Marnie Review

Michael Brooke has reviewed the Region 1 DVD release of Marnie

In all sorts of ways, Marnie feels like the end of an era. It wasn’t Hitchcock’s last film (he’d make four more), or even his last masterpiece (Frenzy has plenty of champions), but it was the last film that he made with his great team of the 1950s: cinematographer Robert Burks, editor George Tomasini, designer Robert Boyle and composer Bernard Herrmann. It was also arguably his last true ‘Hollywood’ film, shot almost entirely on a sound stage, with all the stylisation and artificiality that that implies (the clarity of the DVD does rather emphasise Hitchcock’s fondness for back projection).

It’s very much a return to Vertigo territory, in that the plot revolves around the obsession of a man for a mysterious blonde woman who is hiding a dark secret, the unlocking of which might help explain her strange behaviour – though the main difference here is that the focus is largely on her rather than him.

Marnie (Tippi Hedren) is a compulsive thief and equally pathological liar, clearly with some deep-seated psychological problems (the sight of certain images, especially those dominated by reds, makes her feel faint). She moves from job to job, only staying long enough to learn how to open the safe and rob them blind – after that, she changes her identity and hair colour and moves on to the next city.

But when she applies for a job at a publisher’s, things start to go wrong – because the young owner of the business, Mark Rutland (Sean Connery), recognises her thanks to a connection between his firm and the one she previously robbed. But rather than turn her in – he has no evidence, after all – he finds herself strangely attracted to her, and the scene is set for a decidedly warped romance.

And that description doesn’t only fit what happens between Mark and Marnie, it also covers the relationship between Hitchcock and Hedren. Donald Spoto’s biography ‘The Dark Side of Genius’ claims that Hitchcock was sexually obsessed with Hedren to an unprecedentedly reckless degree, and the film certainly has some decidedly obsessive, not to say fetishistic, shots of Hedren, particularly of the back of her head (a stylistic quirk that can also be seen in Vertigo) – and the rape scene, though staged very discreetly, is nonetheless highly disturbing to watch given that it’s the third Hitchcock film in a row where his (blonde) leading lady has been brutalised in some way, not least because it’s second time round for Hedren.

Those issues aside, this is a wonderfully enjoyable film – so much so that I originally planned just to dip into the first five minutes and ended up watching the whole thing. This being a Hitchcock film, there are of course some classic suspense set-pieces – the robbery sequence where a cleaning woman emerges at a critical moment; the arrival of a deeply unwelcome guest at the party; the final flashback (which contains one of the most graphic murder sequences in Hitchcock’s output) – but Hitchcock’s total control of his material goes far deeper than that: colour, composition, set and costume design and music all fuse together in perfect harmony to a degree that most contemporary directors can only wonder at, which enables him to get over not only the technical drawbacks (Hitchcock was always a little over-fond of back projection, but this is going too far!) but also the rather dubious psychology that underlines the story.

The DVD is superb – an anamorphic transfer framed at the correct 1.85:1 aspect ratio whose picture is conspicuously sharper than that of Universal’s DVD of The Birds, though this does have the effect of accentuating the original film grain (this is much less of a problem with the non-anamorphic clips included in the documentary). This isn’t unpleasing to the eye, but it’s occasionally a little distracting. The print is generally in excellent condition, a few minor spots and scratches notwithstanding, and the colours (particularly the all-important reds) are impressively vivid. All in all, unless Marnie is given the kind of restoration granted Vertigo a few years ago, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll get a better small-screen transfer.

According to the DVD sleeve, the sound is Dolby Digital 2.0, but it sounded mono to my ears, which is what I’d have expected under the circumstances. That said, it’s a good clean transfer that brings both dialogue and music across with perfect clarity. The recording isn’t exactly state-of-the-art, but since the film is nearly forty years old at the time of writing that’s forgivable. There are twenty chapter stops, which is reasonable if a little restrictive for a two-hour-plus film.

Given both the quantity and quality of the extras supplied with Universal’s special editions of Vertigo, Psycho and The Birds, it was initially a little disappointing that Marnie’s extras seemed relatively low-key by comparison – but appearances are deceptive, as there’s a lot more than initially meets the eye (for instance, the fact that the documentary is nearly an hour long isn’t mentioned anywhere on the packaging).

The original theatrical trailer is introduced by Hitchcock himself (“One might call Marnie a sex mystery – that is, if one used such words”), and he goes on to narrate the entire thing. Like the legendary trailer for Psycho, it’s a miniature classic in its own right, with Hitchcock constantly undercutting the material with his usual bone-dry wit (“Oh dear, they’re at it again… I don’t think that was necessary!”), and it’s a model of how to reveal what appears to be a fair amount of plot material while at the same time giving away virtually nothing at all. In other words, he’s up to his usual trick of deliberately over-emphasising trivial material while downplaying the essentials, all aimed at throwing us off the scent.

The 58-minute documentary ‘The Trouble with Marnie‘ is by far the most substantial extra. Made by the same team responsible for the similarly heavyweight documentaries on Universal’s other Hitchcock DVDs, it’s much, much more than the usual bland production featurette. It’s based on a bedrock of interviews with a huge number of people involved with the film, including all three writers (credited screenwriter Jay Presson Allen plus Evan Hunter and Joseph Stefano, who worked on earlier drafts), the three lead actresses (Tippi Hedren, Diane Baker, Louise Latham), production designer Robert Boyle, unit manager Hilton A.Green, makeup artist Howard Smit, Hitchcock specialists Peter Bogdanovich and Robin Wood, and Hitchcock’s daughter Patricia – in other words, pretty much everyone connected with the film who’s still alive, with the notable exception of Sean Connery.

The entire production history is described in detail from its initial gestation as Grace Kelly’s comeback vehicle, through casting (Sean Connery had only just made Dr No, and was by no means an obvious choice), and physical production and staging details, all illustrated copiously with relevant clips and backup material (chiefly storyboards), as well as the ‘creative differences’ between Hitchcock and his famously prickly composer Bernard Herrmann.

What’s most impressive about ‘The Trouble with Marnie‘ is that it isn’t afraid to point out flaws in the final film, though it unsurprisingly shies away from Spoto’s claims about Hitchcock’s attitude towards Hedren, as I suspect they would have been a little too near the knuckle for an essentially celebratory documentary like this.

The other heavyweight extra is ‘The Marnie Archives’, which presents a huge selection of 132 film, production and publicity stills, plus posters and advertising materials. All these are underscored by extracts from Bernard Herrmann’s music, which means you can also use this section as a kind of soundtrack album substitute (though there are no individual chapter stops). This section runs nine minutes.

There are also seven pages of production notes and competent if unspectacular biographies and filmographies for the four lead actors plus Hitchcock, together with ‘Recommendations’ (unsurprisingly, these were reproductions of DVD covers for Vertigo, Psycho and The Birds) and Universal web links for those watching this on a DVD-ROM drive.

What’s most encouraging about this DVD is the clear sign that Universal is prepared to make a real effort on even a relatively low-key Hitchcock film (Marnie was never a popular favourite and has often been underrated even by Hitchcock fans), which bodes very well for forthcoming releases such as North By Northwest and Rear Window – and indeed anything else they’ve got up their sleeve. What’s even more encouraging is that some of the films on Universal’s DVDs weren’t originally Universal releases (Vertigo and Psycho, for instance), and if this means that they’re buying up the DVD rights so they can do a proper “collector’s edition” job on them, I’m all for it.

Michael Brooke

Updated: Feb 27, 1999

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