Friday, August 30, 2013

Alfred Hitchcock's Marnie

In the retrospective documentary included on Universal’s DVD of Marnie, production assistant Hilton Green remembers that President Kennedy had been assassinated during production. That means ‘Tippi’ Hedren is mistaken when she says that Sean Connery came to the Alfred Hitchcock production after wrapping Dr. No, his debut as James Bond. On November 22, 1963, the second 007 thriller, From Russia with Love, was already a hit in Europe, and it is commonly believed that it was the last movie that the 35th president watched, in a private White House screening, before he left for Dallas. According to The New York Times Directory of the Film, the “paper of record” reviewed the sophomore Bond movie on April 9, 1964, two months before it went into general release throughout the U.S. Marnie was given its due by the Times on June 23. It was a big year for the Scottish actor who had four films reach U.S. screens in 1964, the biggest of which, Goldfinger, would elevate him and James Bond to superstar status at Christmas.

Although he is second-billed to Hedren (who has the title role), Connery is the main attraction of Marnie even if he’s miscast as an American aristocrat whose Scottish ancestry is never mentioned (well, you see, his character, Mark Rutland, has no Scottish ancestry). He hires Marnie (who is using an alias) to do secretarial work knowing full well that she’s a thief who emptied the safe of a previous employer. After attempting to rob her latest benefactor, she’s given a choice: she can be turned over to the police, or she can become Mrs. Rutland.

Rutland is determined to get to the root of his bride’s problems. Why is Marnie a thief? Why is she so terrified of thunderstorms? Why is she appalled when a man attempts seduction, another of her quirks that comes to light on their honeymoon?

The screenplay by Jay Pressen Allen (from a novel by Winston Graham) never sheds much light on Marnie’s psychological problems, but they are miraculously solved in the climactic flashback (featuring a young Bruce Dern). It helps explain her aversion to men and thunderstorms, but not her attraction to thievery.

Marnie is an oddball movie, a rather modest one for Hitchcock after the technological sophistication of The Birds and the grisly thrills of Psycho. There are few of his suspenseful touches, no moments that really startle, and the use of fake process shots is more obvious than in his earlier films.

It is Connery who holds the attention with a performance that might have made it easier for him to shake off the image of Ian Fleming’s superspy had it come a little later in his career, after "Bondmania" rather than six months before it. He shows real vulnerability in his scenes with Hedren, and one can easily imagine him (as some cannot) cradling the corpse of James Bond’s murdered wife in the denouement of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, a scene in which George Lazenby seemed to be more at home.

Connery is also amusing, especially in the scene where he is driving Marnie home after a storm that destroyed a cabinet in his office containing the pre-Columbian art that his late wife had collected.

“I’m really sorry about the cabinet,” Marnie says.
“Why should you be?” asks Rutland.
“You said it was all you had of your late wife.”
He corrects her: “I said it was all I had left that had belonged to my wife.”

Watch Connery’s eyes and the hint of an ironic smile on his lips as he says the latter line. On repeat viewings, the moment stands out as a subtle comic gem.

Hedren is merely adequate, and it’s no surprise that once Hitchcock got over his infatuation with her, she disappeared from the screen until being cast in a supporting role in Charlie Chaplin’s disastrous A Countess from Hong Kong in 1967. Lovely Diane Baker as Lil, a sort of rival to Marnie, is terrific and might have been a better choice for the lead.

Bernard Herrmann’s score sounds dated, more appropriate for a film from the ‘50s than from the era already being dominated by James Bond and the Beatles. After replacing Herrmann on 1966’s Torn Curtain, Hitchcock would not work with his greatest collaborator again.

Even though it starred the screen’s “Man of the Year” (as Connery was touted in some of the film’s advertisements), Marnie was something of a dud upon its initial release. It’s obvious that Universal had little faith in the film since the studio paired it with a Pat Boone B flick when opening it in New York. The film's reputation has improved through the years, and it is definitely worth seeing, particularly for Connery, but it remains second-tier Hitchcock.

© 2013 Brian W. Fairbanks


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