Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Instinctual Behavior

So I’ve been feeling at sea lately with a lot of lying awake at night and there’s not much I can do about it. Part of it is the whole unemployment thing and continuing worries about money but there have also been various issues with certain women I’ve known over the past year—or even longer—the result of which by this point is driving me to literally curl up in a fetal position with this genuine pain I feel down in the pit of my stomach from it all. It’s not a good feeling. I barely even know how I can try to write at the moment. Look, I know they’re crazy and I just wind up sitting here like Mark Rutland trying to figure them out even though every sane bone in my body tells me I should just run the other way and take up with my dead wife’s cool sister instead. All right, the analogy to real life isn’t perfect but what do you want me to say? I won’t get into specifics with the women in question but I’m just tired of it. I’d like this year to end already so I can move on to…I don’t know what anymore. But I’d also rather talk about an Alfred Hitchcock film because it’s a hell of a lot more interesting than anything I’ve got going on. MARNIE is a film with fervent admirers out there, and I think a few women I know are probably among them, but it’s also been considered a problem film by others though maybe the roots of its problems are part of what makes it so fascinating. The 1964 film is commonly thought of as the one where cracks in the director’s approach and style begin to show, for various reasons that have been speculated out there. These cracks began to show even more in the commonly agreed-on failures of TORN CURTAIN and TOPAZ, to name two films which really are problematic in more than just a few ways. If MARNIE is drastically flawed, and it’s certainly open to debate if it even is, some of those flaws are what makes it so continually intriguing. The perfections in some of Hitchcock’s films make them forever addictive to return to but even if MARNIE isn’t perfect, just trying to figure it out after repeated viewings is illuminating in its own ways and makes it all the more fascinating as a result.

Marnie Edgar (‘Tippi’ Hedren) is a young woman who habitually assumes other identities and appearances to take jobs in various cities, then robbing the safe and fleeing after gaining her bosses confidence. After stealing from a tax consulting firm, she moves to Philadelphia where she applies for a job with Rutland & Co. publishing house under the identity of a widow and is hired by the man in charge, the wealthy Mark Rutland (Sean Connery). Though Marnie doesn’t know it, Rutland’s company actually does business with the tax consultant and, aware of the robbery, he quickly finds himself intrigued by this woman who he thinks he recognizes. They begin a relationship but when she robs the Rutland safe, Mark knows immediately what has happened and isn’t going to let her get away so easily. Meanwhile Lil (Diane Baker), the sister of Mark’s late wife who has long had her eye on him, takes her own interest in what is going on between the pair as well.

It’s considered a problem film for any number of reasons. A problem film due to how it addresses the nature of Marnie’s lifelong problem in simple Freudian terms and her terrified reactions to the color red frankly don’t do much for me, making what should seem like genuine trauma come off as too much of a gimmick for my own taste (for the record, I inquired with the one strict Orthodox Freudian I know and she loves this film, but isn’t all that crazy about this element either). A problem because of portraying the likes of Sean Connery and Alan Napier as wealthy Philadelphians drinking tea and heading off for fox-hunting, an obvious carryover from the original novel’s English setting which exactly place things in any kind of reality. A problem because of the effects work which seems to have had less attention than needed paid to it at a certain point. Various Hitchcock fans have tried to come up with reasons for this obvious artifice through the years speaking of how it symbolizes the falseness of its heroine’s own facade but it’s never been something I’ve bought into and I’m not sure this is all really that much of a problem anyway--for one thing, looking at an older movie with obvious rear screen projection (examples of which can certainly be seen in certain other better regarded Hitchcock films from the period) frankly doesn’t bother me all that much. For another thing, such issues certainly don’t bug me when they’re presented as elegantly as the matte painting of the Rutland & Co. building is on that deserted Saturday (actually, the whole film somehow feels like it takes place on a cloudy, lazy Saturday at 3:30 in the afternoon) with lightning crashing everywhere and everything about the expressionism undeniably works. When they’re achieved as poorly as the not-up-to-snuff matte work of the docks in Baltimore it’s not about artifice or style—it simply plays as design work that isn’t good enough and Hitchcock didn’t feel like coming up with a better alternative, just like the (not effects related) zoom-in-and-out as Marnie attempts another robbery late in the story which for me is a touch that always feels too crass for both the director and the film he’s making.

But here’s the thing—how much do some of these problems really matter in the end? And yes, one can analyze Hitchcock’s own psychology into what were apparently blatant overtures made towards both Tippi Hedren and Diane Baker during production (Donald Spoto, for one, has written extensively about what might have happened) but how much does that really make a difference to how the movie played when it’s viewed in the dead of night? As it moves from a beautifully laid out robbery sequence of the sort that we would expect from a Hitchcock thriller into something different, more internal, MARNIE (screenplay by Jay Presson Allen from the novel by Winston Graham) leads not necessarily to more thrills but to an attempt by Hitchcock to, more than ever before, really delve into the characters that populate his films as if attempting a feature-length extension of that parlor room discussion with Marion Crane and Norman Bates in PSYCHO. Of course, that was also a film where a woman using various forms of a first name that starts with the letter M makes off with her employer’s money, and the path from the sparkling, superficial glamour of something like TO CATCH A THIEF all the way through various films leading up to MARNIE feels like the director getting all the more obsessed with the figures who occupy his movies, particularly the various blondes who are gazed at from behind, as he increasingly tries to examine their actual intent and why they behave the way they do. Why these women (including some of the blondes) intrigue us, drive us crazy, for now and all time, leading of course to one lying awake in the dead of night.

As much as it emphasizes Marnie’s own inner conflict, as well as sister-in-law Lil’s own issues of just lounging around the Rutland mansion basically doing nothing but presumably waiting for enough time to pass to finally pounce on Mark, the Hitchcock-infused, coolly-hued Universal City world of MARNIE is run by men that are forever in charge of the women around them, women who are secretly more together at least on the surface. Marnie certainly keeps her cool in her various guises out in the open and side characters like Mariette Hartley’s Miss Clabon (I find myself wondering how she spends her weekends) or Carmen Phillips as Mr. Strutt’s nameless secretary (who, in saying nothing more than “Oh, Mr. Strutt, don’t you remember? She didn’t have any references at all,” gives what has to be one of the great one-line performances of all time) always seem to be smirking behind the backs of who they’re supposedly subordinate to. Sean Connery’s Mark Rutland is also a few steps ahead of the other men who are either much older (Alan Napier as Mark’s father seems to drift amiably outside of things, never concerned enough to get involved with all this anguish) or, like that guy who tries to get Marnie excited about a Danish, simply not worth an instant of her time but Mark’s greatest flaw seems to be what draws him to Marnie in the first place. He speaks of his interest in zoology and exploring instinctual behavior, how he tries to keep up with his field while keeping what he’s thinking to himself (“I don’t get it.” “You’re not supposed to get it.”). He’s not quite human but Marnie isn’t really either and together they make for a glamorously uncertain couple in this uncertain filmic world. He certainly has all the understandable interest in finally getting this cool blonde into bed but what does he really want when it comes to Marnie as he sits there gazing at her, forever reading his books? What is he looking for, even after he achieves his ultimate demand on her during that ocean voyage? If I knew the answer to that one I suppose I’d be able to unlock whatever remains elusive when the fade out to the film comes, not to mention figuring out some of my own issues with various women who…well, maybe I should avoid thinking about that for the time being.

It’s a Hollywood film with all the artifice we would expect and maybe more so, complete with a main theme for its lead character by Bernard Herrmann which seems to continually threaten to turn into a love ballad for its leads complete with lyrics but nothing in those possible words would ever be something that Marnie herself is looking for. And in every ongoing conversation between the two Mark and Marnie that covers every specific detail in the most literal way possible, including that real-time visit to a Howard Johnson’s for franks and coffee, are scenes that are continually transfixing in the way Hitchcock cuts back and forth between them, digging into how they look at each other, a continuous effect that is as purely cinematic as anything. You don’t have to tell me what Jimmy Stewart sees in Grace Kelly in REAR WINDOW or Kim Novak in VERTIGO so as a result those films, brilliant as they are, don’t have quite the sort of mystery in that department this one does. The grand revelation at the end may not answer everything—just like learning things about certain women in one’s own life never answers everything—but to dismiss this film by saying, ‘oh, the matte shot is phony so the cure is phony’ and reading too much into those elements frankly just bores the living hell out of me. If anything, what happens at the end when Mark Rutland somewhat unconvincingly says, “It’s all over,” to her doesn’t seems like a total cure at all, just a step towards a mutual something between the two, which is maybe the best anyone can ever hope for. Not that I have all that much hope right now. Like THE BIRDS, Hitchcock’s previous film with Hedren, MARNIE ends with her being driven off by a man without a THE END title card to add a sense of relief to the fade out though I guess in this film’s case the resolution of Bernard Hermann’s score sort of provides that. Not everything about MARNIE can ever be fully explained or necessarily defended but I remain pretty much mesmerized by it anyway. Just like I am with…well, yeah.

It occurs to me watching sections of this film again that as great as it is to hear some of the actors spout off this coolly analytical dialogue, I’m continually struck by how just how much Hedren, Connery and Baker are each equally revealing in their own ways during sequences where they have little or nothing to say at all. The way the camera lingers on the safe from Mark’s point of view during the initial job interview as he quietly pieces things together, aided by his director through Hitchcock’s montage with the actor quietly making the decision that it will be “interesting to keep her around” and all throughout the film is an undeniable case of viewing that fusion. A cracked porcelain doll as Marnie, Tippi Hedren is more compelling on each viewing, not as skilled as somebody like Grace Kelly would have been in the part but her own coolness and uncertainty at certain points makes her behavior all the more unpredictable. Sean Connery, still in that jungle cat mode of the early Bond films (this was shot right before GOLDFINGER) plays his role with his eyes darting about inquisitive, continually observing, on to this new employee right from the beginning but toying with her before he closes in for the kill. Diane Baker as Lil is also increasingly beguiling the more I watch the film, bringing intelligence to someone who seems to be written as more spoiled than she presents herself as and the combination of the two provides an interesting effect--she just seems too curious, too inquisitive to do nothing but wait for Mark, which ultimately makes me wonder what her deal is. Her character arc isn’t really completed in the end, and since it’s not her film it doesn’t have to be, so the mystery to her remains, forever to be contemplated. Though the triangle between the three leads is what much of the focus remains on Martin Gabel does a lot with his tiny role as the angry Mr. Strutt, Louise Latham is forever memorable in just a few scenes as Marnie’s mother and Bruce Dern makes one of several Hitchcock appearances in a small but key role as a sailor.

I imagine that a few of the women I know who are obsessed with this movie have a somewhat different take on it than I do but maybe the way male-female relationships are now compared with how they may have been then means that it’s aged in ways that make it both more and less potent than it once was. It remains alive and potent, flawed as some of it might be. Such is the effect of that show, but part of me also can’t help but picture Jon Hamm in Don Draper mode playing opposite Tippi Hedren now but whatever the version MARNIE I’m thinking of, whether it’s in front of me or in my own head, it remains continually fascinating. The images, the delirium, the close-ups of the two leads trying to figure each other out, all keep running through my head as I lie awake in the dead of night thinking about MARNIE, thinking about those women I know and will miss, whether blonde or brunette—much like Marnie herself, the hair colors in real life sometimes change. Since I’m not Mark Rutland, maybe I never really knew some of them as much as I thought I did but it also means that I don’t expect my own version of a fade out to this continuing story to come any time soon.


Ed Howard said...

Wow, that is quite a post. Marnie is such a delirious hothouse kind of film that's it probably best understood and appreciated from a similarly fraught emotional and psychological position, even if one would rather not be in the position to feel this film so intensely.

Yeah, it has "problems," although in many ways all its problems do just make it a more fascinating, richer film. There's something very queasy about its handling of rape and Mark's possesiveness towards Marnie, but that very queasiness only makes their relationship more unsettling, only complicates the viewer's feelings about these often deeply unlikable characters. It's all very artificial, too, but unlike you I've always thought its artifice was intentionally offputting — there are so many scenes where there's absolutely no one around and everything's so still and silent. It often seems like Mark and Marnie are the only people drifting, dreamlike, through an unpopulated world, so all those matte backdrops and rear projection inserts only add to the aura of isolation and stillness. And the Freudianism is utterly unconvincing too, but maybe like the artifice it's meant to be unconvincing, maybe that ending really does suggest that despite the gestures towards a happy, everything-all-wrapped-up ending, the truth is much stranger than the explanations.

Even so, I find the Freudian elements pretty unsatisfying, especially the trite idea of falling back on a childhood trauma to explain everything, especially when the dysfunctional relationship between Mark and Marnie, and Mark's rape of her after their wedding, provide much more compelling and complicated pyschosexual situations.

Julie Keck (of King is a Fink) said...

Great post! Marnie is truly a mixed bag. I loved the artifice of the whole movie, how the scenes in the office were shot (including the suspenseful first robbery), and even Sean Connery's over-the-top 'jungle cat' performance.

However, when Connery's Mark 'treats' Tippi Hedren's sexual repression by overpowering her and raping her on their honeymoon cruise...over the line. This shows way more about how Hitchcock felt about women than how Freud did. I remember calling my mother (a huge Hitchcock fan) after seeing this movie just to confirm what I'd seen. She said, "Yeah - that's a weird one. But Sean Connery was so handsome."

By the way, love that you mentioned the Spoto book. Really enjoyed that one.

le0pard13 said...

Wonderful review of this Hitchcock film (one can't exactly call it a gem). I actually saw this in theaters (on a reprise showing after the hoopla that was GOLDFINGER). I wanted to see it because OO7 was in it. I couldn't care less about Hitchcock at the time (except I knew he scared the crap out of my aunts with PSYCHO some years before). I was around 11 so the consummation scene of Sean and Tippi's (and all the frigidity references) had my head spinning. Had to have my mom explain it to me ;-).

Still, it works for the reasons (or lack of them) you mention. Connery and Hedren do make for an handsome, if oddly interesting, couple (which only adds to the peculiar enjoyment I have with the film). I can't say it gave me any kind of understanding for the opposite sex (I'm still pretty daft regarding that and credit the extraordinary patience of my bride of 20+ years for putting up with that fact). You're on a great review/writing roll here, Mr. Peel. Thanks for this.

Adam Ross said...

It's not easy to put together your thoughts on this movie, I still have a draft of a MARNIE post somewhere on Blogger. It's unquestionably flawed, but it's these problems that have made me watch the movie many times to find out just where it goes wrong and how (or if) it could have been fixed.

Something that sticks out to me is the casting of Connery, and his character. It's hard to be sympathetic to Mark (or Marnie for that matter), but Connery's acting doesn't help the matter. For someone so achingly handsome, it's hard to think he'll have much trouble finding another stunning woman (especially with who he works with, as you noted).

I've also thought it would have helped if Marnie was a more ambitious criminal, or if Mark was interested in exploiting her illegal skills. The whole Mark as zoologist taming the female species is never sold very well, we can only go on what he says or just see his books.

Another intriguing aspect is how many aspects seem vaguely related to VERTIGO, starting with the score. I have both soundtracks on a playlist on my ipod that I like to shuffle, it produces some entertaining results.

christian said...

I've always found the sexual politics of this film so ugly and stupid that I've never been able to get into it despite the worthy things you detail. It's a remnant of a better left dead period where women were either "asking for it" or "just needed to get it." I'll have to revisit some Saturday afternoon at 3:30...