erik lundegaard

Marnie
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Marnie (1964)

WARNING: SPOILERS, MAMA. MAMA, SPOILERS

Tippi Hedren had just come off “The Birds,” Sean Connery had just come off the first two Bond films, and Alfred Hitchock had just come off the most successful string of movies in his illustrious career: “Vertigo,” “North by Northwest,” “Psycho” and “The Birds.”

So I guess they were due.

Why doesn’t it work? Why is “Marnie” laughable and cringeworthy? And why have the readers of IMDb.com given this very, very bad movie a 7.2 rating?

Don’t they understand that the film is almost anti-Hitchcockian?

Most Hitchcock thrillers are about uncovering your own problem for reasons of survival. “Marnie” is about uncovering someone else’s problem for reasons of love.

The threat in the best Hitchcock movies is external: birds or hotel managers or international spies or our own damned voyeuristic curiosity as we spy on our neighbors. Here the threat is internal: the repressed memories of Marnie Edgar (Hedren).

Hitchcock’s most memorable protagonists are innocent men, or not-so-innocent men, trapped in something they don’t understand, who spend the movie running and punching their way out—not only to set themselves free but to see just what trapped them in the first place. Mark Rutland (Connery) isn’t trapped in anything. He has more knowledge than anyone. He’s not within it but outside it. And what he’s trying to see, into the mind of Marnie, isn’t exactly cinematic.

Do his motivations change? I’m curious. Marnie uses her looks and secretarial skills to get jobs at companies, which she then robs. Then she dyes her hair, goes to a new town, and starts all over again. But when she shows up at Rutland’s publishing house, Mark recognizes her from her previous gig (where he was a client), and hires her anyway.

What does he want at this point? To trap her? To sleep with her?

During a Saturday work sesssion, Marnie is frightened, almost made catatonic, by a thunderstorm, and Mark comforts her, then kisses her. Do his motivations change here? Does he care for her now that he’s seen how vulnerable she is? How soft her lips are?

Eventually he spills the beans. He knows who she is and what she is. And guess what? He wants to marry her! Marnie’s reaction to the first revelation is to act like a trapped animal. Her reaction to the marriage proposal is to act like a trapped animal. She almost grrrs. But she’s got no claws.

What’s making her act like this? Why is she stealing compulsively? Why doesn’t she want Mark to touch her? Why does she wig out during thunderstorms and whenever she sees the color red?

Complex questions with the same easy answer: repressed memory.

I wasn’t a fan of repressed memory stories when they turned up in later episodes of “M*A*S*H.” in the 1970s. The world and human beings are complex; but somehow if you just unlock what’s locked up inside our minds we'll be well again. It’s all too logical. It reduces human nature to a mathematical equation. You just need to know the numbers to the combination to set yourself free.

Marnie’s repressed memory happened on the seedy docks of Baltimore when she was five years old. Her mother, Bernice Edgar (Louise Latham), whom we’ve met in an early scene, and who warns her grown-up daughter about men, was once, of course, a prostitute. She used to rouse little Marnie from their shared bed whenever the “men in white suits” (sailors) came calling. But one sailor, played by Bruce Dern, goes out into the hallway to comfort Marnie during a thunderstorm. (That’s why she’s scared of thunderstorms.) Then he begins molesting her. (That’s why she’s frigid.) The mother sees what he’s doing, fights him, but breaks her leg in the process. (That’s why she limps.) It’s up to little Marnie to grab a fire poker and bash the dude’s head in. (That’s why she’s scared of blood-red.) See? It all fits together. All because of one bad night long, long ago, which she then represeed. But with Mark’s help, and with a lot of overacting and baby girl voices, Marnie finally remembers it all, and reconciles with her mother, and Marnie and Mark leave to assume normal, rich lives in Philadelphia.

Awful. Remember that five-minute bit at the end of “Psycho” where the psychiatrist goes on and on bout what’s wrong with Norman Bates? Like that, but for an entire movie.

Hedren isn’t used well here, either—she’s best playing flirty and self-satisfied rather than trapped animal—while a subplot with Mark’s deceased wife’s younger sister, Lil (a gorgeous Diane Baker), goes nowhere.

But because Hitchock’s name is at the helm, the film is being “rediscovered” by modern, Hitchcock-loving cineastes who are finding all sorts of reasons to like it.

Final reason they shouldn’t: Reconciles with the mother? Hitchcock?

—October 16, 2011

© 2011 Erik Lundegaard