Take 47: Marnie

In July of 2015, the BBC released a list of the 100 Greatest American Films, curated by polling critics all over the world. I’m watching them and writing about them as a form of self taught film school. This week… we’re doing number 47, Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie. As always, there will be spoilers.

Alfred Hitchcock is tied with Stanley Kubrick, Steven Spielberg, and Billy Wilder for the highest number of films that made this particular top 100 list, at five a piece. I think Hitchcock also holds the current record for most words I have written about a particular film (Vertigo) but Kubrick may have edged him out there with my dissertation on 2001. This is all to say that Hitchcock holds a revered place in the hearts and minds of film lovers (duh). His work is a rite of passage but also a totem in the landscape of film. This doesn’t mean he was infallible and this is most evident in the many compelling analyses on his relationship to women on screen.

Hitchcock’s nickname is “The Master of Suspense” and his name scatters many best of horror lists. That said, most of his films are closer to psychological thrillers than horror. That might be reductive or unimportant when thinking about the themes of Hitchcock’s work at large, but when discussing Marnie, I think it’s an important distinction. This is a film about psychology — pure and simple. I’ll be honest and say that my reaction to this film is kind of “meh”. I realized about 20 minutes in that I had seen this film before at the Brattle Theater years ago, but didn’t remember much of it. This time around I fell asleep the first time I watched it, and had to pick it up the next day. That’s not because the film is boring but it just doesn’t hook me.

There’s a giddiness about this film, and in much of Hitchcock’s work, in its investigation of psychological phenomena. It is representative of the shift in the 1960s toward a popular fascination with the deep seated mental mechanisms that motivate much of our actions, feelings, and beliefs without our consent. This enlightening revelation continues to enthrall Americans — and seeing highly stylized representations of the unpacking of deep inner motivations and barriers to fulfillment only fascinates each of our individual narcissists the more. I’m certainly not above this (for me, my current favored sources of navel-gazing are the podcast Where Should We Begin?, the Showtime show Couples Therapy, and the HBOshow In Treatment) but this particular 1960s version feels dated, and underpinned by an unhealthy dose of Freudian sexism.

Why does Marnie hate thunder and the color red and men? That is the core question that the film endeavors to answer, the core carrot Hitchcock attaches to the stick and expects the audience to follow. It is the brain teaser that Mark Rutland cannot let go of. Marnie is a thief and he figures it out, but instead of turning her in, he falls into obsession with her. One of the first interactions we see between them is Mark explaining how the stuffed cat “Sophie” is a jaguarundi who he trained.

“What did you train her to do?” Marnie asks. “To trust me” Mark replies.

This is an overt set up for the rest of the film and training of Marnie begins almost immediately when she panics during a thunderstorm. Mark holds her in his arms and forces a completely inappropriate (both in terms of plot and consent) kiss. This sets the tone for the rest of their relationship, one that is primarily a projection of his own sickness onto Marnie. He presents it as if he must unpack and resolve her psychological issues, but it’s clear he has plenty of issues of his own, first and foremost his obsessive focus on this woman.

To the film’s credit, Hitchcock trains his lens directly on the biases between the definition of psychological soundness of men and women. Of course, Marnie must be the crazy one, because Mark thinks she’s crazy. As she says herself,

“ Oh, men! You say “no thanks” to one of them and BINGO! You’re a candidate for the funny farm.”

He reads books like “The Sexual Aberrations of Criminal Women” in order to understand her better. He blackmails her into marrying him, promising he won’t touch her and then promptly walking right through that guardrail. He taunts her, and treats her as a possession, the one thing she is adamant she never wants to become, and is an underlying factor in her dislike of men. It’s this element of their dynamic that momentarily refracts our understanding of their relationship — he is obsessed (“in love”) with her because she’s a beautiful woman and a thief. And yet, Mark is much more of a thief — he doesn’t crack safes and steal from companies, but he steals Marnie’s personhood and her autonomy. He robs her of her dignity and her independence, precisely because he recognizes that quality as unfamiliar in a woman, and he is called to conquer it.

To me, the most interesting scenes in this film are between Marnie and her mother. Most scenes between Marnie and Mark are trite and exploitative. The scenes between mother and daughter (and best of all Jessie) show just how strained their relationship is, and just how intertwined their traumas are. The scene in which we finally understand the origin of her reaction to thunder and red and men is disturbing in all the best Hitchcockian ways — it evokes memories of Norman Bates and is the crown jewel of the film. If only the movie could have centered around two women instead of forcing the imposition of a man.

Of course, Hitchcock loves his blonde women, and resurrected his relationship with Tippi Hendron a year after they made The Birds together. Many years later she would reveal that he abused her on both sets. While filming The Birds the abuse seems to have been physical, coercing her into unsafe situations. She also reports that while filming Marnie he groped her in her trailer and when she pushed him off, he reportedly said “I will end your career” a page out of the Harvey Weinstein playbook. She reports that he did not speak to her for the remainder of filming, and some have suggested that he had become, like Mark, obsessed with securing her affections. It’s an illuminating example of life imitating art as it was being crafted. It’s clear that Hitchcock was a man with his own psychological hang ups, and it’s also clear that he had particular focus on women and how they influence men. In some ways this a gift to modern audiences who can normally count on compelling female characters appearing in his work, even if they are cast through the eyes of a man who will never understand them the way he longs to. The result for the modern viewer is a paradox to reconcile with our own imperfect psyches.

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