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Film Quarterly (1964) - Marnie





In The Birds, Hitchcock tried two things he'd never done before -- suspense derived from non-human agents, and an unresolved ending. Since hardly anybody outside the auteurs club liked The Birds, it wouldn't be surprising if he retreated to familiar ground for his next film. At first sight, Marnie seems to be just such a safe retreat.

The agents of suspense are human, if not slightly superhuman: the Bird woman meets James Bond. Tippi Hedren makes up for all that inane smiling in The Birds by pouring her nervous energy into the title role, and the result is surprisingly commendable. It's Sean Connery who tends to smile too much (he doesn't have the outlets for action that he had against Dr. No), but his performance is more than adequate. As for the ending of the film, it's a thumping big red exclamation mark. The plot seems like a potpourri of earlier Hitchcock films. It begins with Marnie lighting out for a fresh city after robbing an employer (shades of Psycho). This isn't her first theft, and now, changing her identity and appearance (Vertigo), she gets a job with another prospective victim, Mark Rutland. Her thievishness is bound up with a childhood trauma that sends her into a fit whenever she sees a red-and-white object (Spellbound) and also makes her crave love from her mother (who suggests what the mother in Psycho must have been like when she was alive). The plot thickens when Mark not only discovers that Marnie is a thief but falls in love with her, so obsessively (Vertigo again) that he forces her to many him as the alternative to prison. They then lead a strained marital life (Rebecca, Suspicion) while Mark tries to find out the whole truth about Marnie before she kills herself or is caught by the police.

It isn't only the plot that reminds one of earlier Hitchcock. The dialogue, which has more wit and bite to it than in Hitchcock's most recent films, echoes his John Michael Hayes scripts of the mid-fifties. The color is well controlled, with smoky blues and greens for the exteriors and pale or neutral tones for the interiors, all these serving as foils for the traumatic reds; but they reflect the palette of Vertigo without matching its shimmering virtuosity. Similarly, Bernard Herrmann's music is a matter-of-fact echo of his lyrical Vertigo score. It would seem, then, that Hitchcock has reached back beyond the offbeat melodramatics of The Birds and Psycho to the more subdued tensions of Vertigo. Of course, this alone would hardly offer a safe retreat, since Vertigo fared little better with the public than The Birds; so he has neutralized all supernatural overtones, weighting the film down to earth with a heavy plot mechanism et la Spellbound. In Marnie, Hitchcock has gone all out for realism.

At this point the film sounds well and truly condemned, for everyone knows that Hitchcock's realism is only skin deep. "I have to make films about something," he says, "but I don't really attach all that importance to what it is." Throughout his career he has skilfully adapted his themes to fit the prevailing fashions. In the thirties he could take a simple, Buchanesque attitude toward life, because that was what the majority of his public ultimately believed in. World War II added sternness to this attitude-one can see the change actually taking place in Foreign Correspondent. As the horrors of war entered the public consciousness, Hitchcock made his protagonists more complex and more corrupt: the widow-killer of Shadow of a Doubt, the youth-killers of Rope. The old simplicity and romance were becoming something of a liability, and Hitchcock began to disguise them: in Notorious, for the first time, he ventured to portray a "tarnished" heroine. By the fifties, the public view of reality had been embittered by the cold war and other disillusions, and Hitchcock became more overtly amoral, as in Rear Window and The Trouble with Harry. Even his most thirties-ish script of the period -- the remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much -- took on a sceptical anti-authority note. The contrast can be seen still more clearly in North by Northwest, a reworking of The 39 Steps: the attitudes and experience of Eva Marie Saint are poles apart from those of the virginal Madeleine Carroll. Yet, at the end, the old romantic simplicity emerges briefly as the heroine reverts to straightforward femininity. And so it is with Marnie, who represents the conventional clichés of the sixties woman -- chic exterior, sexual problems, and amoral resourcefulness -- until the denouement cleanses her of all but sweetness.

The point is, of course, that Hitchcock's realism is a means, not an end. It is a tool for shaping suspense, and a more supple tool than is usually recognized. He may accept the over-all conventions of the time, but he often gives them a sharp edge by carving them across the grain. Amid the stereotypes of Lifeboat, for example, his characterization of the Negro can still be watched without embarrassment -- which cannot be said for most other Negro characterizations of the forties. One of Hitchcock's favorite devices for quietly jolting the audience is to add a sympathetic touch to a villain: the tormented murderer in Rear Window, world-weary James Mason in North by Northwest, and so on. In Marnie, where there are no villains, Hitchcock refines this device to the point of turning it inside-out: he adds unsympathetic touches to characters who have right and reason on their side.

If contempt for Hitchcock's realism shouldn't obscure its piquancy, it certainly shouldn't lead to moral indignation. In his calculated manipulation of characters and events, Hitchcock is doing nothing more reprehensible than (say) Antonioni does in his later films. The main difference is that Antonioni has a "serious" purpose in imposing his particular paradigm on reality, while Hitchcock is "merely" creating suspense. Antonioni's thesis of the vacuity of modern life leads naturally to intellectual discussion, while Hitchcock's suspense leads nowhere: it can be analyzed, but that is about all. Attempts to link it to a Heraclitean as opposed to a Platonic view of existence, et cetera, et cetera, may accurately reflect the viewer's own preoccupations, but there is no evidence that they reflect Hitchcock's, and usually they are simply a justification for enjoying so unphilosophical an experience as suspense.

In Marnie, this experience is rich indeed. Most Hitchcock films have only one main source of suspense, though the wily man may divert us from it by means of extensive red herrings (the opening of Psycho and The Birds) or a firework train of episodes (Rear Window, North by Northwest). Marnie does have one most emphatic source -- the mystery of the red trauma -- but Hitchcock's subdued brand of realism, paraphrasing the complexity of life, gives us three other major sources as well. There is Marnie as a criminal: will she be exposed, or will she get away with it? There is Mark's obsession with Marnie: will love or fury win out? And finally there is the sexual conflict: this involves not only Mark and the traumatically frigid Marnie but also a brunette (Diane Baker) who is in love with Mark and is determined to find out the truth about his mysterious wife.

Naturally, this proliferation of sources would not by itself ensure suspense. It all depends on how they are handled. Here we approach another misleading truism about Hitchcock: his technical mastery. It so happens that there are certain departments of technique in which Hitchcock has a patently blind eye. These include the phony backdrops that grate like TV commercials (especially in color), the bits of rapid montage that do not quite fit together, and the two-shots that are held so long that they almost ossify. All of these are conspicuous in Marnie; and Hitchcock even aggravates the crassness of the denouement with some clumsily contrived shots.

Hitchcock's technical mastery -- unlike his realism -- operates on a deeper level. His handling of suspense depends above all on movement and timing. Movement enables him to generate a basic neural excitement in the audience. In some of his films he goes so far as to maintain a continual undercurrent of tension by gearing the action to a moving vehicle: the train journey of The Lady Vanishes (where the tension reaches its climax when the train unexpectedly stops), the voyage of Lifeboat. At the other extreme, but with similar effect, he may send his camera roaming continually through a single static setting (Rope). Marnie has a sophisticated mixture of the two: occasionally the camera goes on a long, slow prowl, while the "moving vehicles" include cars, a cruise ship and a runaway horse.

As in most of Hitchcock's recent films, the movements in Marnie are generally slow. A rapid pace is easier to maintain and avoids the risk of boredom; but a slow pace, if it comes off, can build up a greater potential energy of tension. This is where Hitchcock's timing comes into play. In Marnie, with its four sources of suspense, he works continual variations on the tension to prevent it from growing stale. The audience is periodically keyed up to expect an outburst from one quarter or another; and from time to time Hitchcock allows a partial release -- a flaring of temper, a moment of panic when Marnie runs into a former employer-victim -- that briefly gratifies the audience while increasing the over-all tension.

One extended and rather melodramatic sequence illustrates the way Hitchcock uses movement and timing to manipulate suspense. (The sequence contains at least two obvious technical lapses, but the tension passes through them unscathed.) Marnie is riding in a fox hunt when she "sees red" and frightens her horse, which bolts away with her -- and with the camera. The horse tries to leap a wall, stumbles, and breaks a leg. Now the camera takes over the movement, following Marnie in close-up as she goes off hysterically for a revolver, and then following the revolver in close-up as she returns to shoot the horse. Having pushed this particular line of tension as far as it will go, Hitchcock allows a respite -- a static shot of Mark being warned on the phone of what has happened. But the tension snaps back when the camera follows Marnie into the house, still carrying the revolver, and all the way up and down the 41 stairs. Only when she has left the house again are we sure that she isn't going to shoot Mark -- at least, not just yet!

This sequence illustrates another of Hitchcock's devices for keeping the audience on tenterhooks. In the first half, the gun goes off; in the second, it doesn't. The former shocks, the latter agonizes, and the two together are doubly agonizing because there's no telling which is going to be which. Most of Hitchcock's films contain some equivalent of this gun, the most powerful being a mentally or emotionally unstable character who threatens to explode into violence. Marnie has two such threats -- Marnie and Mark -- aimed at each other the whole way through.

Marnie's behavior is especially unpredictable because we don't know the truth about her. Mystery is the bluntest instrument in Hitchcock's arsenal of suspense, but here he handles it with the delicacy of -- well, not a scalpel, but certainly a sculptor's chisel. At the beginning, Marnie is smiling and self-possessed; then Hitchcock starts to chip away at her, putting her through a long series of minor transformations as she tells new lies about herself or unwillingly reveals new facets of the truth. In this respect, Marnie is even subtler than Vertigo, for the mystery that surrounds Kim Novak is simply a mask, unchanging until the final fifteen minutes. Unfortunately, it's in the final fifteen minutes of Marnie that Hitchcock's mystery reverts to bluntness. The subtlety of his build-up seems to promise not just an explanation but an apocalypse; the bathos he actually gives us seems like a slap in the face.

Of course, this mystery is precisely that "something" which is the pretext for Hitchcock's film-making and to which he doesn't "really attach all that importance." All of his films involving mysteries have something ludicrous about them, though this is less noticeable in films like Psycho, where he is half spoofing, than in Vertigo or Marnie, which appear to be serious. While the plot of Vertigo is even more ludicrous than Marnie's, its full outrageousness doesn't become apparent until one thinks it over in retrospect. Marnie enjoys no such protection.

I would like to think that Hitchcock chose this bathetic denouement as a dig at those who rhapsodize over his Weltansicht. The rest of the film offers all sorts of temptations to the critic who likes to discuss reality and illusion or the problem of identity. But one shouldn't be deluded by its veneer of modish situations -- even to the limited extent of being indignant at the plot beneath. The mature Hitchcock has attempted only one film without contrivance -- The Wrong Man -- and (regardless of its merits) its fortunes would not encourage him to repeat the experiment. As a popular director, he recognizes that well-rounded plots are still in demand, even if they have to be hammered violently into shape.

Both the worst and the best of Hitchcock jostle for attention in Marnie. Because the weaknesses are so conspicuous, they tend to outweigh the strengths at a first viewing. But those who enjoy Hitchcock for his suspense shouldn't be disappointed. After all, they will already know that with Hitchcock one must take the smooth with the rough, the glib contrivances with the tension.


(c) Film Quarterly (1964)