The Heroine’s Journey in “Marnie”

“Marnie” is the film in which Hitchcock’s method reaches the breaking point—in which Hitchcock, the master of control, loses control. When I first saw the movie, decades ago, I was still unaware of the horrifying backstory to its creation—Hitchcock’s sexual harassment of its star, Tippi Hedren. The drama itself is a story of sexual violence, which is inflicted both physically and mentally by the lead male character, a wealthy businessman named Mark Rutland (played by Sean Connery) on Hedren’s title character. The movie’s story and its backstory converge, rendering the cruelty that went into its production palpable in the viewing.

Hitchcock films the story with a wide-eyed, astonished, fascinated, and disturbed camera stare that seems to shudder and tremble every time Hedren is onscreen. Even the director’s cameo—in which he watches Hedren walking down a hotel corridor and then turns back to look at the camera, shamefacedly caught in his own leer—suggests his self-aware sense of visual carnality. The images offer an extraordinary swing between blasts of heat and an eerie chill, sometimes bringing the two together. Even the film’s exterior locations have a fluorescent buzz that captures an ambient sense of derangement.

The story itself—of Mark’s irrepressible lust for Marnie—is also a story of Marnie’s troubles and Mark’s willingness to turn his life upside down, and put himself at grave legal risk, to help her overcome them. She’s a serial kleptomaniac who insinuates herself into businesses as a bookkeeper, gains access to their safes, and makes off with stacks of cash; Mark, in attempting to shield Marnie from prosecution, risks arrest as an accomplice. But there’s another side to Marnie’s affliction—her extreme aversion to sex, to a man’s touch, and to Mark’s touch in particular—and that’s double trouble, because, in order to help her, Mark has also married her. Or, rather, Mark, holding the threat of legal complications over her head, coerces Marnie into marrying him in haste, and it isn’t until they leave his Philadelphia estate and go on their honeymoon, a cruise to the South Seas, that he discovers her sexual block. He initially puts up with her rejection and suggests that she seek professional help. (Her response: “Oh, men—you say ‘No, thanks’ to one of them and, bingo, you’re a candidate for the funny farm. It would be hilarious if it weren’t pathetic.”)

Mark’s frustration builds and is exacerbated by Marnie’s imperious manner. He bursts into her room when she’s wearing only a nightgown; as he tells her sarcastically that he wants to “go to bed,” she shrieks, “No!” In one sharp gesture, he tears the nightgown off her, as she stands with a lunar, frozen passivity. Seeming to regret his violation, Mark apologizes, covers her with his bathrobe, and takes her into his arms. Marnie is still inert, staring into the void, when, attempting to console her, he embraces her, kisses her, and tilts her backward into bed. Hitchcock matches Marnie’s coldly terrified gaze, straight at the viewer, with Mark’s ardent and aroused gaze, also into the camera, as Mark leans her into bed and, it’s implied, has sex with her—rather, he rapes her. Marnie attempts to commit suicide as a result, and Mark saves her, but the crisis doesn’t destroy the bond between them. Marnie continues to endure the sham of the marriage, and Mark goes on trying to help Marnie, getting her ultimately to acknowledge that she is suffering from mental illness. (The cause—without giving away too much—is a repressed memory of sexual assault and violence from when she was a child.)

“Marnie” isn’t a horror movie, but it’s a movie of horrors, and those horrors are all connected to sex. If there’s one constant in Hitchcock’s career, it’s sex—sexual desire, sexual aversion, sexual fear, sexual repression, sexual gratification—as the engine of human society at both its best (its occasional acts of heroism) and its worst (the crimes that he films with such cunning and such unnerving relish). Hedren’s performance is one of the greatest in the history of cinema, and it’s inseparable from the pathology of Hitchcock’s approach to her, personal and cinematic. Marnie is a woman who is othered to the vanishing point—whose identity is both elusive and absolute, exalted to the height of his passion and thus rendered utterly passive, statue-like, inhuman and inanimate in the presence of desire. It’s exactly what Hedren had and what Hitchcock elicited; she may not have been the most comprehensively trained actress in Hollywood, but she has a singular presence that mixes alertness and abstraction, a presence that’s at the same time an absence, and he pushes it to its extreme.

Marnie is a master of disguises, a shape-shifter opaque to herself and opaque to the world, whose true nature—with her torments and her talents, her intellectual power and emotional fortitude—is revealed only to the man who desires her so passionately that he’s ready to overturn his own settled world in order to possess her, and whose desire to possess her leads him to rape her, and whose rape of her plays the romantic role of the marriage’s consummation and seals their bond. The film is, to put it simply, sick, and it’s so because Hitchcock was sick. He suffered all his life from furious sexual desire, suffered from the lack of its gratification, suffered from the inability to transform fantasy into reality, and then went ahead and did so virtually, by way of his art. That’s why Hitchcock’s methods—Hitchcock’s meticulous and mysterious plots, Hitchcock’s style of image-making, Hitchcock’s process of designing his movies, their images and sounds and performances, with a supremely analytical specificity and intentionality—are relevant to Hitchcock alone. That’s why the veneration of Hitchcock as the reigning model of directorial precision and control is grotesquely counterproductive for filmmakers and critics—and for the history and progress of the art of moviemaking. His films are the beautiful rendering of his own ugly fury.