Sunday, June 2, 2013

To Catch a Thief: MARNIE

I didn't say men weren't interested in me. I wasn't interested in them. I’ve never been married. …And no lovers, no steadies, no beaus, no gentlemen callers, nothing!

Oh my. We are a long way from Alfred Hitchcock’s blonde predators of the 1950s – those sexually aggressive gals who tip dining room porters, pack negligees in their handbags, and take their male targets on thrill rides through The French Riviera. These women wear their sexuality like perfume, fully expecting Cary Grant and James Stewart to sample the wares. But here it is 1964, and Hitchcock’s Marnie turns the concept on its ear. Instead of men, this blonde predator chases cold, hard cash.

And who is this unromantic girl? She’s Marnie Edgar, a compulsive liar and thief who has perfected the art of stealing from her employers. Working as an office clerk, she stays with a job just long enough to empty the company safe. Then, armed with a stack of cash and a wallet full of fake identities, she escapes to a new job in another town. In between, she struggles to earn the love of her ailing mother Bernice, a woman so puritanical she can barely greet her daughter at the door before accusing her of bleaching her hair to attract a man. “A decent woman don’t have need for any man”, she tells her daughter distastefully. And thus after a lifetime of Bernice’s prudish mentoring, Marnie is sexually frigid. Incredibly, she has the balls to pull off a robbery all on her own, but she “cannot bear to be handled” by men.

Given the circumstances, you’d think she might want to dial down her looks, but Marnie grew up poor, and has “bettered” herself. She may dress in conservative office wear, but she has all the sharp angles of a fashion illustration. So it’s no surprise that employer Sidney Strutt can offer an obsessed description of her to police. Publishing executive Mark Rutland wants her so badly he puts his company at risk by hiring her, and later blackmails her into marriage. Both men note the way she pulls her skirt down over her knees, and each harbors the unspoken expectation that a sexual dynamo lurks within. It’s a well-worn cliché but Hitchcock pursues it enthusiastically here, likely influenced by his off-screen pursuit of unwilling star Tippi Hedren.

For my money the best parts of the movie are the office scenes, which are all rich with humour and detail: The opening scene, as the outraged Sidney Strutt realizes the office clerk he coveted has robbed him; Marnie’s interview, with Mark recognizing her as the Strutt thief; And the near-silent robbery at Rutland, as Marnie drops a shoe while trying to avoid the cleaning woman. And shame on me if I don’t mention the scene where Marnie gives a quiet brush-off to a male office colleague offering to bring her a danish.With The Birds as her only previous screen credit, Hedren does well enough in the role of Marnie, and is appropriately aloof. True, her speaking voice is tense and brittle, but at the same time it’s completely sympatico with the mounting stress of her character. Her performance really comes together in scenes such as in the washroom, scrubbing the ink stain off her blouse, and in the car after the stop at Howard Johnson’s, where she’s twitching like a canary in a coalmine. I cannot imagine Grace Kelly in this role, as was originally planned.

The script goes overboard with its cheeky trapped animal and sex metaphors, but who better than Sean Connery to speak those lines? I first saw this film when I was ten, and I understood and laughed. Now I laugh because of Sean Connery’s delivery. It strikes me that Hitchcock lived vicariously through the actor’s performance, and I can imagine him approving Connery’s good work in the film.  True, the honeymoon rape scene is troubling, but ultimately Mark pays for his actions: he arrives home from the honeymoon a humbled man, burdened with the reality of her suicide attempt and the prospect of an unworkable marriage. While Marnie is essentially the film’s protagonist, much of the weight of responsibility falls to Mark. He must be a love interest, zoologist, detective and psychiatrist. 

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