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Married to the Movies — Mdino's Blog

HITCHCOCK’S MARNIE (1964)

With his 1964 production of MARNIE, Alfred Hitchcock was treading on dangerous ground.  He had just come off a string of masterpieces beginning with STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (1951) and culminating with THE BIRDS (1963).  He and the world wondered:  Would he follow these films with a worthy successor?  Hitchcock answered this question by creating a film that confused many and disappointed most.  It seemed he had wasted his time with what was regarded as an insipid and ersatz soap opera.  Insipid because of a general lack of suspense in comparison to his recent work.  Ersatz considering the awful painted backdrops and fuzzy rear projections scattered throughout the film.  Partly because of contradictory statements by Hitchcock himself, critics years after the initial release began debating the director’s symbolic intent if any, behind these backdrops and process shots.  Needless to say, a cottage industry has sprung up analyzing the film, with critics bending over backwards to make excuses for the film’s shortcomings.   Undeniably,  many of these interpretations have merit, while others may be examples of wishful thinking by some of Hitch’s more ardent admirers.

In MARNIE, Hitchcock and screenwriter Jay Presson Allen explore the life of a compulsive thief: The gorgeous though hopelessly frigid Marnie Edgar (“Tippi” Hedren).  Her mode of operation is as follows: She steals large sums of money from her employers, changes her identity and moves onto the next job (and theft) in another city.  When Marnie takes a job in the office of a publishing company, she does not realize that her new employer, Mark Rutland (Sean Connery) remembers her from a past stint working for a tax consultant firm, where he was a client.  After she robs his company, Mark blackmails her into marriage in an attempt to play psychiatrist, and uncover the reason for her compulsion.  In the process he discovers her pathological fear of sex and its connection to her obsession with theft.  Indeed the theme of theft as sex and sex as theft is one frequently explored by Hitchcock, most elegantly in TO CATCH A THIEF (1955).  In MARNIE the theme is seized upon by Hitchcock with a relish that is almost gleeful, as Marnie certainly experiences a sexual rush from her crimes.  Added to this is the honeymoon rape of Marnie by Mark, a man who is not used to sexual rejection.  He literally steals her virginity and Hitchcock’s own sexual kinks are on display, much to a psychologically inclined critic’s fascination.  This troubling scene, as concocted by Winston Graham, the author of the original novel on which the film is based, led to original screenwriter Evan Hunter leaving the project in a state of dismay.

Also intensely explored is Mark’s fascination with zoology and his view of Marnie as a “wild thing” that needs to be tamed.  “I’ve caught a wild one this time!” he says, practically smacking his lips.  Of course, she is certainly not sexually wild, but is viewed as “wild” in that she is beyond the control of a man.   Frankly, Marnie is referred to by men in animalistic terms, several times throughout the film.  Beside Mark’s statements, her first employer, Mr. Strutt (Martin Gabel) describes her to the police as having “good teeth”, a term often used in describing race horses.  There is also a hilarious moment at a racetrack, as a former employer (Milton Selzer) spies on Marnie through a rolled up newspaper.  A crowd of men behind him, looking in the same direction, and ostensibly enjoying the race, jump to their feet, shouting excitedly.  It is almost as though they are cheering for the gorgeous Marnie as well as the horses.  And Marnie loves horses.  She is frequently shown riding her horse “Forio” and  a fox hunt  features prominently as both a metaphor for the central situation and as a catalyst for the film’s denouement.  The unfettered sexuality of a beautiful woman on horseback is compared to the thrill Marnie experiences in her thefts.  After she robs Mark’s safe, she removes her shoes to avoid detection.  When Mark surprises her with Forio, the beloved stallion Marnie has not seen in months, she once again removes her shoes before mounting the horse.  It is here that we encounter the problematic rear projections.  Some critics maintain that the out of focus process shots used for Marnie’s riding scenes (and a similarly phony looking painted backdrop outside her Mother’s home) are symbolic of the young woman’s ultimate lack of fulfilment in pursuits that are meant to offer her peace and resolution.  In other words, the pleasures they offer are unreal.   Such interpretations should be left to the individual viewer.  As for me, I remain unconvinced.  As for Hitchcock, he has offered conflicting statements about this film and his work in general: “It was just a crummy piece of scene painting.” and “We must get deeper into things.”

In the final scene, we discover that Marnies’s Mother (Louise Latham) was a prostitute and that, as a child, Marnie killed one of the visiting Johns, precipitating a life long hatred of sex for both women.  The thefts, supposedly, were a replacement for Marnie’s sexual energies (the theft of sex?) and the journey for the troubled couple is just beginning.  Since he is as sick as Marnie (“A man wants to sleep with a thief because she’s a thief”, says Hitchcock, and there is that disturbing rape, of course) the singing of the children outside the mother’s house of “Mother, Mother, I am ill, send for the Doctor over the hill” applies as much to Mark as to his wife.  There will have to be much healing ahead for both, as one of Alfred Hitchcock’s most open-ended films fades to black.

CREDITS: Directed and Produced by Alfred Hitchcock.  Screenplay by Jay Presson Allen.  Based on the novel by Winston Graham.  Photographed by Robert Burks.  Edited by George Tomasini.  Music by Bernard Herrmann.  With “Tippi” Hedren, Sean Connery, Dianne Baker, Martin Gable, Louise Latham, Milton Selzer, Mariette Hartley and Alan Napier.

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March 11, 2013 Posted by | 1960's cinema, Alfred Hitchcock, film directors, JAY PRESSON ALLEN, suspense films | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Alfred Hitchcock’s final days

Alfred Hitchcock is confined to his bed, sitting up only occasionally to take a soothing sip of cool water from a glass he keeps on the nightstand.  He leans back again and waits…It is April 1980 and a few weeks earlier he could get around-a little- with the aid of a walker, and a stiff belt of Vodka.  His home at Bellagio Road has been his cage for the last few months-a private trap like the ones Norman Bates and Marion Crane found themselves in some twenty years before.  Traps like so many of the characters from his films endured.  It seems that the story from his youth-that famously claustrophobic one, the one that played itself out over and over in Hitchcock’s nightmares (filmic and otherwise)-will be with him to the end: Hitchcock, the boy, no more than five, locked in a jail cell by a London Policemen at the urging of the child’s father, William.  “This is what we do to naughty little boys”.  The policemen’s words, so scarring, so traumatic, so…well in fact, no one will ever know how much of the story is true and how much is Hitchcock exagerating-the years piling onto his fragile psyche.  Maybe the young Alfred-his parents called him “Fred”, later he would be known to the world as “Hitch”-was simply the recipient of a stern talking to by the cop about some long forgotten infraction.  Whatever happened that day so many years ago, it helped mold Hitch’s professional career from the start in the 1920s untill the very last film.  But it is 1980 now and he has given up all pretense of remaining the great director. 

He closed his office at Universal studios in late 1979, a few months after dismissing his last collaborator screenwriter David Freeman.  The two men would never see the screenplay they created-the spy thriller, THE SHORT NIGHT-become a film.  Perhaps Hitch knew it would never reach the screen, all along.  The director invented scenes for the script so outrageous that one is left to wonder…grotesque scenes of graphic masturbation engaged in by the male and female lead characters.  And worse-Hitchcock became obsessed with the idea that the film’s hero should, along the way, commit rape.  This last idea is the reason his first writer on THE SHORT NIGHT, Ernest Lehman (NORTH BY NORTHWEST, FAMILY PLOT), left the project in disgust.  How, he wondered, could the audience be expected to root for such a despicable character?  It can’t  be argued that such ideas were the result of encroaching senility.  Hitchcock included a suggestion of masturbation in a never produced screenplay of 1967, called “Kaleidoscope”.  And Mark Rutland (Sean Connery) rapes his wife, Marnie (Tippy Hedren) in the 1964 film of the same name.  Patrick McGilligan points out in his impressive bio, ALFRED HITCHCOCK, A LIFE IN DARKNESS AND LIGHT, that Freeman became convinced the filmmaker always had a Dionysian streak.  A streak that after nearly 80 years of life, could no longer be suppressed.  Not that it ever was completely.  Perhaps Hitchcock’s strict Roman Catholic upbringing was like a cap on a well that loosened more and more as he grew older.  The geyser is finally bursting forth in his final years.  He has left behind the subtlety that served him so well in his films-especially the earlier ones.  His loneliness and horror now are too intense.  His wife of 53 years, Alma, is no longer much company since being incapacitated by a stroke in 1972.  He gets a few visitors.  Old collaborators such as Norman Lloyd, who was so chilling falling from the Statue of Liberty in SABOTEUR.  Hume Cronyn (unforgettable as Herbie Hawkins in SHADOW OF A DOUBT) shows up one last time and Hitch becomes inconsolable as they discuss the past.  He knows this will be their last meeting.  Then there are the ugly outbursts of anger, as the once great director screams in rage at nonplussed visitors.  He makes it quite clear that he wants to be left alone.  Soon, he will get his wish.  But it is he who abandoned them. 

He has lost interest in everything.  He has ceased his private screenings of recent and classic films.  Even his cherished vodka no longer holds any magic for him.  It has been replaced by that glass of water.  Hitchcock, confined to his bed with various ailments (kidney, heart etc.), but nothing that could be considered truly fatal, seems to be willfully bringing about his own death.  He waits…and perhaps dwells on the past.  The heady successes of his film career.  His unspoken heroics during WW II, when he helped pay the way for British war orphans to be resettled in the U.S. and Canada.  Thoughts of his mother, Emma, whom he so adored.  Of course he thinks of Alma, a filmmaker herself.  She co-wrote many of  his early films and shared her life, as well as her art with him.  Then there is his only child, Patricia, who appeared in several of his movies.  She has always been a good daughter, one to make a father proud.  And England, his beloved homeland, where he began in silent films as a title card designer and had his first thrilling successes as a director.  There will always be an England-if not an Alfred Hitchcock.  Barely cognizant now, perhaps he has shadowed memories of those triumphs that came too late in life to be savored fully: His AFI life achievement award ceremony in March 1979-and his Knighthood-it is Sir Alfred now.  Coming as it did just a few months ago in early 1980, the honor seems a wasted, empty gesture.  And he dwells on something he can never forget: That jail cell…the one that left him with a life long fear of the police, and a need to trap his characters and the world, in a vice grip of suspense, anxiety and fear. 

Find out about the BFI’s efforts to restore early Hitchcock films and what you can do to help at: Rescue the Hitchcock 9

RELATED POST: Hitchcock’s EASY VIRTUE (1927)

July 18, 2010 Posted by | Alfred Hitchcock, Alma Reville Hitchcock, American Film, British film, film directors, Hume Cronyn, NormanLloyd, Patricia Hitchcock | , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Hitchcock’s EASY VIRTUE

Some critics feel Alfred Hitchcock’s EASY VIRTUE (British, 1927) functions mainly as a foreshadowing of later works, rather than as an accomplished film in its own right.  However, this adaptation of the Noel Coward play deserves another look, and not just because it has recently been remade. 

Certainly the film is a prefiguring of Hitchcock’s NOTORIOUS, using some of the motifs and plot devices of that 1946 classic.  Nevertheless, Hitchcock’s direction of EASY VIRTUE, is so assured, so very visual in its conception,  that this silent film stands tall among Hitch’s early British works.  In EASY VIRTUE Hitchcock and his scenarist Eliot Stannard tell the story of Larita (Isabel Jeans) a young woman with a scandalous past, who marries John (Robin Irvine), an aristocrat, and is subsequently persecuted by his family.  Here we see the comparison to NOTORIOUS and it’s heroine (Ingrid Bergman) an infamous party girl and daughter of a Nazi spy, who marries into a family of fifth columnists and is tormented by her suspicious ogress of a mother-in-law.  Implicit in both films is the condemnation of news photographers (and by inference, filmmakers) as corrupt voyeurs.  They are people who, in essence, make their living spying on others hoping to exploit the worst in humanity.  (This theme is also explored in Hitchcock’s REAR WINDOW).  Few who have seen EASY VIRTUE, can forget the title card accompanying the conclusion, as Larita addresses the vulture like photographers who seem to be everywhere: “Shoot, there’s nothing left to kill.” 

As stated above, considering EASY VIRTUE as only a linking film between Hitchcock’s early British period and his more accomplished Hollywood years, diminishes it greatly.  For it is the visualization of the film that marks it as prime early Hitchcock.  Admittedly, most of the more bravura effects are in the first half of the movie.  Among these are the startling opening divorce court scene which begins with a subjective shot of a judge’s magnifying glass as it comes into view bringing a barrister across the courtroom into extreme close up.  Later in the same scene we have a lovely match dissolve from the barrister’s hand swinging a monocle to a courtroom clock’s pendulum.  In a flashback, Larita’s first husband confronts her about her relationship with an artist who paints her portrait.  The painter slowly turns from the wife to face the husband.  The action is staged and shot in such a fashion that only Larita’s left eye can be seen peeking out from behind the artist, glaring at her cuckold across the room.  A tennis match also provides opportunity for Hitchcock to impress us with his visual acumen.  A player on the far end of the court is framed by a racket held in the foreground, suggesting the imprisonment of the rich, a gilded cage so to speak. 

Along the way, there are sublime moments, more subtle visually, but just as powerful.  There is the humbling extreme longshot of the aristocratic couple’s carriage traveling along a bridge on the Mediterranean.  The carriage seems so small, so insignificant.  For even the rich, outside forces can be overpowering. 

The harshness of the forces coming against Larita should not blind us to her own harsh edges.  Several times Hitchcock shows her in close up exhaling cigarette smoke.  It billows around her head as though she were some sort of fire breathing dragon.  No one remains untainted.  Even the viewer is implicated.    At the film’s climax, Larita’s mother-in-law confronts her about her past while looking directly into the camera.  She is angry with Larita but the staging by Hitchcock makes something else quite clear.  The old woman is condemning us as well – for our own moral weaknesses, perhaps. 

There are countless Alfred Hitchcock websites.  One of the most complete is http://www.hitchcock.nl/mov3.htm.  It features stills and a plot synopsis of even the earliest films.  There are also video and audio clips of many of the films.

October 14, 2009 Posted by | Alfred Hitchcock | , , , | Leave a comment