Written by Jay Presson Allen
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
All good things must come to an end. Marnie would mark the downturn of Alfred Hitchcock’s directorial career. He’d just come off a fantastic streak of films: Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho, The Birds. That many consecutive movies that immediately became iconic is quite an achievement, so it is a little unfair that critics turned their noses up so hard at what Hitch released for the rest of his career. On the other hand, he set the standard so high that we expect something brilliant. Marnie has all those things you expect in a Hitchcock movie but done so much more clunkily, with a deep strain of misogyny boring through the entire production. In some ways, Marnie is Hitch letting the mask slipping and showing too much of his true self to us.
Sidney Strutt, the head of a tax consulting company, tells the police about Marian, a recent hire who has just walked away from the business, having stolen thousands of dollars. We follow this mysterious woman who takes a train to Virginia, checks in to an inn where she changes her hair color and makes a visit to the stables to see her favorite horse. Her real name is Marnie Edgar (Tippi Hedren), and she has been living this circuitous life of theft and false identities for years now. Marnie visits her invalid mother, Bernice, who is warm but withholds her love from her adult daughter. Marnie is upset by this and has continued dreams of something she can’t quite grasp, an event from her childhood lost into the haze of time.
But by now, it’s time for another fake name and another safe to crack. Marnie ends up in Philadelphia, working for a publishing company owned by Mark Rutland (Sean Connery). Mark recognizes her as he had an account with Strutt but keeps his lips sealed to see where this goes. Sure enough, Marnie robs the business, but Mark tracks her down. He has her return the money and forces her into marriage with him. This is when we learn of Marnie’s aversion to the touch of a man, she is disgusted by the idea of sex and is only going along with this whole thing to keep from serving time in prison. Mark is bound and determined to “cure her frigidity” and wants to uncover the dark secret from her past.
Marnie is one of the most embarrassingly bad portrayals of a female protagonist I have ever seen. And it is filled to the brim with Hitchcock’s personal animus towards a particular type of woman and his own sexual perversions. Evan Hunter, the writer of The Birds, was one of three screenwriters to deliver a draft of Marnie and related that he spoke with Hitchcock about his worries over how including the rape scene from the source novel would make Mark entirely unsympathetic for the audience. Hitch completely disagreed and went on to explain in nauseating detail how he would film that sequence. Hitch reportedly said, “Evan, when he sticks it in her, I want that camera right on her face.” The rape scene is immediately followed by an attempted suicide by Marnie, which the film doesn’t seem to think is a big deal, and Marnie even gives a quippy retort before the scene blackout.
This is one of Hitchcock’s darkest films from a subject matter perspective. However, it is also a cringingly regressive movie in the way it deals with women and psychology. “Fixing” Marnie is merely a matter of forcing her to confront the trauma without involving professionals. Mark just reads some books on psychology and knows how to “cure” his wife. Never once did he think that raping her on their honeymoon might create scars on top of scars. He didn’t seek professional help after she tries to kill herself after that event. What we see in Marnie are Hitchcock’s personal kinks unfolding on public display.
In her memoir, Tippi Hedren shares that Hitchcock sexually assaulted her on the set on the set of Marnie. She stated, “I’ve never gone into detail on this, and I never will. I’ll simply say that he suddenly grabbed me and put his hands on me. It was sexual, it was perverse, and it was ugly, and I couldn’t have been more shocked and repulsed. The harder I fought him, the more aggressive he became. Then he started adding threats, as if he could do anything to me that was worse than what he was trying to do at that moment.” He never spoke to her again after that despite Marnie still filming. He would communicate through other members of the crew to relay messages to Hedren. She admits her relationship with Hitchcock was deeply complicated. Her casting in The Birds made her in Hollywood, and she says he was a brilliant director and was hit with “a wave of sadness” when he passed in 1980.
Hitchcock would make four more films, none of them ever garnering the acclaim of his past work. His last movie was Family Plot (1976). His body of work from this time, the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s, has had an influence well beyond its time. Movies like Vertigo and Psycho are monumental achievements of technical and thematic skill. But we can’t ever forget that the man who made them was not a good person; he tortured and humiliated young women who certainly didn’t have the power in the filmmaking system that he had. Hitchcock tried to erase these young women’s agency, but he was also right in line with the culture of his time. Almost everywhere these women went, they were going to be reduced to sex objects. That doesn’t excuse him because someone who obviously is profoundly insightful and intelligent in human psychology matters should have done better. His films exist as both a monolithic achievement in his field and a glimpse into the brokenness of his disturbed and hateful mind.