Hitchcock and the shell of a blonde bomb
“Marnie” 1964 Alfred Hitchcock film psychoanalysis
As a devoted Hitchcock fan, I was somewhat stunned into submission at the cognitive plot of Marnie; a “suspenseful sex mystery” (their words, not mine) released in 1964, starring Tippi Hendren and Sean Connery. It is a slow film in amidst the fast pace of the space race, civil rights, James Bond and birth control (not necessarily in that order…). Ms Hendren plays Margot “Marnie” Edgar, her follow-up to her silver screen debut with Hitchcock’s’ hit “The Birds” the year prior. The plot is unusual from the start – a wealthy handsome man Mark Rutland (Connery) falls in love and/or blackmail a young blonde with a bad habit and equally bad relationship with her mother. Against all the odds, and the painful truths she slowly reveals, he continues to stay with her and support her overcome her psychological difficulties.
I have found myself thinking of Marnie quite a bit since watching the film. She is a beautiful woman whom finds herself in a double bind of recoiling from the touch of man, but seeking her thrills elsewhere in the form of thievery and deception. She, and we, understand that what she is doing is wrong, but for some reason never comes across as the “villain” – you feel sorry for her, and you sense that there is something about her past which may explain her present behaviours. In many respects, she is lost, so lost in fact we do not question the motive of the security that Connery is willing to provide (though maybe we should).
What I find fascinating about Marnie, via the watchful eyes of Hitchcock, is that visually she is the epitome of the “blonde bombshell” he became known for casting with her ice cold allure and stunning mystique. However, her physical appearance is merely a façade, a hard “shell” like that in which a bomb is encased, ready to be detonated when the right (or wrong) buttons are pushed –as we glimpse in her moments of “Red haze” and graphically in the final scenes. Like for so many women even in our comparatively progressive times – the almost obsessive importance placed on beauty and outward appearance is paramount. Her immaculate sixties bouffant and mod tailoring with matching gloves provides ample distraction and gives the impression of a woman whom is “put together”, even though we all know she is falling apart, scene by scene. As in Hitchcock’s masterpiece “Vertigo”, the storyline dances around the male gaze of the female specimen, or as Marnie describes herself being “his possession in marriage”. Even in my clinical practice this is something I see women doing so very often; make up becomes the “war paint” and protective barrier against the attack of the outer (or inner) world. Sex, drugs and technology provides distraction and is “safer” than raw vulnerability and connection, with ourselves let alone with others.
As a Psychiatrist working predominantly with women, many of whom are vulnerable and going through the biggest emotional transition of them all (motherhood), I was struck by Tippi Hendrens’ performance and her incredible depiction of an “emotionally unstable woman”, a phrase I am aware has negative connotation in our society which shames one being in touch with ones feelings. An emotional unstable woman is seen to be as weak, unreliable, and unprofessional – and at extreme even a disorder, yet, many (as Mr Rutland) can find their impulsiveness and sense of danger equally exciting to be around. Despite all her flaws and learned helplessness, Marnie has a unique strength of character to weather all the storms that she faces, even though, like a little girl, she is afraid of thunder and lightning. This complex strength in feminine fragility in the shadow of domineering men is seen in other works of Hitchcock, most noticeably Rebecca.
Her raw emotion when her repressed memories came to surface is uncomfortable to watch, yet feels somewhat cathartic for both the viewer and the one being viewed. The now coined “rape scene” in which Sean Connery states firmly that he does want “to go to bed”, and, apologetically, yet non consensually undresses her as she lies motionless like a porcelain doll is disturbing to say the least. It is especially haunting in the wake of the hashtag “me too” movement and revelations of historical sexual harassment in Hollywood, and in the knowledge about the difficult off-screen relationship Hendren had with Hitchcock which climaxed in her refusing to work with him ever again. It undoubtedly weaves an unspoken tension throughout the whole film, but, sadly, there is no doubt it adds something to the realness of the on-screen performance. The overall plot of the movie arguably (and worryingly) even follows that of the stages of imitate relationship abuse; the period of tension building, the acting out period, the honeymoon period (in this case, quite literally), and the calm period *. We find ourselves believing in the closing credits that Sean Connery has “saved her”; the rape scene is forgotten and we imagine they live happily ever after she has some urgent psychotherapy.
We come to understand that our protagonist Marnie is a victim; and the power dynamics within her life (with her mother, with the nameless childhood stranger, with her career and her new husband) define her – she is powerless and childlike; even stealing all the money in the vault & changing her identity in every town does not provide the escape she craves. It is at the point where she truly regresses into a child like state, where she is freed (at least we hope, we never actually find out), of the demonic trappings of her childhood trauma.
There are moments in the movie that are flat, and moments that are so melodic and characteristically Hitchcock it makes my spine tingle (the heel dangling from her pocket might be one of my favourite examples of classic Hitchcock movie suspense), and more recognition in my opinion should be given to Bernard Herrmann, the mastermind behind the score of many of Alfred Hitchcock movies which sets the mood spectacularly.
I am still surprised that this was released in the cinema and would be a film you would go to see with friends or on a date. Many have slated Hitchcock and his use of “pop psychology” in his films and obvious interest in the works of Freud (most noticeably in Psycho and Spellbound, the latter possibly my favourite Hitchcock film) however Hitchcock continues to shock and awe, not with the use of special effects or computer technology but with the use of lights, camera and “action” (aka. the understanding of the human psyche – the most exciting prop of all). There are many obvious references to psychoanalysis, such as the defence mechanisms of dissociation, repression and regression; but also the more subtle references – for example the keys to the vault as a visual representation of her mind – and the anguish in her face when she has the keys in her hand and stacks of money within her reach yet there is a psycho-somatic “block” and ironic pending danger that is preventing her delving deeper into the (literal) “safe” – her unconscious (id).
The Golden Era of Hollywood in the 1950s and 60s mirrored that of Psychiatry, with the field exploding in various degrees, from the sharp development of psychotropic medications and psychoanalytical theory allowing a shift from institutionalism to the novel concept of having “outpatients”. Psychiatry, however, as all fields of medicine, remained caged within its paternalistic and misogynistic paradigm. Hitchcock was acutely aware of these prevailing mid-century cultural tensions and introduced the concept into his films with equal measures of humour and honesty, the quote below from “Marnie” illustrates this beautifully;
Mark Rutland: What you do need, I suspect, is a Psychiatrist.
Marnie Edgar: Oh, men! You say “no thanks” to one of them and BINGO! You’re a candidate for the funny farm.
Marnie is a film ahead of its time that also stands the test of time. Despite its mid 20th century modern lightness and analytical heaviness, it’s a film that continues to resonate generation after generation. It is a study of the female sexuality, the pain and manifestations of unspoken trauma, and complexity of intimate relationships and abuser-victim dynamic that defies all logic. I don’t think this film could be recreated even if you tried; much like Marnies’ memories it feels trapped in a time, and something we can watch (and watch again) from a distance without ever truly understanding it. It is a truly unique film – and the beauty of cinema is that it is an art form that can open the door to discussions and difficult conversations. Marnie is a wonderful example of how a popular culture film can be entertaining on the surface, and/or used to debunk the myths and mystery surrounding psychiatry to create a dialogue about mental health, trauma and sexuality, should you wish to go deeper.