“It is not improbabilities of incident but improbabilities of character that matter.” – Thomas Hardy
In Alfred Hitchcock’s 1964 film Marnie, Tippi Hedren’s title character is a kleptomaniac embezzler/con artist with crippling phobias of thunder, lightning, and the color red. When it comes to the building of a fictional person, that’s a lot. It’s a meal of a character, and she meets her match in the manipulative, vaguely sociopathic Mark Rutland (Sean Connery), who blackmails her into marriage. In telling their story, Hitchcock deploys a cornucopia of visual tricks, everything from dutch angles to eerie color overlay. The toolbox is wide open, no restraint. But he also displays a great number of his particular hang-ups, making Marnie something of a synecdoche for his preoccupations.
There’s the embezzling women and psychoanalysis of, well, Psycho. The plot device of keys from Notorious. The uncanny phobias and nightmarish imagery of Spellbound. The fluidity of female identity, often associated with hair color, from Vertigo. The twisted relationship dynamics of Suspicion. And most of all, there is the issue of Hitchcock’s behavior toward Tippi Hedren, the star he was jealously in love with, the woman he tormented on the set of The Birds. The representation of Hitchcock as problematic figure.
Many of Hitchcock’s women are there as decoration or as pawns to be sacrificed. To be the angelic girlfriend in Rear Window. To be hacked up in the shower in Psycho. To be grotesquely molded into someone they’re not and thrown off a building in Vertigo. To be brutally strangled in Frenzy. But Marnie is an extraordinary case. Here is a character who’s often a victim, both to her phobias and to her husband. But we always see the strength of her character, in her defiance or in a particularly witty comeback. And as Marnie, Hedren gives what so many other of Hitchcock’s women aren’t given a real chance to: a great performance. From deranged to distraught to childlike to wry, the woman runs the gamut.
The tone of Marnie is a wonderful tightrope walk between heavy thematic material (as the MPAA would say), lurid half-trashiness, and the ability to land a hearty good punchline. We are rather like the Lil Mainwaring (Diane Baker) character, knowing something dangerous is afoot and cracking a crooked smile as the chaos plays out. In one standout scene presented in wide shot, on screen right Marnie empties a safe of its petty cash, and on screen left the cleaning lady has stealthily started cleaning outside the door. It’s a deliciously tense sequence, but as Marnie sneaks away and agonizingly drops something with a loud thud, she’s allowed a respite: the cleaning lady is nearly deaf. It doesn’t matter how clearly artificial that plot device is; the tension is an end in and of itself. As Hardy said, improbability of incident doesn’t matter. There’s something strangely off about so much of the movie, even in relatively neutral stretches, a sign that Hitchcock won’t let the audience breathe normally for long.
Marnie also contains visual motifs that seem to have specifically influenced later filmmakers. The aforementioned safe-breaking presented in wide shot is a screaming ringer for Brian De Palma’s literal splitting of the screen in so much of his Hitchcock-influenced filmography. And then there’s the unforgettable and non-exploitative rape scene, as a shot follows Marnie in close-up as she glides backward into bed. That was built upon by the Coen Brothers in Blood Simple, as Frances McDormand falls into bed, and pilfered by the show Sherlock, with Benedict Cumberbatch in much the same setup.
Alfred Hitchcock was on a roll. Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho, and The Birds is one of the most iconic sequences in any director’s filmography, and while in some ways a pulpier entry, Marnie stands with those classics as his fifth belter in a row. As a particular nexus for Hitchcockian tropes, and as a showcase for just what Tippi Hedren could do with a meaty role, Marnie is a twisted landmark in the history of the psychological thriller.