Marnie, a Movie by Alfred Hitchcock
A Peculiar Kind of Freedom
Marnie Edgar (Tippi Hedren), the titular character of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1964 movie, Marnie, seems to have it all; she is young and beautiful, and has the means to keep a racehorse in a stable, and to support her ageing, widowed mother. Except – Marnie is a thief, specialising in making off with substantial sums of money from large corporations. Her MO is quite simple; she uses her blonde good looks to charm her way into the employment of a male boss, and watches as he opens the safe – no electronic funds in the 1960’s. At the end of a work day, she lurks in the ladies’ bathroom until the building has emptied, opens the safe with the memorised number and makes away with the money. The downside of her lifestyle is that Marnie is forever on the move, forced to keep looking for new bosses and fresh funds. However, she enjoys her rather peculiar type of freedom, until she meets her match in Mark Rutland (Sean Connery).
Life in the Gilded Cage
Aware that Marnie is on the run, having stolen money from his friend Sidney Strutt (Martin Gabel), Mark offers her a job as a typist. Marnie carries out her usual end game and with the cash in tow, takes refuge in the stable where her beloved horse, Forio, is bedded. Mark follows Marnie and offers to spare her from prison – if she marries him. Sensing the net closing in, Marnie agrees – and finds herself in another type of trap.
Immediately on return from their honeymoon, Mark begins grooming Marnie to play the part of the corporate wife, forcing her into a quasi-aristocratic, New England clique of parties and foxhunting. But his efforts to enforce ‘respectability’ upon his lovely prize are in vain. In addition to Marnie’s refusal to play the obedient wife, her past keeps encroaching in the form of Sidney Strutt, threatening to prosecute her – and Lil Baker, the jealous relative of Mark who had hopes to marry him before he set his sights on Marnie.
The Devices of Film Noir
Layer by layer, the characters tear off and reveal Marnie’s past, not only her career as an embezzler but her less than happy childhood. It is here that Hitchcock combines his inimitable, suspense-creating style with certain elements of the film noir genre. The plot of a noir is never simple but multi-layered and imbued with moral ambiguities. In Marnie, we see the plot from the point of view of a protagonist who is morally flawed, but is also the victim of an unhappy past. In his narrative, Hitchcock does not condone thieving. Marnie has committed a crime and must pay the price. But the people who punish her are characters bearing dubious motives. Sidney Strutt is a corporate lawyer, possibly helping his wealthy clients to accrue tax advantages. Lil Baker has been crossed in love and she enacts a personal revenge rather than seeking justice. And Mark Rutland is an example of the “displaced male” of mainstream noir, seeking to affirm his masculinity by enacting power over an independent but unfortunate female. He insists on probing the underlying cause of Marnie’s nightmares and he does so with success – uncovering the sordid past of the woman with whom he has fallen in love.
The Troubled Loner
Marnie is a particular type of noir protagonist, the “troubled loner”, typified by Robert Mitchum’s character in Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur, 1947) and Humphrey Bogart in In a Lonely Place, (Nicholas Ray, 1950). The troubled loner has invariably experienced an unhappy past, which is revealed slowly to the viewers. But in Hitchcock’s clever handling of the narrative, Marnie’s buried and forgotten past – the source of all of her ills – also reveals itself to her repressed mind.
On screen, bright colour replaces the monochrome of the conventional noir, but this opens the way for Hitchcock to use the colour red as the fount of all of Marnie’s fears and anxieties. And the signature Hitchcock suspense is omnipresent; the scene of hounds closing in upon the fox could be a metaphor of the plight of the protagonist. When her beloved Forio dies accidentally, it is an almost ritual enactment of the slaughter of Marnie’s own personality. The irony is that Mark Rutland never ceases to remind her throughout that he has saved her from prison: “It’s me or the police, baby!” Maybe, but which is the prison – life as a guest of the constabulary or confined within the toxic grandeur of the New England aristocracy? This self-satisfied husband never clicks that his actions may have created the very conditions that are at the heart of all his wife’s fears.
Freedom and Entrapment
Images of entrapment imbue the movie, not the least of which are the horses in their fine harnesses, in the service of their masters. In the opening scenes of the movie, the women who work with Marnie are portrayed in cage-like offices, unsettlingly reminiscent of captive, exotic birds. With the loss of her beloved racehorse, Marnie loses her power to steal.
Overall, the movie provokes questions about freedom and entrapment, making the viewer wonder if life is not a zero-sum game where “freedom” to move in one direction will lose the player to power to move in another. By the end of the movie, Mark has uncovered Marnie’s shocking past, and – possibly – saved her from a prison sentence. The last and most powerful scene shows a triumphant and gloating Sean Connery leading the subdued, impotent Tippi Hedren away to her alienating, if comfortable future.
Film Noir by Nehrain Khalifa (article)
In a Lonely Place (Nicholas Ray, 1950) https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0042593/
Marnie (Alfred Hitchcock, 1964) https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0058329/?ref_=nv_sr_1
Out of the Past (Jack Tourneur, 1947) https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0039689/?ref_=nv_sr_1