Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Movie Review: Marnie (1964)

A psychological thriller about kleptomania and sexual frigidity, Alfred Hitchcock's Marnie enjoys moments of sophisticated suspense, but also struggles through barren stretches searching for a purpose.

Marnie (Tippi Hedren) is beautiful, blonde, and a cold-hearted serial thief, gaining the trust of businesses by taking secretarial positions and then walking off with substantial amounts of cash at the earliest opportunity. Marnie uses the money to buy gifts for her mother Bernice (Louise Latham), but Bernice, who has embedded in Marnie a severe mistrust of men, wants nothing to do with her daughter, and emotionally shuts her out. Continuing her crime wave, Marnie pushes her luck by getting a job and planning her next theft at Rutlands, where owner Mark Rutland (Sean Connery) is already suspicious of her exploits, having spotted her at a previously victimized company.

Mark is a widower, and that does not stop his former sister-in-law Lil (Diane Baker), now blossoming into full womanhood, from eyeing him as a prize. Mark is not romantically interested in Lil but is quite curious about Marnie, and they share a kiss during a thunderstorm. Once Marnie empties his safe, he is waiting to trap her, and forces her to choose between marrying him and prison. They get married, but she predictably refuses to consummate the marriage. Mark sticks with his wife trying to untangle her emotional knot and release the guilt, shame and fear that drive her damaged behaviour.

The psychological analysis and breakthrough are handled at an amateurish level, Mark Rutland's motivations and actions are less than convincing, and at 130 minutes, Marnie is a good 20 minutes too long. But despite the limitations of the material, Hitchcock extracts uniformly excellent performances from his cast. Sean Connery, in an early post-Bond-stardom role, demonstrates charisma, versatility, and a dangerously selfish undercurrent to boldly signal that he can be much more than a suave secret-agent. Tippi Hedren gets perhaps the iciest of Hitchcock's icy blonde roles as Marnie, a gorgeous woman trapped into her own damaged mind and forced into a life of proactive crime that she can't explain due to reasons she can't remember.

The character of Marnie is the central puzzle of the film, and she is certainly a fascinating psychological case. But by leaving the entire solution key to the very end, the Jay Presson Allen screenplay (based on the Winston Graham book) strings both Marnie and the audience along, both victims of impenetrable intentions.

Apart from Rutland and Marnie, Hitchcock has fun with a couple of key supporting characters. Diane Baker's Lil is a charge of sexual lightning, almost the diametric opposite of Marnie, openly lusting after her brother-in-law and seeking flirtatious adventurism. And over on the much colder edge, Louise Latham as Bernice, Marnie's mother, is a picture of a motherhood train wreck, happier babysitting the neighbours' child than conversing with her daughter, all the time spouting man-hating rhetoric that acts as a wrecking ball on Marnie's ability to function. Much like Robert Duvall in To Kill A Mockingbird, Bruce Dern makes a really late, but quite pivotal, contribution.

Two Hitchcockian moments come in the form of a silently delivered theft scene, Marnie breaking into a safe while the janitorial staff unwittingly close in on her, and then a disturbing rape scene in which no violence is shown except for the burning eyes of a man driven to the crazed edge of having to force himself onto a frigid woman. In the other notable touch, Hitchcock frequently uses a literal red mist to denote the triggers that unsettle Marnie, inexplicably paralyzing her emotionally and physically.

Marnie ends with an emotional wallop, the past finally unveiled to decipher the present. The psychological damage is extensive and yes, coloured red, but at least the debris is now visible for those interested in picking up the pieces.

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