Great Movies: 'Marnie,' Hitchcock's Last Masterpiece

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"Marnie" (1964) is one of the most complex thrillers directed by Alfred Hitchcock and follows one of his most fertile periods in his career which produced: "Rear Window," " Vertigo," "North By Northwest" and "Psycho." The film is based on the novel of the same name by Winston Graham and stars Tippi Hedren and Sean Connery. The original film score was composed by the legendary Bernard Herrmann.

Marnie Edgar (Hedren) is a troubled young woman who has an unnatural fear and mistrust of men, thunderstorms, and the color red. She is also a thief. She uses her charms on Sidney Strutt (Martin Gabel) to get a job without references. Then late one night, she steals the contents of the company safe and disappears.

Mark Rutland (Connery), a widower who owns a large publishing company, is a customer of Strutt's. He learns about the theft from the victim, and remembers the woman. Marnie applies for a job at his company; he hires her and they begin to date. He is robbed too, but he finds her. He has fallen in love with her, and instead of handing her over to the police, blackmails her into marrying him.

After being hastily married, Mark and Marnie depart on a honeymoon cruise. He finds out about her frigidity. At first, he respects her wishes but later consumates their marriage against her will. (In certain syndicated broadcastings of the film, this scene is censored, making the sexual encounter more ambiguous.) The next morning she attempts suicide by drowning in the ship's swimming pool but he rescues her in time.

Upon their return, Mark tries to discover the reason behind Marnie's behavior. In the end, they learn that her mother, Bernice (Louise Latham), had been a prostitute. When Marnie was six years old, one of Bernice's clients (a sailor played by Bruce Dern) had tried to calm her after she became frightened by a storm. Bernice thought he was trying to molest her and began attacking him. Seeing her mother struggling with him, she struck him with a fireplace poker, killing him. The bloodshed led to her distrust of men and fear of the color red. Once the origin of her fears is revealed, she decides she wants to try to make her marriage work.

Leonard Maltin has argued that "Marnie" was ahead of its time, while in his biography The Dark Side of Genius, Donald Spoto describes it as Hitchcock's last masterpiece.

The artificial look of the film has received some criticism. “ [Hitchcock] worked in German studios at first, in the silent period. Very early on when he started making films, he saw Fritz Lang's German silent movies; he was enormously influenced by that, and Marnie is basically an expressionist film in many ways. Things like scarlet suffusions over the screen, back-projection and backdrops, artificial-looking thunderstorms—these are expressionist devices and one has to accept them. If one doesn't accept them then one doesn't understand and can't possibly like Hitchcock,” according to author Robin Wood.

In 1961, Alfred Hitchcock offered the title role to Grace Kelly, by then Princess Grace of Monaco, and she agreed. However, the citizens of Monaco objected to her appearing in a film, especially as a sexually disturbed thief. Also, when Kelly married Prince Rainier in 1956, she had not fulfilled her contract with MGM, which could have prevented her from working for another studio. When Kelly turned down the film Hitchcock put it aside to work on "The Birds" (1963).

After completing "The Birds, "Hitchcock returned to the Winston Graham adaptation, and the role of Marnie became a sought-after role in Hollywood. In his book Hitchcock and the Making of Marnie, Tony Lee Moral revealed that a studio executive at Paramount Pictures suggested actress Lee Remick to Hitchcock for the title role. Eva Marie Saint, star of Hitchcock's "North by Northwest" (1959), and Susan Hampshire unsuccessfully pursued the role. Hitchcock also considered two other actresses who were, like Hedren, under his personal contract, Vera Miles and Claire Griswold, wife of director/actor Sydney Pollack.

Instead, Hitchcock opted to use Tippi Hedren, a one-time model he had seen in a commercial for a diet drink in 1961 then cast successfully in "The Birds." According to Hedren, he offered her the role of Marnie during filming of "The Birds." Hedren told writer Moral that she was "amazed" that Hitchcock would offer her this "incredible role", calling it a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity." In 2005, more than 40 years after the film's release, Hedren declared in an interview that "Marnie" was her favorite of the two films she made with Hitchcock, because of the intriguing, complex, challenging character that she played.

Male lead Sean Connery had been worried that being under contract to Eon Productions for both James Bond and non-Bond films would limit his career, and turned down every non-Bond film Eon offered him. When asked what he wanted to do, Connery replied that he wanted to work with Alfred Hitchcock, which Eon arranged through their contacts. Connery also shocked many people at the time by asking to see a script; some regarded that as an affront to Hitchcock. But Connery was worried about being typecast as a spy and he did not want to do a variation of "North by Northwest" or "Notorious."When told by Hitchcock's agent that Cary Grant did not ask to see even one of Hitchcock's scripts, Connery replied, "I'm not Cary Grant." However, Hitchcock and Connery got on well during filming. Connery also said that he was happy with the film, "with certain reservations."

"Marnie" became a milestone for several reasons. It was the last time a 'Hitchcock blonde' would have a central role in one of his films. It was also the final occasion when he would work with several of his key team members, including music composer Bernard Herrmann, who was fired during Hitchcock's next film, "Torn Curtain" (1966), when Hitchcock and Universal studio executives wanted a more contemporary 'pop' tune for the film. Also, Hitchcock had noticed a strong similarity between Herrmann's score for "Joy in the Morning" and "Marnie" and believed Herrmann was repeating himself. Herrmann's music for Marnie included excerpts in his special album for Decca Records. Also, lyrics were written to Herrmann's theme that were to be sung by Nat King Cole.

In a making-of documentary for the DVD release, unit manager Hilton A. Green explains that shooting had been scheduled to begin on November 25, 1963, but had to be postponed because the nation was in mourning for John F. Kennedy, who had been shot three days before.

Marnie continues to have its admirers, as actress Catherine Deneuve indicated that she would have loved to have played Marnie. Actress Naomi Watts dressed up as Hedren's Marnie for the March 2008 issue of Vanity Fair magazine.

Original screenwriter Evan Hunter was dismissed by Hitchcock when he tried to substitute an alternative for the rape scene that featured in the original novel as he felt the audiences of the time would lose sympathy for the male lead. His replacement Jay Presson Allen told him that the rape scene was the only reason Hitchcock wanted to make the film.

Book cover: Scripting HitchcockScripting Hitchcock by Walter Raubicheck and Walter Srebnick is a University of Illinois Press selection. Here is an interview with the authors from the University of Illinois Press Blog:

Q: Scripting Hitchcock focuses on three of Hitchcock’s later films. Why did you choose Psycho, The Birds, and Marnie for your analysis?

A: They were produced at the height of Hitchcock’s popularity, commercial success, and critical reputation and include his two best-known films—Psycho and The Birds—and the film that marks the end of his last great period as a filmmaker—Marnie. They were written by three young screenwriters, each of whom was new to Hollywood, and each of whom worked on the last of the three films: Marnie.

Q: Was Hitchcock’s general source material consistent throughout his directing career or did he draw from many different kinds of artistic and literary sources?

A: Like most of his films throughout his career, these three were based on popular contemporary literary works—two novels (Psycho, Marnie) and a novella (The Birds). He occasionally turned to plays (I Confess, Dial M for Murder), and once (The Wrong Man) to an actual true-life story.

Q: Psycho’s shower scene is one of the most famous in all of cinema. How did the dialogue or blocking change—if at all—from the screenplay to the screen?

A: The physical and visual construction of that scene was unprecedented in the history of film in its tight planning, sequencing, and intensity. Hitchcock worked it out in minute detail with his pictorial consultant, his crew, and his cast. But what happens in the scene was already quite evident in Joseph Stefano’s screenplay.

Q: Were any of the screenwriters initially skeptical about speaking with you for the book?

A: No. They were eager to talk with us, felt that our project was interesting and worthwhile, and seemed to see it as a way to be acknowledged for their contribution to these three classic films.

Q: Did Hitchcock have a different working relationship with female screenwriters than male screenwriters?

A: Actually of our three writers, he had the closest relationship with the one woman, Jay Presson Allen, who wrote Marnie. He felt she brought a woman’s point of view to a film which focused on a female protagonist. She and Hitchcock became fast friends and their relationship lasted until the end of his life.

Q: What was the most interesting thing that you learned in researching Scripting Hitchcock?

A: How important the screenwriter was in collaboration with Hitchcock, and how important the director was in the writing process. He was, in many ways, a co-writer. While they wrote all the dialogue and directions, and he subsequently directed the film, they worked closely together in shaping the narrative and characters at the heart of the film. He relied on them heavily and, considered them co-creators of the film, even when he was reluctant to admit it.

Q: Do you have a favorite Hitchcock film?

Walter Raubicheck: Rear Window, North by Northwest
Walter Srebnick: Vertigo, Psycho


Visit your local library for more resources on this topic.

Marnie (DVD)

Alfred Hitchcock films on DVD


Scripting Hitchcock
by Walter Raubicheck and Walter Srebnick

Hitchcock and the Making of Marnie
Tony Lee Moral

The Dark Side of Genius
Donald Spoto

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