Alfred Hitchcock had initially wanted to make Marnie with Grace Kelly in the lead and had planned to do it after Psycho, but the actress had to withdraw due to issues in Monaco. The director went to work on The Birds instead and shelved the idea for the psychologically dense film about a sexually disturbed thief. One does wonder how well a princess would’ve played the role anyway.
After working with Tippi Hedren on the aforesaid avian thriller, Hitch elected to cast her in Marnie and fired the projected back up again. The filmmaker went through a raft of writers to pin down the 1964 movie, firing Evan Hunter after he objected to a rape scene and settling on Jay Presson Allen to adapt the Winston Graham novel.
Hedren stars as the titular character. She is a thief who steals from various businesses after getting hired for clerical positions. After the theft, she changes her identity. All the while, Marnie has a troubled relationship with her mother (Louise Latham) who has an odd attachment to the neighbour’s daughter (Kimberly Beck).
When Marnie gets hired by Mark Rutland (Sean Connery), she is unaware of the fact that he remembers her from a previous crime. She eventually steals his money, but he’s ahead of the game and confronts her. Rather than turning her in, Rutland blackmails her into marrying him. He discovers that she is frigid, which is just the tip of the iceberg for this disturbed young woman.
While Marnie can be somewhat convoluted at times, the various angles only add to the web of intrigue that sits at the core of the story. The quest to discover what’s wrong with the titular character leads her to destroy her past and eradicate her connections. In turn, that leaves quite a puzzle for the audience – and Rutland – to put together. This is where his zoological interests come in handy.
Marnie is, after all, a wounded animal and a predator. This is what makes the aforementioned rape scene so interesting. Rutland is turned on by the dangerous aspects of the woman and can’t contain his desires, which causes him to commit his own act of vile theft. He takes what he believes belongs to him, which dovetails into what Marnie has to say about women.
The character is forced into “decency” by her mother, a behavioural construct that relates to what’s expected of a woman. Marnie can be a thief and a liar and a cheat, but she better not take her clothes off with a man. When Rutland literally forces his “good intentions” on her, he represents all that a man expects a wife to be. The problem that arises, the one that delves deep into Marnie’s past, is sexual.
To underline this, it’s revealing that it isn’t the robbery that causes Rutland to drag Marnie back through the past. It’s her frigidity that does it. The path to any sort of psychobabble-based solution runs right to the most obvious of Hitchcockian markers: the mother. As Lil Mainwaring (Diane Baker) notes in Bates-like fashion, “I always thought a girl’s best friend was her mother.”
A lot of what goes on in Marnie has threads in Hitchcock’s other pictures, of course. The notion of falling in love with someone for rather animalistic reasons date all the way back to The Lodger, where Daisy Bunting feels an attraction to Ivor Novello’s character because she figures he could be a killer. Connery’s Rutland is doubtlessly turned on by Marnie’s criminal history.
There’s also the idea of marital fraud, which occurs in Rebecca among other places. In the case of that picture, the title character wants to continue sexual dalliances on the side and agrees to act as the perfect wife. In the case of Marnie, the agreement is more tenuous and the title character wants nothing more than to make a break for it.
François Truffaut would argue that Hitchcock wasn’t the same after the failure of Marnie. “This was not so much due to the financial failure of the film,” Truffaut notes, “but rather to the failure of his professional and personal relationship with Tippi Hedren…he entertained the notion of transforming her into another Grace Kelly.”
The drama behind the scenes is the subject of another essay, but one does see an image of Hitchcock here as a sort of flawed master. Marnie affords him the opportunity to exact his vision once more. And once more his purity of form revels in the intricate stuff of natural legend, owing a lot to his entire oeuvre but also pointing bravely forward to a psychological depth never to come.