Hitchcock's florid psychodrama unfolds multiple layers of repressed memory, frigidity and changing identity.

By Stephanie Zacharek
Published August 16, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Starring Tippi Hedren, Sean Connery, Diane Baker
Universal; widescreen (1.85:1 aspect ratio)
Extras: Making-of documentary, photo archives, theatrical trailer, production notes, cast and filmmaker bios

Before there was a trend known as repressed memory syndrome, there was "Marnie." Tippi Hedren is a crisp, detached class act, a pedigreed blond without the pedigree, who goes from office job to office job stealing compulsively from her employers, changing her identity and vanishing after each instance. Sean Connery is Mark Rutland, the pedigreed gent with the pedigree, an intelligent and perceptive fellow who catches onto Marnie's tricks -- and falls deeply in love with her, determined to marry and cure her. He doesn't know it yet, but there's some trauma in Marnie's past -- something that causes her to react with terror every time she sees the color red on a white background -- that sits at the heart of her massive kleptomania, her sexual frigidity and her inability to simply be herself.

The dime-store psychology of "Marnie" makes it juicily enjoyable, and its sexually retrograde ideas are by and large easy enough to laugh off. But "Marnie" isn't just a campy period piece. Hitchcock made it with his trademark deliberateness and precision: Especially stunning is a scene in which Marnie, having removed her shoes before discreetly slipping a wad of dough from an office safe, tries to tiptoe away to safety, her high-heel pump dangling precariously out of her coat pocket. Even beyond such technical proficiency, though, there's something about the heightened melodrama of the story that makes it practically sizzle off the screen, and it's strangely touching in places.

Connery's character is supposed to be a suave knight in shining armor, but he inadvertently represents something else: the bumbliness of certain types of male good intentions. Mark Rutland is no saint -- he rapes his young bride (not brutally or explicitly, but the suggestion is made strongly enough), even though he fully realizes she's terrified of sex. But later you see him reading a book titled "Sexual Aberrations of the Criminal Female," a crude symbol of the way he's trying his damnedest to understand her. And as Marnie, Hedren's coolness, all tasteful blond-and-beige self-protection, has a kind of guarded poignancy in itself. This isn't a performance that slops all over the place: It's as nipped-and-tucked as Marnie is repressed, but Hedren knows how to let tiny slivers of Marnie's desire for love shine through.

The extras here are exceptionally sophisticated and informative, particularly a crisply made documentary called "The Trouble with Marnie," which features comments from (among others) Hedren, critic Robin Wood and all three of the screenwriters who worked on the script for "Marnie." The rape scene in "Marnie" has always been dangled by feminist critics as evidence of Hitchcock's hatred of women. While Hitchcock was far from the most enlightened male of his era, it's interesting to note that when he fired a male screenwriter (Evan Hunter, who wrote the screenplay for "The Birds") for balking at providing a rape scene, it was a woman, Jay Presson Allen, who stepped in and wrote the final scene with nary a ruffled feather. In this documentary, she notes that she simply saw the rape as something that could happen in a troubled marriage; Hitchcock's insistence on it didn't trouble her in the least.

But it is the brilliant, if over-the-top, Hitchcock pointy-head Wood who makes the strongest statement about "Marnie": "I would say myself, and this may sound provocative and even arrogant, but if you don't like 'Marnie,' you don't really like Hitchcock. I would go further from that and say, if you don't love 'Marnie,' you don't really love cinema." Of course, Wood's throwing a bomb here. But if you don't respond to at least one of "Marnie's" multiple layers -- whether it's the precision of the filmmaking or the florid psychodrama of the story or Bernard Herrmann's unfurled-satin score -- it may be time to check your pulse.

Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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