In the trailer of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1964 Marnie, the director describes his latest picture as one that is difficult to classify: “It (Marnie) is not psycho, nor do we have a horde of birds flapping about and pecking at people willy-nilly.” With his distinctive, devious drawl suggestive of sinister presentiment, Hitchcock refers to the two protagonists as two “very interesting human specimens,” one of which, the heroine, may be called a “sex mystery.”
In view of other mysterious femme fatales of Hitchcock’s former works, Marnie shares very little of their competence at keeping her cool and concealing her secret motives when in adverse conditions. Her role as a kleptomaniac and a pathological liar is disclosed at the outset. She flusters at the sight of red objects and at the sound of thunderbolts. Invariably recoiling from intimate contacts with humans of all kinds, she devotes a frustratingly unreciprocated love to her mother, whose bizarre lack of affection for her only daughter gives one a false impression that Marnie is in fact not her biological child. Such mysterious past is indeed, as it transpires, a fundamental cause of her mental problems- though the story isn’t remotely about an exchanged identity or a changeling. The theme is, however, amongst the psychological stock themes that populate the cinematic landscape of 1960s: a searing study of a troubled psyche, a victim in thrall to unknown trauma that triggers involuntary acts of crime and pretense.
What the film lacks in, perhaps, a less hackneyed storyline it makes up for in its robust characterisation. Never had Hitchcock tackled with that much danger and audacity the intoxication of human relationship. This is all largely in virtue of the introduction of Mark Rutland, a volatile sadist who has with him no less of an aura of mystery than Marnie, an obsessed pervert who can be bone-chillingly cruel than, say, Norman Bates in Psycho (1960). He is the owner of a publishing company who hires Marnie despite suspecting her dodgy ways. His warped desire for Marnie is never properly accounted for; he seems to care for her on his own terms and yet turns beastly during their honeymoon, which is preceded by a more or less fraud marriage. Though by no means graphic, the portrayal of an enforced sexuality had prevented many from taking the film seriously; it even cost the job of screenwriter Evan Hunter, who suggested cutting out the rape scene.
Time is now changing and with the public’s growing acceptance and tolerance to the then proscribed topics in cinema, Marnie still manages to shock and disturb. Much of those ire and criticisms direct to the heroine’s inextricable bondage to the aberrant hero, even after she recovers from her repressed memory and repents her wrongs. Some may link this to a less flagrant case of Stockholm syndrome, others diagnose in Marnie another stage of hang-ups she may never be cured of. This was not the first time Hitchcock enlarged the enduring matter of hierarchy between sexes, in which men are invariably on the higher rung, and women are essentially means of exploitation for egotistic ends. The film’s closer counterpart is perhaps Notorious (1946), which has Ingrid Bergman’s Alicia as a sexual bait against the backdrop of WWII, in love with a man who callously persuades her into a treacherous marriage with the man he spies on.
Nevertheless Marnie is still, in my opinion, one of the greats amongst Hitchcock’s sprawling oeuvre. The opening sequence is a reminder of the timeless aesthetics that set Hitchcock above his coevals; it even retains the elusive magnetism that envelops the director’s then obscured masterpiece, Vertigo (1958), now widely exalted as the best film ever made. I am particularly taken with the emotional appeal of the narrative mood, which Hitchcock handles so dexterously that the film does not shade into a melodrama. The brilliant Tippi Hedren delivers what is perhaps the most heartfelt line of the film: “I’m a cheat, a liar, and a thief…but I’m decent.”- this testifies to the director’s affirmation of the tenacity of female prowess despite protracted periods of trials and tribulations. They may not overcome the hardships whole as a renewed character, but in some way they survive and live on.