‘Marnie’: The Complexities of a ” Sex Mystery”

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“One might call ‘Marnie’ a ‘sex mystery’, if one used such words.”

– Alfred Hitchcock

‘Marnie’ is by far the most extreme vision of frigidity Hitchcock ever explored. Adapted by Jay Presson Allen from Winston Graham’s novel of the same name, it serves as an oddly seductive screen commentary about the origins of psychosis in the mind of Woman.

Tippi Hedren plays protagonist Marnie, a cunning and wild woman who takes secretarial positions in offices up and down the East Coast in order to rob companies of their cash reserves. The story delves into the reasons behind this criminal behavior and, in a very strange twist, seeks to redeem her.

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The film opens with a vision of a woman walking down a train platform, away from the camera. Her hair is black, her suit is pristine, and her bag is heavy. The first scene after this explains the woman as a thief who’s robbed a business, with the stuttering, embarrassed boss describing her and detectives poised to find and arrest this woman who disappeared. The boss stumbles over words that reveal him as having a morbid vendetta against the thief because he feels he’s been duped by a woman he couldn’t schtup. She got one over on him: the hunter became the hunted. He wants her head in this scene.

Marnie revolves her various established personas as she changes cities. Lighter or darker hair is the key change she makes with each move post-robbery. She is careful. This is clearly her craft. I’ve explored in previous posts how Hitchcock is drawn to characters that get killed off and others who can’t seem to catch a break in a warped system. Marnie is the most fortunate female character of all. She obtains love and forgiveness in spite of her history of awful deeds. She is saved from the trappings of the warped authority/judicial system Hitchcock assumes in his early work by a tall, dark, handsome knight (Sean Connery as Mark Rutland) who sees her for all her good through all her darkness. This is what Hitch called a “sex mystery”, but it is also a kind of love story beneath that category.

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Marnie turns out to be a victim of abuse who repressed memories of her beloved mother’s dark deeds. The man who falls in love with her forces her to confront these memories a la psychoanalysis techniques in order to give her a normal married life- with sex. It works, apparently. Once Marnie is out of the fog of her repressed wounds, the film shows her relieved, implying a sudden healing of those wounds.

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If it wasn’t for Marnie being raped by her dark knight, we might be able to say that the film advocated the fair treatment of women’s sexuality, but apparently Rutland has to read a lot of books on analysis in order to understand that forcing himself on his wife (whom he in fact also forced into marrying him…though it was for a dramatic reason with context in the plot) is quite wrong and abusive. Once the charming, well-read, very wealthy Rutland diagnoses Marnie with suffering mental illness from repressed memories, he “forgives” her withholding herself from him and finally puts to rest all issues with her thievery and compulsive lying. After Marnie is freed from the psychological bondage of her past, she can be trusted and seen as the normal female she is…no more growling wildly at Rutland for approaching her bed, no more screeching in her sleep, and no more inconsistent moods. What a lady she was underneath all that psychosis… fortunately, none of it was her fault, according to this story. This was a relatively “progressive” vision of womanhood in the mid-Twentieth Century, and it was progressive for having a female lead, but filmmakers today should bring a more sympathetic eye to the issues laid out in this classic story.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Jessica Huang says:

    I found your depiction gave Gable’s manipulative character too much credit – rape is never part of a solution or therapy.
    i found this depiction of Gable’s character more true:
    https://ruthlessculture.com/2009/12/03/marnie-1964-the-abusive-nature-of-therapy/

    His character is clouded in mystery, while we understand Tippi’s much more by the end of the film. How do we know he is a “knight” – it seems to me he is dark and twisted.

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    1. Jessica Huang says:

      Woops I am so sorry, I meant Connery. I was reading about Clark Gable earlier and got the two mixed up!

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    2. When I wrote this I had watched a lot of Hitchcock and had discussed a lot of issues I had with his treatment of female characters in-depth, so by the time I wrote this, I figured my chilly and more than a little sarcastic/ironic description of a male character in a Hitchcock would be understood as such. I should’ve made a note at the bottom that I was being sarcastic. Oops.

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    3. ” Indeed, from a modern stand-point, Mark’s tight control over Marnie’s life and psyche is undeniably abusive. Not only does he refuse to allow Marnie the chance to retreat back into her shell, he uses psychological manipulation and even rape to force her out of her shell. To be more honest. To be more open.” Agreed. It was not therapy at all. It was “therapy”, but let’s not forget what that term meant- especially in the context of “handling” women in this era. Women were hospitalized indefinitely for far less than what Marnie’s character was living with. The idea of abusing a woman into submission for her own good -because freedom leads her to steal, lie, and take on dangerous personas? (that seems to be the logic behind all this.)- is knightly to Hitchcock. And he wouldn’t have needed to unpack why one of his knights would abuse his leading lady “for her own good”… it was a given for him, unfortunately.

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