Marnie (1964)

*. I’ve written quite frequently about the process of critical revision, whereby films that were panned when they were first released go on to climb the heights of critical (and, though less frequently, popular) glory. It’s a sort of comeback story that people get particularly invested in, as we all seem to like the idea of snooty critics (or unwashed masses, or both) not “getting it” the first time around, and that we’re involved in a project of righting a historical wrong by rewarding unrecognized works of genius.
*. Well, if you want a movie that can stand as a test case for revision, I give to you Marnie.
*. The initial reception was mixed in a pretty dramatic way. People thought it was either very good or very bad. Or even a mix of the two, a good-bad movie, as was expressed in the opinion of Edith Oliver in the New Yorker, who called it “an idiotic and trashy movie with two terrible performances in the leading roles, and I had quite a good time watching it. There is something bracing about Hitchcock at work, even when he is at his worst”.
*. Was Marnie the last of a stretch of Hitchcock classics, in the words of biographer Donald Spoto his “last great masterpiece” coming immediately after Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho, and The Birds? Or was it the beginning of a sharp decline? Next up would be the clunkers Torn Curtain and Topaz. Should we be looking forward or back?
*. Proponents of the former position might point to how Marnie was the end of a number of important collaborations, marking the last score for Hitchcock by Bernard Herrmann, and the last time Hitchcock would work with cinematographer Robert Burks and editor George Tomasini. But by the same token you could argue that the old gang were played out, and that what we were getting was a lot of old tricks amplified to the point of absurdity as a way of pumping life into them. Herrmann’s score, for example, was deliberately written as a way of overcompensating for what the conductor thought a lack of emotion on screen. Pauline Kael was just one critic ready to put Marnie into an obit column with her capsule review: “Hitchcock scraping bottom.”

*. But then there was the turnaround and revision, which Peter Bogdanovich credited largely to the influence of Truffaut’s book. In a BBC list of the 100 greatest American films done in 2015, Marnie would come in 47th. Richard Brody, writing in the New Yorker in 2016, would call it Hitchcock’s “best film,” and credit Tippi Hedren’s performance as “one of the greatest in the history of cinema.” Not to be outdone, Robin Wood concludes the documentary on the making of the film, “The Trouble with Marnie,” by saying “If you don’t like Marnie, you don’t really like Hitchcock. I would go further than that and say if you don’t love Marnie, you don’t really love cinema.”
*. I quote these raves to play fair, because I think Marnie is terrible. Indeed, I’m with Oliver in finding it hysterically awful. To take just one example, when Marnie breaks down after her abrupt analysis session with Mark, crying out “Help me! Oh God, somebody help me!” I laughed out loud. This is camp on a level with Mommie Dearest.
*. Now if you’re a real film critic you take all the overplaying here and instead of calling it camp you describe it as expressionism, with Hitchcock going back to his formative influences in the early days of German film. And there’s no question he’s building up that nightmarish quality, especially with the strangely deserted locations. Why is there absolutely no one in that train station? Just so we don’t — heaven forbid! — lose sight of that handbag? And why is the cruise ship totally empty? Did Mark rent the whole ship for his honeymoon?

*. But the movie keeps doubling down in ways that I find hysterical. I mentioned the score, which just BLARES at every big emotional moment. But in case that wasn’t enough, you also get lightning and smashes of thunder in the background as punctuation. And the screen being washed in red! Red! Even a drop of red ink on her blouse will trigger poor Marnie. Which makes you wonder how she manages to put her lipstick on. But we know what Hitchcock thinks about plausibility.
*. What I mean is, Hitchcock didn’t think audiences cared about stuff like that. Or Sean Connery’s strange accent. Or the shot of the big ship at the end of the street (that the production designers wanted to reshoot). Or the horse-riding scenes. But how can you not laugh at the horse crashing into the wall, with the camera tilting crazily all over the place? It’s just too much.
*. For a movie this tightly strung, you’re always in danger of falling a long way into absurdity, and I think Marnie falls all the way. Marnie freezing as she reaches for the money in the safe at the end is another silly moment. Did audiences take this seriously at the time? Oliver apparently didn’t. I sure don’t. But the line between being expressive and overly expressive is a fine one.

*. The script, based on a Winston Graham novel, is sheer trash. Not a fatal problem, as Robert Bloch’s Psycho was trash too (but good trash). I don’t see how anyone today could take it seriously though. To be honest, I’m not sure how seriously Hitchcock took psychoanalytic claptrap. He was certainly interested in it, but in previous films like Spellbound and Psycho he seemed to have his tongue in his cheek when dealing with it. Here I guess we were supposed to be responding to Marnie’s plight as being like that of Joanne Woodward in The Three Faces of Eve. But that comparison only highlights how inferior Marnie is. It’s closer to Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte. Which, by the way, is also a better movie.
*. Even the repressed childhood trauma made me laugh. Though Bruce Dern is certainly a scary dude. His death, oddly enough, was also the catalyst for repressed memories in Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte as well, which came out the same year. How odd.
*. So there’s where I come down on revision. I think Marnie is a joke, but it does score some points as camp. The script is hysterical psychobabble, the stars are both miscast, and the production has a cheap look to it that jars. Students of Hitchcock may get a kick out of seeing how often he quotes himself, and to what crazy ends, but to claim this is a great movie is being perverse.

19 thoughts on “Marnie (1964)

  1. Bookstooge

    Man, another critic run amuck! Just who do you think you to pan this movie so badly, huh? Are you famous? Are you rich? Do you know how to run a banana farm? Have you ever raised a donkey from birth in hopes of running it in the famous Donkey Races of London only to have it explode because a competitor fed it cherry bombs that morning?
    I didn’t think so.

    So how about you go pan a movie that really deserves it, like “Finding Nemo”

    (ohhhh I’m in top form this morning!)

      1. Bookstooge

        You’re library doesn’t have it? I’m surprised.
        For some reason it was considered one of Pixar’s best. I never understood that myself.

        Well, good luck on your hunt. I hope you don’t forget that you are looking for it.

      2. Bookstooge

        And you’ve been banned from that section? Say no more. But someday, those kids will kick themselves for not investing in Mr Bins and his sidekick Alex line of products.
        You coulda been a contendah!

      3. fragglerocking

        Nothing wrong with growing up with Nemo! Lots of subliminal learning, like don’t go out alone after arguing with your dad, don’t rely on someone else’s memory for directions, don’t swim with sharks, that kind of thing a young Alex has to know about!

      4. Alex Good Post author

        If only I had learned those lessons as a kid. Oh well. At least I got something out of Charlotte’s Web and The Adventures of Grizzly Adams.

      5. Alex Good Post author

        They were movies! Well books too, but also movies. The first movies I ever saw.

        Never read Enid Blyton. I think people did read her over here, but she wasn’t as big as in England.

  2. Riders of Skaith

    The book is interestingly different from the movie, and has a rather better ending. (My personal peeve is the movie changing the annoying/obstructive relative from male to female when they could have had George Sanders there doing his thing….)


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