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The Blonde

Marnie, Dir. Alfred Hitchcock, Playing May 16 at BAM

This photograph employs Freudian symbolism. Can you interpret it? © Universal Pictures.
This photograph employs Freudian symbolism. Can you interpret it? © Universal Pictures.

Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie was a commercial failure, and ill-received by critics at the time of its 1964 release. Despite its lack of success, Marnie is a visual masterpiece and a complex, unsettling, psychological drama.

Marnie sparkles in eye-popping Technicolor. The opening shot of the film is a close-up of a yellow clutch bag, which may or may not resemble the female sex organ, then slowly pulls back to a long shot from behind of a black-haired woman walking along a train platform. She is all alone; the only sound is the crisp clip-clop of her heels, as she strides toward the vanishing point.

Quickly cut to Sidney Strutt (Martin Gable) yelling, “Robbed!” as he stands in front of his company’s safe. Gable then proceeds to describe the thief, becoming perhaps too sentimental and starry-eyed as he carries on about her hair, teeth, and excellent figure, all to the cop’s amusement. This is followed by fragmented, meditative shots of a woman in her hotel room as she switches from one suitcase to another, opening her yellow bag, carefully removing the crisp stacks of hot bills and placing them in her luggage. Her bag is filled with new clothing, stockings, dresses. Employing rich sensual colors, Hitchcock fetishizes this activity as her slender, polished hands fondle the goods softly. We don’t see Marnie’s face until she rinses out her black hair dye and flips her head back to reveal her blonde hair and stunning features. The flip evokes Rita Hayworth’s signature move in Gilda.

Tippi Hedren stars as Margaret “Marnie” Edgar, a tragic, beautiful, compulsive thief who carries five social security cards at all times, and goes from jet black to blond in one cold rinse (if it were only that easy). Marnie moves about the Northeast from job to job, taking clerical positions, robbing the companies, relocating, and changing her identity. In between heists, Marnie pays a visit to her mother in Baltimore, and upon arrival, has a strong negative reaction to the red gladiolas in the table’s center. This is the first of many strange personality switches, all triggered by the color red, lightning storms, and men. Here it is also revealed that Marnie’s mother has raised her with the notion that men are indecent. She even remarks, “Men and a good name don’t go together.” Her mother has a cane and a limp, and refers elusively to her “accident” which is never elaborated on, but suggests an incident which occurred in Marnie’s childhood. Marnie takes care of her mother by sending money, and wants nothing more than to win her affection, but her mother is withdrawn and cold to Marnie’s touch. Marnie goes to Philadelphia to seek new employment, and is finally discovered when Mark Rutland (a dashing Sean Connery), her new employer, recognizes her as the thief from Strutt’s company who, much to Marnie’s misfortune, is a good friend of Mark’s.

Mark quickly falls for Marnie, seemingly only because she is a “bad girl.” He requests she come to work on a Saturday, then asks her to type up an article he has written on the predatory habits of the female jaguarondi. He reveals he is an amateur zoologist, and is interested especially in the zoology of female predators. It is here where the film’s events are foreshadowed, perhaps too literally, and Mark moves from trapping and training animals to trapping and training Marnie. During a storm, Marnie goes into shock from the lightning, Mark comforts her, and as the layers peel back, Mark’s drive to psychoanalyze Marnie increases. The two begin to date, but before long Marnie finds the safe combination and robs Rutland and Co. Marnie’s duality is exhibited in the cinematography. As she robs the safe, the camera is in a long shot as a janitor appears on the other side of the wall, resulting in the most suspenseful scene in the film.

Here the roles are reversed, and Marnie shifts from predator to prey as Mark hunts her down and literally “traps her” into marrying him. He expresses his need to help her, and tells her that he loves her. She remarks, “You don’t love me, I’m just something you’ve caught. You think I’m some kind of wild animal you’ve trapped.” Mark remarks, with a devilish grin, “That’s right, you are. And I’ve caught something really wild this time, haven’t I? I tracked you and caught you and by God I’m going to keep you.”

In the novel by Winston Graham, Marnie’s husband sends her to an analyst who attempts to help her, but in Hitchcock’s version, Mark assumes the role of husband and psychiatrist, Marnie’s keeper, really. His twisted enthusiasm is creepy in that classic Hitchcock men-are-such-creeps way. The two go on a private honeymoon cruise to the South Seas, which becomes the ultimate trap from which Marnie cannot escape. Here it is uncovered that Marnie has never been with a man, and is repulsed by the mere thought of being touched. Mark agrees not to try anything, and spends his days inhaling vast quantities of scotch, thumbing through Animals of the Seashore, and following Marnie slowly with his predatory gaze as she perpetually ignores him. Finally Mark snaps, and in a controversial scene backs Marnie into a corner and rips off her nightgown. She freezes, her eyes glaze over, and then she reverts to a childlike state, a near trance. She lies back on the bed, her face drenched in a half shadow, and though it isn’t shown, it is assumed that Mark rapes her. Marnie then attempts suicide, and Mark finds her the next morning floating face down in the pool.

Marnie arouses unsettling feelings; perhaps this is why it was so ill-received by critics. It’s difficult to watch Mark take Marnie as his personal possession, for it is only as the layers are uncovered (much of the time because he triggers something in her as if she were his very own experiment) that he begins to respect the enormity of her scars. He moves from reading Animals of the Seashore to Sexual Aberrations of the Criminal Female. Much of Marnie’s sordid past is uncovered as she sleeps; she has a recurring dream in which her mother makes her get out of her bed after someone knocks at the door. After a particularly bad nightmare, Mark sits by her bed and plays a game of free association with her, his shrink-boner growing by the second. Marnie mocks him by remarking, “You Freud, me Jane?” She plays along, until he starts throwing words like sex, death, and finally the word “red” which sends her into another panic, and she weeps in Mark’s arms crying out, “Help me, oh help me!”

But is he really helping her? It’s hard to tell. Connery’s character is like a Dean Martin song, so shiny on the surface but at times subtly degrading. After one last attempt to escape, the two go to Marnie’s mother’s house to seek answers. In a convenient lightning storm, which sends Marnie over the edge, she reenacts the entire gruesome scene which had been latent her whole life. And bam! She’s cured?

Not exactly. Though Hitchcock is known for unhappy endings and unresolved plots, Marnie’s conclusion leaves one with strange, unresolved feelings and questions. In the final shot, as the two exit the house, a pack of children jump rope outside. Their nursery rhyme has a dreary, melodic tone, which seems to evoke dread as the cab glides away. Best of luck to you, Marnie. 


Mary Hanlon


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2009

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