Marnie is a very difficult watch for viewers who knows anything about its production history. Hitchcock had already started to develop a stalker-like obsession towards Tippi Hedren during The Birds, but things became even worse during the filming of Marnie. Hedren claims that he followed around outside the set, tried to control what she wore, ate and drank and eventually made “an overt sexual proposition that she could neither ignore nor answer casually, as she could his previous gestures.” She rejected his advances and refused to work with him again, despite Hitchcock’s threats that he would ruin her career.
I firmly believe that art can be brilliant and beautiful on its own merits regardless of the artist’s personal life – no matter how despicable – but after the behind-the-scenes allegations of entrapment, coercion and sexual harassment raised against Hitchcock, what is Marnie about? Entrapment, coercion and sexual harassment.
But, unsettling as it, Marnie is extremely good. Hedren plays the eponymous heroine, a cunning thief who suffers from psychotic episodes brought on by the colour red (sound familiar?). She applies for a job at a publishing company owned by Mark Rutland (Sean Connery) with the intent of robbing him. But Rutland guesses her secret and blackmails her into marrying him.
There are times when Marnie is good enough to stand alongside Hitchcocks’s last five films. Hedren absolutely excels in the lead now she gets the chance to dig her teeth into a meatier role and her screen relationship with Connery is the right level of creepy. You get the impression that Rutland truly loves and cares for Marnie, but he still acts detestably towards her. Every time he uses phrases like “wholesome animal lust” it makes the skin crawl.
But boy oh boy, the film drops the ball with the ending. It’s hard to discuss it without major spoilers, but in essence the film moves from what was an intricate and disconcerting portrayal of an abusive relationship to a cop-out slice of victim-blaming. It stinks. And it retrospectively tarnishes what was up until that point a superb and effective film.
Film biographer Donald Spoto describes it as Hitchcock’s last masterpiece. Close but no cigar. I’d say it’s about 80% masterpiece. Well worth watching, but switch it off before the last twenty minutes.