilder and his sexy comedies. Wilder often took risqué material like The Seven Year Itch or The Apartment and put it over with edgy but tempered by an appealing, charismatic cast. Wilder also hit a wall in 1964, with Kiss Me, Stupid, which has a tasteless plot, smutty dialogue, and sitcom star Ray Walston feebly filling in for Jack Lemmon and catatonic Kim Novak playing a role meant for Marilyn Monroe. Of course, some film fans now say Kiss Me, Stupid is a misunderstood masterpiece. If enough time goes by, Showgirls will be considered a masterwork.

Since his huge American hit Rebecca in 1940, Hitch refined his skills, gathered a great technical team, and was considered an iconic filmmaker by the end of the 1950s. To audiences, Hitchcock started off well enough at the dawn of the ‘60s. Psycho and The Birds were huge hits with Hitch’s fans, if not all critics. Then came Marnie, Hitchcock’s lowest-grossing movie since its thematic bookend, 1958’s Vertigo. And the reviews were as cold as Marnie.

"Is Hitch ever going to let us out of this mock car and rear projection hell?"
Despite Hitchcock’s crew gently urging him to jettison geriatric conventions like phony painted backdrops and over-reliance on rear projection. Watching this movie twice in a row, I realized how much time Hedren and Connery spend in a car—at one point, they stop at a Howard Johnson’s—to break up the monotony or expository dialogue? I half expected them to run into Mad Men’s Don Draper!

Is Tippi Hedren seeing red over the script of 'Marnie?'
Hitchcock apparently couldn’t be dissuaded from using heavy-handed effects in which to hit audiences over the head—like the red light special filter whenever Marnie literally sees red! Or the zoom lens, in and out, whenever Marnie is under great stress. What’s it all about, Alfie? We get it, we get it—it’s SIGNIFICANT!

Marnie, the master of disguise, sports wigs and/or dye jobs, the worst of which is a jet-black number perhaps borrowed from Diane Baker’s Strait Jacket co-star, Joan Crawford.
There’s a scene with prim secretary Hedren working overtime, taking dictation from dashing boss Sean, when a storm comes out of nowhere. Marnie’s freaking out, and it all climaxes with a tree crashing through the office window, and ends with a romantic kiss in extreme close-up—one of the creepiest love scenes I’ve ever seen.
This is a rape scene in 1964.

This is the reaction to a rape in 1964.

The later rape scene comes out of nowhere and makes no sense at all, but Hitchcock wanted the voyeuristic value, and later fired screenwriter Evan Hunter, when he objected. Finally, the climactic scene between Marnie and her mother is painstakingly shot, but is undercut by Hedren’s amateurish acting. Morally, this is one of those movies that has one foot stuck in the ‘50s and the other in the ‘60s, and suffers accordingly. If Marnie had been filmed in 1966 or later, after the end of Hollywood’s censorship code, it would have been a whole different story.

Yet, there’s much that works wonderfully. The Bernard Herrmann score, which Universal and Hitchcock criticized, gives Marnie much-needed warmth. His score is one of the best things about Marnie. The movie’s shots are incredibly detailed and imaginatively staged. The cinematography by Robert Burks is stunning—even that strange office kiss is technically a wow.

Diane Baker as Lil, in one of those wonderfully framed Hitchcock shots.
Strong supporting casts are often the saving grace of bad movies. In Marnie, Diane Baker is tartly appealing as the jealous young sister in law. Louise Latham, slathered in old age makeup, but only eight years older than Hedren, is cast as Marnie’s mother. Though they live in Baltimore, Hedren’s cultured diction slips to a southern dialect when stressed, and Latham sounds like Carol Burnett in her TV show’s “Mama & Eunice” skits. Still, Latham gives the uptight, religious Berniece empathy, especially as she reveals long-held secrets about herself and Marnie.

The ridiculously phony backdrops of 'Marnie' did not help stave off rumors that Hitchcock was past his prime.
Director Douglas Sirk added subversive and stylish elements to the studio soaps he made at Universal in the 1950s. As a view, you respond to that undercurrent of emotion, while suspending disbelief that what you’re watching is artificial and from another era. In the cutthroat ‘60s, this isn’t what Universal or Hitchcock was aiming for. That’s why the “pure cinema” or “expressionistic” rationale that Hitchcock historian Robin Wood pompously cites doesn’t wash. Hitchcock deliberately made Psycho four years earlier to prove he could do a down and dirty modern thriller, after being criticized for his elaborate, expensive suspense films.

Louise Latham as Marnie's cold mother; she was only 8 years older than Hedren.
Frankly, even his masterwork Vertigo has similar elements of questionable taste, but it is helped enormously by Stewart’s stellar performance and Novak, who is perfectly cast as the insecure object of obsession. But Hitchcock attempts to revisit similar material six years later and the ‘60s were a changin’. Hitch’s brand of sex and suspense, performed in Marnie like an upscale Ross Hunter movie, looked very dated—and still does.

The Hitchcock style still could be successful, like Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn in 1963’s Charade—seeing these stars cast elsewhere must have made Hitch’s blood boil! Or Gregory Peck and Diane Baker in ‘65’s Mirage or Peck and Sophia Loren in Arabesque in ’66. These faux-Hitchcock films succeeded where his started to fail because they were escapist films, without Hitch’s heavy-handed psychology and perverse plot points.

One of those crazy zoom shots in 'Marnie' that is fraught with meaning!
Hitchcock historians did some heavy lifting in trying to justify the dated and artificial aspects of Marnie after its release. But now, certain writers and film buffs have concocted the theory that when Tippi Hedren rejected Alfred Hitchcock, he just gave up on Marnie. It makes a great Hollywood story, especially to hang an essay or a book deal on. I think there’s a much simpler reason: Hitch was set in his ways, at a time when movie-making was swiftly changing, and he fell behind the times. This happened with nearly all of the directors of his generation: Billy Wilder, John Ford, George Stevens, George Cukor, Vincente Minnelli, to name but an illustrious few.


To me, there is much to enjoy in Marnie, but the film is no Hitchcock masterpiece. Yet, sometimes, flawed films say much more about their creators or an era than a classic.
Enjoy the awesome and absurd mashup that make 1964's Alfred Hitchcock camp classic 'Marnie' so much fun.

8 comments:

  1. Hi Rick - the best article I have ever read about a very flawed but still fascinating movie! Not one of Hitch's best by a longshot, but a must-see for a student of cinema or fan of his work - you can literally see all of the auteur's tricks, contrivances and peccadilloes...

    I agree with you - Tippi is curiously blank and flat in the title role, after such a rich and promising debut, with a commanding screen presence, leading the cast of The Birds. Sean Connery is equally "Stepford" in his portrayal...you can only blame the director for this...

    But as the years go by, it becomes more and more watchable to me. Love the director's use of color, symbolism, and the wonderful supporting actors he always uses. Marnie is no Vertigo, but it is worth a look if you have never seen it.
    Cheers, Rick!! Your blog is always a treat I look forward to!!
    -Chris

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    1. Thanks, Chris!
      I posted the Marnie blog thinking nobody would care about one of Hitch's least successful movies, especially on Oscars weekend...but it turned out to be my highest read...go figure! Thanks for your response, much appreciated! Rick

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  2. Hi Rick
    This was a wonderful read! (I'm never quite sure to leave a message here or on FB in order for you to see it, but on seeing Chris here, I figure this is a good bet.) Very amusing and clear-headed take on "Marnie" a Hitchcock movie I too find to be watchable without being (at least to me) very good. Almost none of what I liked about Tippi Hedren in "The Birds" is present here, and as you say, the character of Sean Connery makes so little sense, the already chemistry-challenged pairing of Hedren & Connery comes off as less than nothing.
    I like best that you give credit where credit is due, cite areas that are problematic for you, and call out the revisionist alchemy that truly is capable of turning ANY film into a masterpiece (there already exist a couple of none-too-convincing articles out there trying to turn SHOWGIRLS into a misunderstood classic of intentional satire).
    Anyhow, I love reading people's takes on films that are not always slam-dunks in the quality department, and your knowledge, insights, and humor made this essay a real pleasure. Thanks!

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  3. Thanks, Ken, for your comments... I like seeing comments, here, too : )

    I think we share a fascination in movies that aren't "perfect," whether its because of their creators or the times it was made in.

    I am picking up Tippi Hedren's memoirs this afternoon and plan on writing about that soon!

    Cheers, Rick

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  4. Thanks for a great review. I'm always left wanting after I watch Marnie and your essay clarified some of that for me.

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    1. Thank you, Annie!
      Marnie certainly has merits, but it's very uneven, despite the current revisionism, trying to turn flaws into virtues...
      Cheers, Rick

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  5. You made some good points Rick but I think you misjudged somethings, I did my dissertation on Hitchcock women and sex and included Marnie's rape scene. I couldn't find any female critics who wrote about the rape scene, only men. They used words like a tender passion, or sympathised with Mark's frustration with his wife who they said he was trying to help. You said the rape scene came out of nowhere, I would disagree, Sean Connery's character had trapped Marnie, he see her, wanted her, hunted her down and blackmailed her into marriage, at a time when it wasn't illegal for a man to rape his wife. He also knows Marnie has mental health problems, yet still rapes her. I think Hitchcock was highlighting domestic rape, rape within marriage, rape by a good looking man, not a monster waiting in the bushes, most women know their rapist. Mark was a wealthy man with entitled behaviour, a spoilt man used to having whatever he wanted, in fact he is the personification of white male privilege and the capitalist elite, remember Marnie's mother was the victim of a capitalist society as many women are, wasn't Marnie's thieving from men redressing the balance of power. Much is said about Hitchcock's cool blonds etc but after watching every single Hitchcock film ever made for my dissertation, I noticed the far more consistent thing in his films, was his disdain for the class system and the police, and women being put in bad situations because of being financially impoverished e.g Rebecca, Sabotage. I think all these things are accountable considering his east end background.

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    1. Good points and in terms of trapping Marnie, I thought the Mark character was as dysfunctional as she. As for the rape scene itself, what I meant was it seemed that after their marriage, Mark seemed to soften toward Marnie, and was trying to be patient. Then when he gets rebuffed, Mark attacks her. With these two cold, troubled characters, it's not hard to see why early '60s audiences didn't make this movie a hit. Thanks for writing, I love reading other peoples' thoughts and points of view, Rick

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