Sunday, February 14, 2016

Hitchcock's Marnie: Pure Film and Woman as Object

Tippi Hedren and Sean Connery in Hitchcock's Marnie. 
Hedren's character is more tightly wound than her hair bun.
The recent documentary Hitchcock/Truffaut prompted me to view the master filmmaker's works I had not previously seen. Top of the list was Marnie, the 1964 psychological "sex mystery" starring Hitchcock ice blonde Tippi Hedren, who became a star in his The Birds the year before. The doc also pushed me towards The Girl, the 2012 HBO film detailing the Svengali-ish relationship between director and star which was broadcast about the same time as Hitchcock, the film starring Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren, was released. The latter movie focused on Hitch's unique marriage to his collaborator Alma Reville and the production of his masterpiece Psycho. I also want to revisit Vertigo, the 1958 Hitchcock classic which topped previous champ Citizen Kane as favorite all-time film in an annual poll of film critics. In the documentary detailing the famous interviews between Hitch and the French filmmaker/critic, several scholars said that Vertigo was the essence of filmmaking and defined the movies for them. At the end of The Girl, a title reads that Hitchcock died a few years later with only a few more films to his credit and that Marnie was his masterpiece. In a behind-the-scenes featurette on the DVD of Marnie I ordered from Netflix, another scholar says "If you don't love Marnie, you don't really love movies."

My response to all the adulation of what is essentially a bizarre cult film is "HUH?" The same goes for Vertigo which I saw many years ago--It was on a rented VHS tape if you can believe that. This academic ardor for Marnie reflects an intoxication with the craft of cinema rather than identification with character, impact of theme or skill of storytelling. The plot is a jumbled psychological stew with Hedren as a neurotic compulsive thief unable to physically respond to sexual warmth because of a puritanical mother--played with honeysuckle molasses in her mouth by Louise Latham--and a childhood incident involving murder (As in The Three Faces of Eve, an entire warped psychosis can be traced to one event). Not even the hairy-chested charm of the new James Bond, Sean Connery as her tireless suitor, a Philadelphia Main Line millionaire, can defrost Marnie's glacial exterior.

The film is full of barely hidden sexual imagery. Marnie's forbidding mother lives on a slummy Baltimore street with a gigantic phallic cargo ship docked in the bay just a few yards from her door. When Connery's playboy first attempts to seduce Marnie in his office, another phallic symbol--this time a huge tree--crashes through the window during a thunderstorm. (The characters react as if nothing unusual had happened.)

Hedren is an empty canvas upon which Hitchcock can impose his vision, much as James Stewart tries to impose his vision of the perfect woman on Novak in Vertigo. Not coincidentally, both Novak and Hedren were terrible actresses IMHO.

The infatuation with these films is one of style over substance. In addition to its innovative camera technique, Citizen Kane is about something and Welles' masterful performance makes us care about the titular tycoon even if he is a bastard. Vertigo and Marnie are suspenseful and brilliantly executed but the women at the center are not real but objects of obsession for the director's bizarre fetishes. Psycho on the other hand combines Hitchcock's twisted views and amazing visual sense with a solid story, making it a much more worthy candidate for top film.

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