Marnie (1964)

Alfred Hitchcock | 2hr 10min

Alfred Hitchcock was getting clumsy as he moved into the later stages of his illustrious career, or at least in the case of Marnie, inconsistent. One could also say the same for Tippi Hedren, though she never exactly reached the same great heights. The result of their collaboration here is a film that is certainly flawed, but which still successfully weaves a captivating mystery through Marnie Edgar’s traumatic triggers, all to discover why she compulsively steals, reacts viscerally to the colour red, and is shaken so deeply by thunderstorms.

She is first introduced to us as a sum of her actions and body parts – a stolen yellow handbag, a yellow key, hands ruffling through wads of cash, hair dye washing down a sink, the point of a heel, and of course, a gloriously dramatic face reveal as she whips her newly-dyed blonde hair back, shedding her old disguise. Hitchcock’s camera follows her around with a beguiled fascination, slyly tracking the back of her head through office spaces, lifting into magnificent crane shots as she loses control of her horse running across open fields, and in moments of panic, tracking in on her face as if to close the world in around her.

An excellent introduction to this character, tracking her from behind and remaining in close-ups of her action until the face reveal.
A fantastic crane shot as Marnie loses control of her horse on this open field, Hitchcock lifting his camera to dizzying heights.

The first time we see Marnie’s aversion to the colour red, it is when she catches sight of some gladiolas in a vase. Later, she faints when accidentally dripping some red ink onto her white outfit, and each time Hitchcock flashes red across his frame, enveloping her in a mindset where there is nothing else but that which causes her deep terror. Its manifestation rarely takes a single form, but simply in associating the colour with different objects and ideas, Hitchcock layers Marnie’s aversion to it with implications of romantic passion, blood, and later when she hallucinates a thunderstorm flashing red lightning through the room, the presence of physical danger.

The frame flashing red whenever Marnie’s triggers appear, a formally repeating motif tying her inextricably to the colour red.
The storm flashing red lightning, a hallucination that further builds out Marnie’s unstable psyche.

Perhaps this is why Hitchcock dresses her predominantly in cool colours, as she tries to maintain an icy distance from others. Serving a parallel purpose to this is her thieving, allowing her to indirectly interact with the world while keeping up a barrier. In an expertly composed wide shot within an office building, Hitchcock splits his frame down the middle with a wall that isolates Marnie through a doorway off to the right, trying to crack a safe. On the left-hand side, a janitor slowly advances towards the camera, leisurely mopping the floors, and with neither realising the other’s presence, the dramatic irony is thick in the air. Though she narrowly escapes in this incident, she isn’t so lucky when wealthy publisher Mark Rutland sees through the façade. In his intrigue, he decides to solve the mystery of her compulsive habits and bizarre triggers, becoming a bridge (though certainly a troublesome one) between her and the outside world that she has strived to avoid.

Hitchcock often rightly gets credit for his ability to create tension from camera movements and editing, but here the frame is completely static, and he lets his blocking of actors speak for itself.
A short, sharp cutaway of Marnie’s heel falling to the ground as she tries to make her silent escape, caught in an unexpected canted angle.

Mark is somewhat of our vessel down this winding path to discover the single, unifying explanation behind Marnie’s erratic behaviours, though Sean Connery also has no qualms about playing him as a bit of jerk. Despite this selfishness, Hitchcock frequently binds us to his observations of Marnie as a subject of fascination, and when she briefly goes missing on a cruise ship, his panicked run through its hallways and across its decks proves to be a great opportunity for Hitchcock to build out the intricate architecture of the space, shooting him against low ceilings and down narrow hallways that take on the appearance of a claustrophobic labyrinth.

Mark running through this labyrinth of corridors caught in low angles, closing in around him as he searches for a missing Marnie.

And indeed, we do eventually get answers, though unlike so many of Hitchcock’s greater films these revelations leave us hanging on an unfinished note, as if he is not sure what to do with this information. It certainly isn’t helped by Hedren’s overwrought handling of Marnie’s final breakdown immediately preceding this moment either. It is rather Hitchcock’s ability to make us lean forward in moments of unbearable intrigue and tension that turns this film into an enthralling study of compulsive behaviour, rotating through visual motifs that come to define the troubled mind at its centre. There may be a great deal more consistent psychological thrillers out there, but the dramatic unravelling of one of Hitchcock’s greatest characters gives it a power that so many others barely even touch.

Hitchcock returning to his famous dolly zoom to send us into this flashback, warping the proportions of the entire frame.

Marnie is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.

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