This ongoing experiment in film writing freezes a film at 10, 40, and 70 minutes, and keeps the commentary as close to those frames as possible. This week, I examine Marnie, directed by Alfred Hitchcock (1964):
Marnie (Tippi Hedren), visiting her mother, suffers one of her red-flash anxiety attacks upon seeing red gladiolas on a table. “I never could stand gladiolas,” she says as she walks over to replace them, which this shot captures. Released in July 1964, the film’s shooting schedule (slated to begin November 25, 1963) was delayed in the aftermath of Kennedy’s assassination, and indeed the film itself is haunted by a sadness and humorlessness that in some way absorbs the national mood at the time. (The film was shot in studios in California at various locations around the U.S.) That tension is evident in Marnie’s face, which rarely shows a smile. The red she approaches with terror in this frame and throughout the film is not just a visible sign of her childhood trauma (she murdered, at age 6, a man she saw fighting with her mother the prostitute) but also, a weird way, Presidential blood. And for audiences at the time living at the height of the Cold War (the Cuban Missile crisis had occurred just two years earlier) red wavers a dangerous, unstable, coded sign for the other Red. And then there is the little neighbor girl, Jessie, peering from behind the doorway, a substitute Marnie who sort-of lives with Marnie’s mother. This frame captures Marnie caged by three gazes: the little girl’s, her mother’s (off-screen right) and the camera’s. In other words, Marnie is right where Hitchock wants her, just like he wanted all his screen women: pinned and tormented by the the relentless Gaze.
Having just come from the racetrack, Marnie and the wealthy publisher Mark Rutland (Sean Connery), the man she will marry soon, are on their way to visit Mark’s father, whom Marnie is about to meet for the first time. This catches her by surprise, and she worries that she’s not dressed properly for the occasion. It’s a small moment that reveals the complex power dynamics at play in the film, for just as Mark exerts control over Marnie by throwing her off balance with small but authoritarian gestures like this, so too Marnie has her own secret knowledge, her own trap to spring to Mark after their marriage, as he has little awareness at this point of the depth of her madness. “At the opposite pole to this nature of darkness,” Michel Foucault has written, “madness also exerts a fascination because it is knowledge.”
And there also is the gravitational pull of Sean Connery to account for, who was the face of James Bond, having appeared in From Russia with Love that same year, and Dr. No previously. It is perhaps not possible to watch Marnie while forgetting that it is Sean Connery—not James Bond—playing Mark Rutland and this fact casts the film with an aura of artificiality that only strengthens the dream-like quality of the film. Of all of Hitchock’s films, Marnie is the most bold when it comes to functioning as a traditional narrative film that pulls us in through the classic strategies of invisible editing, while at the same time exposing its own artifice. Hitchcock’s post-1960 films for the most part stubbornly refused the visual anarchy of the French New Wave and hand-held cinema vertité which informed another film released in 1964, Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night. In shots like this, which depended on rear-camera projection, Hitchcock doesn’t seem to be seeking realism so much as a symbolic, elegant expression of realism.
On their honeymoon, on a cruise, Mark discovers that not only does Marnie not want to sleep with him, but she doesn’t even want to be touched by him. “Don’t—please don’t,” she pleads with him at this moment. In the trip-wired logic of the film, Marnie exists at this moment as the female “hysteric” in need of being cured by the same beast that wrecked her: a man. But she also exists, if less clearly, as the coming woman of the new Age of Aquarius, resisting—and let’s just be frank—being fucked by a man. For the whole film is really a giant narrative equation trying solve the problem of: why doesn’t Marnie want to have sex? But while it’s tempting to see the movie as a yet another Hollywood male fantasy, it’s also true that the sheer power of Hedren’s iron-willed performance is so overwhelming and focused that we can’t help but identify more strongly with Marnie than with Mark. For Marnie has some serious problems, which means, in other words, that she’s recognizably human in all her flaws. She is us, and despite the narrative momentum towards her “cure,” she can no more be cured than being human can be cured.
The difference between Marnie in 1964 and Marnie in, say, 1967, is that in 1964 her combustive personality is still repressed, controlled, in the same way that Hitchcock’s visual style remained controlled in the face of the coming anarchy of the New American Cinema, epitomized by films like Easy Rider (1969). Even as he was a hero and an inspiration to the directors of the French New Wave, especially Truffaut and Godard, the tightly controlled formalist universe of his films stood in contrast to the restless “mistakism” of the new wave. In an essay published in Cahiers du cinéma just before the release of Breathless (1960), Godard wrote:
Broadly speaking there are two kinds of film-makers. Those who walk along the streets with their heads down, and those who walk with their heads up. In order to see what is going on around them, the former are obliged to raise their heads suddenly and often, turning to the left and then the right, embracing the field of vision in a series of glances. They see. The latter see nothing, they look, fixing their attention on the precise point which interests them. When the former are shooting a film, their framing is roomy and fluid (Rossellini), whereas with the latter it is narrowed down to the last millimetre (Hitchcock). With the former (Welles), one finds a de ́coupage which may be loose but is remarkably open to the temptations of chance; with the latter (Lang), camera movements not only of incredible precision in the set but possessing their own abstract value as movements in space.
Marnie is perhaps the closest Hitchcock ever got to matching form and content in a film, as Marnie’s repression (her caged body language and the position of her left arm and hand in the 70-minute frame) is mirrored in the tightly controlled montage of the film’s visual style. Some of these techniques, which were already becoming anachronistic by 1964, included extensive use of rear projection and matte shots, which have a weird, double-effect on the film. These formal strategies, by 1964, called attention to themselves as artificial, and were just a few cultural moments shy of becoming camp. “The center cannot hold,” Joan Didion wrote in 1967 and in Marnie you can see and feel its disintegration, burning through the screen, as the black hole gravity of the late Sixties destroyed all the old forms, only to make them new again.