‘Marnie’: Hitchcock’s Controversial Exploration of Sexual Violence and the Complexity of the Human Psyche

The film that started out as a critical failure, labeled as the weakest link in the maestro’s string of high-quality cinematic treats, over time developed into one of Alfred Hitchcock’s most praised movies. Marnie just might be the darkest, most controversial and complex film in the great director’s whole career, an obvious departure from the standard themes he liked to explore, an intriguing and masterfully shot picture whose appeal and controversy are further fuelled by, to a degree, uncertain real-life events that haunted its production. Marnie, the story of a beautiful but frigid and psychologically severely damaged kleptomaniac who makes a living by changing identities and stealing from businesses which make the mistake of hiring her, and the man who decides to put his career and reputation at stake in order to try to catch her, tame her and ultimately possess her, was based on the English writer Winston Graham’s 1961 novel of the same name. Hitchcock hired his Psycho screenwriter Joseph Stefano to adapt the story, and he delivered a 161-page treatment. Marnie was supposed to be the project that would bring Grace Kelly, the Princess of Monaco, back to Hollywood, but even though both the press and the protagonists of this little real-life drama confirmed this sensational news, Kelly soon bowed out for reasons still undetermined. She was either forced to withdraw by the negative reactions of the citizens of Monaco, who weren’t all that enthusiastic about seeing their Princess playing a thief for some American studio, or she and her husband, Prince Rainier, ultimately didn’t need the lucrative Hollywood deal. Perhaps she was telling the truth about the problematic filming schedule which would keep her out of Monaco and away from her family for much longer than she was ready to accept, or Prince Rainier couldn’t leave the country due to the political and economic tension between Monaco and France at the time. In any case, Hitchcock lost his lead actress and decided to put the project on an indefinite hold, turning his attention to Birds, a vehicle for the promotion of Hitchcock’s next muse, Tippi Hedren, the successful fashion model he decided to turn into a star. He commissioned his Birds writer Evan Hunter to develop the script, but when he heavily objected to the eponymous character’s rape scene that Hitchcock deemed vital for the story, he was promptly replaced with Jay Presson Allen. Who would play Marnie was one of the most central questions in Hollywood at that time, and after brief consideration of the likes of Claire Griswold, Eva Marie Saint, Lee Remick, Vera Miles and Susan Hampshire, the role landed in the lap of Hedren, with whom Hitchcock had a sort of a personal obsession. The James Bond star Sean Connery, displeased with becoming a synonym for the womanizing British secret agent and eager to prove his versatility, expressed a desire to work with Hitchcock, which was something his studio Eon Productions managed to secure. The production of Marnie was supposed to start at the end of November 1963 but was further postponed because of JFK’s assassination. The film finally premiered in the summer of 1964, getting solid box office results but causing somewhat negative reactions from the critics. Marnie was simply unexpected and much darker than anyone anticipated.

Marnie marks the end of a specific period of Hitchcock’s career. It’s the last film he made with cinematographer Robert Burks (from Strangers on a Train in 1951 to Marnie), as well as editor George Tomasini (started from Rear Window in 1954), who died four months after Marnie‘s release. It was also the last completed collaboration between Hitchcock and the great composer Bernard Herrmann, who made seven films together from The Trouble with Harry (1955) to Marnie. Herrmann would also work on Hitchcock’s next film, Torn Curtain, but ended up fired because Hitchcock felt he started repeating himself, perceiving a similarity between Herrmann’s work on Torn Curtain and Joy in the Morning, Alex Segal’s film he scored the previous year. Needless to say considering the controversy regarding Hitchcock’s allegedly problematic relationship with Tippi Hedren, Marnie was also the second and last collaboration between the filmmaker and his new star. Years later, Hedren claimed Hitchcock was so obsessed with her that she experienced sexual harassment on set, as he made inappropriate comments and jealously interfered with her personal life. She even stated he ruined her career by using her contract to prevent her from working for two years after Marnie. Despite this tumultuous relationship, or partly thanks to it, Marnie turned out a thoroughly suspenseful and ingeniously executed film, with Hedren overcoming the initial skepticism of the critics to deliver one of the greatest performances in any of Hitchcock’s films.

As an integral part of Hitchcock’s opus, Marnie inevitably deals with sexuality, desire and carnality, the topics Hitchcock obviously explored with great pleasure. What makes the film stand out is the male character’s inescapable impulse not only to consume his chosen girl, but to own her. The scandalous and painful, albeit subtly filmed rape scene between Marnie and her jailor–husband, the very scene that made screenwriter Hunter pack his bags and leave the production, is crucial because it allows the notion that an obviously dark and animalistic man can still act as a hero desiring to help the object of his love and passion. When Sean Connery later remarked he was happy with the film he made with Hitchcock but “with some reservations,” one has to wonder if this aspect of his character was the reason he withheld his wholehearted support for Marnie. With complex characters that are difficult to sympathize with but that still capture our attention, with the thematic substance spreading across several different genres, with great acting and technically perfect direction, Marnie is a razor-sharp exploration of sexual violence, the psychological consequences of such inexcusable actions and the complexity of the human psyche. As such, it is justifiably ranked among the best of Hitchcock’s films and it’s great to see its reputation has grown substantially in more than five decades since the premiere.

What we have here is a quite historic and rare screenplay. Dear every screenwriter/filmmaker, read Jay Presson Allen’s screenplay for Marnie [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

 
In the fall of 1962, whilst The Birds was in post-production, François Truffaut carried out extensive interviews with Alfred Hitchcock at his offices at Universal Studios. The interviews were recorded to audio tape and the content eventually edited down into the ‘Hitchcock/Truffaut’ book. Buy ‘Hitchcock by François Truffaut’ from Amazon. Hitchcock/Truffaut documentary explores the art and influence of Hitchcock through his famed 1962 interview with François Truffaut. Available on HBO NOW and HBO GO.

Now, we come to Marnie. Long before it was actually made, there was some talk that it might mark Grace Kelly’s comeback to the screen. It’s taken from a Winston Graham novel, and I’d like to know which aspect of the book made you decide to do the film.
The fetish idea. A man wants to go to bed with a thief because she is a thief, just like other men have a yen for a Chinese or a colored woman. Unfortunately, this concept doesn’t come across on the screen. It’s not as effective as Vertigo, where Jimmy Stewart’s feeling for Kim Novak was clearly a fetishist love. To put it bluntly, we’d have had to have Sean Connery catching the girl robbing the safe and show that he felt like jumping at her and raping her on the spot.

Why is Mamie’s hero so attracted to the girl? Is it that she depends on him because he knows her secret and can turn her over to the police, or is it simply that he finds it exciting to go to bed with a thief?
It’s both of those things. Absolutely.

I notice one contradiction within the film: Sean Connery is very good and he has a sort of animal-like quality that fits in perfectly with the sex angle of the story. Yet neither the script nor the dialogue ever really touches on this angle, and Mark Rutland is presented to the viewer simply as a protective character. Only by watching his face very closely can one sense your intention to lead the script into a less conventional direction.
That’s true, but remember that I established at the outset that Mark had spotted Marnie. When he learns that she’s robbed the safe, he says, “Oh yes, the girl with the pretty legs…” In one of my early British pictures, Murder, I used the stream-of-consciousness technique. If I’d used that technique, we might have heard Sean Connery saying to himself, “I hope she hurries up and does the robbery so that I can catch her at it and possess her!” In this way we would have had a double suspense. We still would have played Marnie from Mark’s point of view, and we’d have shown his satisfaction as he watches the girl. In the act of stealing. I actually thought of constructing the story in that way. I would have shown the man looking at—in fact, secretly watching—a real robbery. Then, he would have followed the thief, would have grabbed Marnie and made out—he had just happened on her. He would have taken her by force, while pretending to be outraged. But you can’t really put these things on the screen. The public would reject them. They would say, “Oh no, that’s not right. I don’t believe it!”

It’s a pity, because that story would have been fascinating. I like Marnie very much as it is, but I feel that it’s difficult for the public, because of the atmosphere, which is stifling, a little like a nightmare.
In America they’ve re-released it as a double feature with The Birds. It’s doing very well at the box office.

For all the pieces to fit, it seems to me, the picture would have had to run for three hours. As it is, there is nothing redundant in the story; in fact, on many points, one would like to know more.
That’s true. I was forceel to simplify the whole psychoanalysis aspect of it. In the novel, you know, Marnie agrees to see the psychiatrist every week, as a concession to her husband. In the book her attempts to conceal her past and her real life added up to some very good passages—both funny and tragic. But in the picture we haa to telescope all of that into a single scene, with the husband doing the analysis himself.

Yes, right after one of her nightmares. That was one of the highlights of the film.
What really bothered me about Marnie were all the secondary characters. I had the feeling that I didn’t know these people, the family in the background. Mark’s father, for instance. And I wasn’t convinced that Sean Connery was a Philadelphia gentleman. You know, if you want to reduce Marnie to its lowest common denominator, it is the story of the prince and the beggar girl. In a story of this kind you need a real gentleman, a more elegant man than what we had.

 
Someone like Laurence Olivier in Rebecca?
Exactly. That’s the way you heighten the fetishist concept. I ran into the same trouble on The Paradine Case.

Claude Chabrol refers to it as the “temptation of self-destruction,” and you describe it as “degradation for love.” Apparently it’s a dramatic motif that appeals to you very strongly, and I hope that someday you can work it out to your satisfaction.
I doubt it, because it’s the kind of story that is linked to the class consciousness that prevailed thirty years back. After all, today a princess can marry a photographer and no one lifts an eyebrow.

In your original treatment there was a wonderful idea, but you dropped it. You wanted to have a love scene that would mark Marnie’s release from her sexual inhibitions, a scene that would take place in the presence of other people.
Yes, I remember that. In that treatment she went to see her mother and found the house full of neighbors: her mother had just died. That’s where the big love scene would have taken place, to be interrupted by the arrival of the police who came to arrest Marnie. I dropped the whole thing because we ran into the inevitable cliche, with the man saying to the woman who’s being taken away to prison, “I’ll be waiting for you when you come out.”

So you decided to eliminate the police, and we infer that Marnie is not being harassed because Mark has reimbursed her various victims for their losses. As a matter of fact, it’s my impression that the public never has the feeling that Marnie’s in danger of being arrested. At no time does one get the feeling that she is a hunted woman or in any real danger. There was a similar phenomenon in Spellbound. Two mysteries of essentially different nature are blended together: a moral-psychological problem: what has this character, Gregory Peck or Tippi Hedren, done in his or her childhood? And a material problem: will the police catch up with the character or not?
I’m sorry, but it seems to me that the threat of a jail sentence is also a moral motive.

No doubt, but I still feel that a police inquiry and a psychological investigation don’t add up to a clear picture. The viewer isn’t sure whether he’s rooting for the character to discover the key to his neurosis or for him to get away from the police. Aside from that, the trouble with handling both these actions simultaneously is that the police hunt must move quickly, whereas the psychological investigation requires time to be properly developed.
That’s true. In the construction of Marnie I was bothered by the long period between the time she got her job at Rutland’s and the time she committed the robbery. Between the two, all we had was Mark on the make for the girl. That just wasn’t enough. We often run into the problem of the logic of time. You feel you must show a certain amount of preparation; yet that preparation can become dull. We’re so anxious not to drag it out that we can’t fill it with entertaining details that would make it more interesting. There was a similar problem in Rear Window, you know, where a long time went by before James Stewart began to look suspiciously at the man across the courtyard.

Yes. You used the first day for the exposition of the story. But I found that very interesting.
Well, that’s because Grace Kelly was so nice to look at and the dialogue was pretty good.

 
After Marnie there were reports of three film projects that have apparently been delayed or dropped. The press mentioned The Three Hostages, from the John Buchan novel; Mary Rose, based on the play by Sir James Barrie; and an original screenplay entitled R.R.R.R.
That’s right. I worked on those three projects. Let’s begin with The Three Hostages. The novel is full of typical Buchan situations and very close to another book of his, The Thirty-nine Steps. The central figure is the same character, Richard Hannay. The Three Hostages was published in 1924. It tells how the government is about to round up a gang of secret enemies of the British Empire, who Buchan implies are Bolsheviks. These secret enemies, knowing that they are to be arrested at a specific date, kidnap three children whose parents are among the important people in the country. Richard Hannay’s job is to find out where the three hostages are hidden and to get them back. He gets his first clue before leaving London when he meets Medina, a most elegant gentleman, with a touch of the Oriental about him, a connoisseur of wines, a confidant of prime ministers. Medina invites Hannay to his house and offers to help him. Gradually Hannay realizes that while his host is talking, he is actually trying to hypnotize him, and he allows him to believe the hypnosis has taken effect. A few days later he goes back to see Medina. Someone else is present, and to show the accomplice that he has Hannay in his power, Medina says, “Hannay, go on your hands and knees like a dog. Now go over to that small table and bring back that paper knife between your teeth.” Of course, it was a very suspenseful and amusing scene, since Hannay actually has all his wits about him.

Nevertheless, through this, Hannay is able to pick up the clues that will lead him to the first hostage, a nineteen-year-old young man interned on an island in Norway; then, to the second, a girl he locates in a low dive in London. I forget where he found the third one, but the point is that each of them had been kidnaped by hypnotism. Now, the reason I dropped the project is that I feel you cannot put hypnotism on the screen and expect it to hold water. It is a condition too remote from the audience’s own experiences. In the same way, it’s impossible to put an illusionist on the screen, because the public knows instinctively, through the tricks they have seen in films, how the director went about it. They will say, “Oh well, he stopped tlte reel and then took her out of the box!” It’s the same thing for hypnotism. And visually speaking, there would be no difference between someone who is really hypnotized and someone who’s pretending.

I believe you had already dropped the concept of a kidnaping through hypnotism in the original version of The Man Who Knew Too Much.
That’s right, I did. In fact, though the first screenplay of The Man Who Knew Too Much was taken from a Bulldog Drummond story, it was influenced by my reading of Buchan. Now, Mary Rose, the second project, is a little like a science-fiction story. I still haven’t definitely dropped the idea of making it. A few years back it might have seemed that the story would be too irrational for the public. But since then the public’s been exposed to these twilight-zone stories, especially on television. The play starts out with a young soldier coming into an empty house where he and the housekeeper talk about the past. He tells her he was a member of the family that lived there. And here we have a flashback that takes us back thirty years. We see a family in an everyday atmosphere, and a young Navy lieutenant who is there to ask Mary Rose’s parents for her hand in marnage. The mother and father look at each other in a strange way, and when Mary Rose is out of the room, they say to the young man, “When she was eleven years of age, we went for a holiday to an island in northern Scotland. There, she disappeared for four days. When she came back, she had no awareness of the passage of time and no knowledge of her disappearance.”

The parents add: “We have never told her about this, and you may marry her, but do not mention it to her.” Now there is a lapse of several years, and Mary Rose, who has a two-and-a-half-year-old child, says to her husband; “I want to go on a delayed honeymoon. I’d like to go back to the island where I went as a little girl.” The husband is upset, naturally, but he agrees. The second act of the play takes place on the island. A young boatman who is studying for the ministry at Aberdeen University is piloting them on a boat and telling them about the local folklore. He mentions that on the island a little boy was once spirited away and a little girl was missing for four days. They go fishing and the boatman shows the husband how to catch the trout and cook them on the hot stones. Meanwhile, Mary Rose suddenly hears celestial voices, like Debussy’s Sirenes, you know. She starts to move toward them, the wind rises, and presently she is gone. There is a silence, the wind stops, and the husband starts searching for Mary Rose. He is frantic; he calls out, but she has disappeared. And that’s the end of the second act. The final act takes us back to the same family twenty-five years later. Mary Rose has been forgotten; the parents are quite old and the husband is now a middle-aged, paunchy man. The phone rings. It’s the boatman, now a minister, who has just found Mary Rose on the island, unchanged. She returns to her family and is bewildered at being confronted with these old people. When she asks to see her little son, they tell her he ran away to sea when he was sixteen. The shock of the whole thing kills her—a heart attack.

Now, we go back to the soldier in the empty house—at the beginning of the story. Mary Rose appears through the door, like a ghost. They have a very natural conversation, and the scene becomes quite pathetic when she tells him that she is waiting and has been waiting for a long time. He asks, “What are you waiting for?” and she says, “I don’t know. I’ve forgotten.” She talks rather like a child. Then, suddenly, you hear the voices through the windows and a big, powerful light. Mary Rose gets up and walks toward the light, vanishing out of sight, and that’s the end of the play.

It’s quite interesting.
You should make the picture. You would do it better. It’s not really Hitchcock material. What bothers me is the ghost. If I were to make the film, I would put the girl in a darkgray dress and I would put a neon tube of light inside, around the bottom of the dress, so that the light would only hit the heroine. Whenever she moved, there would be no shadow on the wall, only a blue light. You’d have to create the impression of photographing a presence rather than a body. At times she would appear very small in the image, at times very big. She wouldn’t be a solid lump, you see, but rather like a sensation. In this way you lose the feeling of real space and time. You should be feeling that you are in the presence of an ephemeral thing, you see.

 
Handwritten letter from Grace Kelly to Hitchcock.

Draft copy of a letter Hitchcock sent to Grace Kelly.

STORYBOARDS

“As Marnie was mostly filmed inside the studio, there was little location work, except a few exteriors at the Golden Oak Disney Ranch, the American President Liner, Radnor Hunt, and the back projection plates for the car journeys and Marnie’s horse riding. Hitchcock seldom storyboarded two-hander scenes of people talking, but these location scenes required the expertise of storyboard illustrator Harold Michelson.” —Hitchcock and the Making of Marnie

 

THE TROUBLE WITH ‘MARNIE’

“How do you do? I am Alfred Hitchcock, and I would like to tell you about my latest motion picture, Marnie. One might call Marnie a sex mystery. That is, if one used such words.”

An hour long documentary on the making of Marnie.

 

‘A TALK WITH HITCHCOCK’

Alfred Hitchcock takes us inside his creative process in this fascinating 1964 program from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. This interview of Hitchcock was part of the CBC television series Telescope with host-director Fletcher Markle. It was conducted during or immediately after the filming of Marnie and also contains interesting stories and comments from Hitchcock and his associates Norman Lloyd, Joan Harrison and Bernard Herrmann. There are clips from and during the making of several Hitchcock movies. Enjoy the master of suspense!

 

BERNARD HERRMANN: HITCHCOCK’S MAESTRO

Bernard Herrmann was perhaps the preeminent film composer of the 20th century. Holding a significant fan base throughout the years, he is one of the most talked about film composers, the subject of many discussions and scholarly papers. He worked with legendary filmmakers such as Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, Ray Harryhausen, and composed historic films such as Citizen Kane, Vertigo and Psycho. His unique music certainly commanded attention, whether or not you are a serious fan of the music. It certainly was interesting and imaginative music that held substantial dramatic impact. —The Nature of Bernard Herrmann’s Music

An illuminating portrait of one of Alfred Hitchcock’s most important collaborators, film composer Bernard Herrmann.

 

THE SOUND OF HITCHCOCK

Join Academy Award-winning sound designers as they reveal how Alfred Hitchcock employed sound to make audience members leap from their seats in fright or crawl under them from excruciating suspense.

 

PURE CINEMA: THROUGH THE EYES OF HITCHCOCK

Director Martin Scorsese is our guide into the power and mastery of Hitchcock’s visual style, breaking down landmark sequences from Vertigo, The Birds and Psycho.

 

IN THE MASTER’S SHADOW: HITCHCOCK’S LEGACY

Martin Scorsese, Guillermo del Toro, William Friedkin and many others celebrate the enduring legacy of the man many consider the greatest filmmaker the medium has yet produced. Discover why Alfred Hitchcock’s movies thrill audiences and inspire filmmakers, who continue to employ his cinematic techniques to this day.

Here are some great photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie. Production still photographer: Robert Willoughby © Universal Pictures, Alfred J. Hitchcock Productions. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.

 
Get Cinephilia & Beyond in your inbox by signing in