Marnie continues Alfred Hitchcock's fascination with obsessive love and aberrant psychology begun in films such as The Paradine Case (1947) and Vertigo (1958). In both earlier films Hitchcock concentrates on the hero's obsession with a "phantom woman," a phantom in The Paradine Case because the hero has surrounded the real woman with an aura of mystery which he chooses not to penetrate, and in Vertigo because the woman the hero loves is the clever creation of two conspirators in murder. Very little attention is paid to the psyche of the woman„for in a figurative sense she does not exist. She is but an object on which he and/or others project a personality. The film's subjectification is all from the hero's point of view.
Marnie, however, as the title suggests, breaks from this pattern. The "object" becomes a "subject," a subject equal in standing to the hero. Here, for the first time, Hitchcock delves behind the mask of the cool, detached "ice-princesses" he so favored. His heroine (played so exquisitely by Hitchcock's discovery, Tippi Hedren) throws off her cloak of mystery, and is exposed as ruthlessly as her male counterparts.
Marnie is a kleptomaniacal young woman who moves from job to job, changing identities and embezzling money as she goes. With her ill-gotten gains she supports her two overriding obsessions, her horses and her mother. Her confusion of identity is visually underlined in the very first scenes of the film in which she coolly and methodically dyes her hair, exchanges ID's, switches clothes, and emerges with a different mask, one of many. The first real clue to the origin of this woman's strange behavior is given during her visit to her mother Bernice Edgar (Louise Latham).
Marnie's mother is a bitter, critical woman who shows no appreciation and little affection for her doting daughter. Marnie tries to act out the role of little girl for her mother, laying her head on her lap, reverting to childish babble, only to be rejected and replaced in her mother's affections by a neighbor's child. The fact that her mother's house is the key to Marnie's psyche, the locus where reality and illusion first became confused, is emphasized by the establishing exterior shot of the house obviously on a studio street before a painted backdrop of a port with a liner moored there. The traditional sexual symbolism associated with ships, ports, and the sea are noteworthy, especially as the understanding of Marnie's problems is rendered more and more in strict Freudian terms as the film progresses.
Marnie's deviations go undetected for an unspecified period of time until, in applying for a job in her newest guise, she is recognized by her employer, Mark Rutland (Sean Connery), as the woman who had embezzled funds from a friend. But instead of reporting Marnie, Mark decides to hire her and study her as an unusual specimen. Mark becomes fascinated by this cold, aloof woman who seems to be hiding so much behind her masks. She is a challenge, something "wild" that he has caught and must tame. In taming her he probes her mind. Holding her to him through blackmail, he questions her incessantly, trying to reconstruct the jigsaw puzzle of her past. Before long his study has turned to obsession and he forces her to marry him. On their wedding night aboard ship (again filled with the symbolism of boats and the sea), he en¬counters another complication in this infinitely complex woman, another facet hidden behind the masks: Marnie is frigid to the extent that she refuses to let him touch her. A few nights later, in his frustration, he rapes her.
With this impulsive act Marnie now gains the upper hand, using his violation of her as her trump card; she makes him agree never to touch her again. Mark consents, guiltily. With this shift of power Mark becomes Marnie's vassal. He showers her with gifts, including a favorite horse, protects her from his prying relatives, and honors her most difficult prerequisite. It is as if Marnie has become even more desirable in her frigidity, in her increasingly complex mystery. The affair, if it can be called that, develops into a onesided amour fou with Mark directing all his energy towards her and getting little response in return. Again the heroes of The Paradine Case and Vertigo, with their demented compulsiveness, come to mind.
Almost all of Marnie's problems in the film are reduced, with true Freudian prestidigitation, to the sexual level and expounded upon visually with ap¬propriate symbols. The red flashes Marnie sees at traumatic moments are the most obvious indicators of this. The scene in Mark's office when he embraces her and a bolt of lightning thrusts a phallic limb through the window, makes up in direct visual shock what it lacks in subtlety. Her unrestrained affection for horses is also a simplistic Freudian cipher for sexual sublimation.
The unraveling of the mystery of Marnie occurs in the final scene at her mother's home. She returns there with Mark to try to piece together the sounds and images which haunt her: the red flashes, the tapping at the window, her cries for her mother, the vague memories of violence. At the house, she relives the traumatic childhood scene in which she murders a sailor (Bruce Dern) who is threatening her mother. In textbook fashion Mamie re-experiences the traumatic incident in order to purge it, and the film ends with her revelation.
Marnie is Hitchcock's most romantic film, for in it he de-emphasizes almost all the elements of suspense in favor of the story's sexual-romantic overtones. There is the mystery surrounding Marnie's trauma and a few classic Hitchcockian suspense-builders, such as the robbery in which a cleaning lady appears on the scene as Marnie drops a shoe, only to find that the woman is • deaf; and Mark's discovery of Marnie during a second robbery. However, the images which leave the most lasting impressions are of Marnie and Mark embracing in the thunderstorm; of Marnie's nightgown falling about her feet as Mark tears it on their ill-fated honeymoon; and a tilted, unsettling shot of Mark in a stable, lost in his mad reverie adoring the unresponsive Marnie. The ending of Marnie also makes it a much more positive film than its predecessors. For unlike Scottie in Vertigo, tottering on the edge of the abyss into which his love has fallen, or Keane in The Paradine Case sitting pale and drained after realizing that he has been deceived by the woman he loved, Mark is able to walk away with Marnie into a possibly brighter future.