When Marnie first came out, Alfred Hitchcock was firmly wedged in the center of a war between enemies and acolytes. Pauline Kael thought the Master of Suspense was scraping bottom with this tale of a kleptomaniac (Tippi Hedren) married to a businessman with psychiatric aspirations (Sean Connery), while Robin Wood went as far as to claim that disliking the film boiled down to disliking the cinema. Adored and reviled, Hitchcock was at the difficult time in an artist's career when critics' and viewers' familiarity with the auteur's themes and style led to a hardening of expectation, so that any venture into new ground would be immediately scoffed off as a failure. Hitch, after all, is supposed to make breezy thrillers, and what's so breezy about a frigid woman's stunting traumas? Indeed, the filmmaker all but tosses off his one piece of conventional “suspense” (the title character nearly caught while stealing from a safe) to better focus on prodding the mysteries of her troubled psyche. Viewed from the safe distance of four decades after its release, Marnie, perhaps even more than The Birds, emerges as the director's definitive late-period masterpiece.
Marnie (Hedren) is first seen walking away from us, dressed in dark gray while holding a fragrantly yellow bag in an empty train station, a stunning example of the way Hitchcock's camera could create visual poetry out of simply following people around. Her hair is black, but only until she checks into a hotel (almost bumping into the director, who's guiltily leaving his room in a cheeky cameo) and gets back her blond tresses—dying her hair, like accumulating false identities, gives Marnie a way to grope toward a world she feels she's hardly a part of. She's just made off with almost ten thousand of her boss's money, though instead of leaving the country she goes to visit her mother (Louise Latham), who preaches that “men and a good name don't go together.” A glimpse of red gladiolas and the screen is drenched in crimson; the subjective shot lasts for a moment or so, yet for the rest of the scene we are made to share Marnie's pent-up anger and frustration at her mother's strange lack of affection. Recomposed (and now brunette), she moves in to her next target, the publishing company run by Mark Rutland (Connery).
Typing with both eyes on the company safe, Marnie is a species on display in the glass-panel offices, impossibly intriguing to Mark, who fancies himself something of a zoologist. Add to her case an absent father and a fondness for horses, and she's a creature waiting to be tamed—he catches her and, threatening to expose her crimes, forces her into marriage in order to “cure” her. Unluckily for his sexual arrogance, Marnie's larcenous impulses come together with a fierce frigidity, so that during their yacht honeymoon he learns that she's repelled by his touch. In an extraordinary sequence, she frostily relents and lies on her back for the delayed consummation of their marriage, and Hitchcock shuffles POVs, alternating between the entrapped female gaze and the entrapping male gaze before panning over to the cabin's circular porthole. Afterwards, secrets turn even more salient. Why the panicky suffusions whenever Marnie sees a red object? What are the nightmares haunting her at night? Mark is content to have her play the perfect society wife (yet another role for the “Method-actress liar”), but a languid crane shot through the guests at a posh party, a replay of the famous camera movement in Notorious, makes it clear that her helplessly shady past will always be between the two.
“Me Jane, you Freud?” Marnie's flippant remark to her husband as he tries to examine her fears through a game of free-association provides the key to Hitchcock's style. Just as Mark presses her into finding meaning in the words he pelts her with (“Pins. Sex. Red. Death.”), the director invites us to participate in decoding the richly dreamlike mise-en-scène. A parade of symbols clutter the screen (keys, safes, combinations), but everything under the camera's scrutiny becomes a potential element of the heroine's subjective unreality—lightning seen through a window, piles of money stashed in a safe, a close-up of a gun, Bernard Herrmann's orchestral throbs, the molasses in Latham's Southern drawl, all are undiluted trompe l'oeil, boldly representational glimpses of a distorted mind. Contemporary critics looking for “realism” missed the daring formal experimentalism of painted backgrounds and rear-projections just as they dissed Hedren's remarkable turn as a shabby substitute for Grace Kelly (the same critics, of course, would be forgiven for not spotting the film's problematic budding feminism, to say nothing of its future influence on Argento, Lynch, De Palma, and Scorsese).
The movie's themes, along with its avalanche of formal signifiers, are all fused together in the magisterial hunting sequence, where Marnie joins the other riders in Mark's estate for the fox hunt and, following a breathtaking bit of Eisensteinian montage on par with Psycho's shower time, shoots down her beloved fallen steed. The transgressive violence inherent in her repressed sense of self is faced with society's organized violence, and her breakdown is triggered. Hedren's corseted Marnie may be the polar opposite of Rebecca Romijn-Stamos's sultry Laura Ash in Femme Fatale, yet the sexual element in both women's mere presences, the former in its absence and the latter in its excess, constitutes a threat to the way women are perceived by men. In both films the directors contribute to the perception through the gaze of their cameras, and Hedren, being the unreachable object of Hitchcock's obsession, brings a particular sense of masochistic revolt to the role. (It's interesting to note that Robin Wood would later trace a trail of crumbs from her Marnie up to Isabelle Huppert in The Piano Teacher.) One last visit to her mother's house unclogs her memories and exhumes her trauma; as the escalating hysteria brings about painful catharsis, she is finally able to awake from her nightmares. “I'm a cheat, a liar, and a thief…but I'm decent,” she weeps, summing up the contradictory impulses—morality and perversion, oppression and release, image and meaning—that give society its unresolved tensions, and Hitchcock's still unheralded classic its endless fascination.