HITCHCOCK’S WOMEN: A Life with No Exits – Cycles of Trauma in MARNIE (1964) – PART I

Rebecca McCallum continues her series of deep dives into the leading ladies in the films of Alfred Hitchcock. Please note: the following article includes discussions of rape and sexual assault.

Who is Marnie Edgar (Tippi Hedren) and what traumatic and damaging secrets are buried deep within her? An often problematic – yet equally fascinating meditation on sexual politics and gender studies – Marnie charts the journey of a woman whose past is quickly catching up with her present, as she is repeatedly plagued by compulsions to lie, steal and deviate between multiple identities. All this collapses however when, after one such robbery, she is caught by Mark Rutland (Sean Connery), ‘an interested spectator at the passing parade.’ Whilst Marnie harbours romantic feelings towards Mark, their troubled courtship plays out with a great deal of imbalance and we learn that in addition to enduring frequent flashbacks connected to an event in her childhood, she ‘cannot bear to be handled’. Unfortunately for Marnie, things are not harmonious at home either as she battles to understand why her mother Bernie (Louise Latham) cannot get close to her.  

Meeting Marnie

In a wonderfully cinematic opening shot, a woman in a tweed suit carrying a suitcase walks down a train platform. Facing away from us her identity is a mystery, but one prominent feature catches the eye: an oversized yellow purse that is clasped firmly shut, tucked tightly under her arm. The station is empty, ensuring that all eyes are focused on this woman who is introduced as an absolute enigma. In one brief shot, Hitchcock encapsulates the major themes of Marnie – shifting identities, restlessness and (through the vaginal symbolism of the purse) female sexuality.

We learn that a robbery has been committed on a business named Strutt and Co. The accused is named by Strutt (Martin Gabel) as Marion Holland. Mark Rutland, a client of the firm, also makes his first appearance. Exuding a smooth and smouldering masculine charm, he recalls a time when he saw Marion at the office, leaning into a physical description that speaks to his predatory status: ‘oh that one, the brunette with the legs’.

In the corridor of a hotel, we watch as the woman commands a Bell Boy down the hallway. She remains faceless with her purse clasped shut, still sitting snuggly under her arm. From a door in the bottom left, Hitchcock emerges. He looks first at the woman, then at us and then back at the woman again. Nevermore has his gaze been so integrated with a female lead whilst also being so connected with the audience: it is as though he is directing our eyes where to look next.

Still facing away from us, we observe the woman in her hotel room with two suitcases, one crammed full of old clothes while the other is filled with newly boxed garments. Not only has Hitchcock created a mystery as to who she is, but also as to which identity (if any) is authentic. Bernard Hermann’s score builds momentously as she dyes her black hair to Hitchcock blonde. As the orchestra reaches its peak she rises, revealing her face for the first time. In this momentary glimpse she appears confident, determined, and liberated. At another station, we see her place the old suitcase into a locker before disposing of the key down a nearby grid; one identity is easily shed for another as she takes the new suitcase (and her new identity) in hand.

Traveling from the city to the country she reunites with her beloved horse Forio, whose face she holds close to her own in a display of intimacy that is never shown to another person. Riding out in the openness of the fields she is in a space of total freedom and ecstasy: this is where she can forget and be herself. As she rides off ahead however, Hitchcock links the movement of her horse into the next scene where she pulls up on the street of her family home in a taxi. Thus, the past is shown to be inextricably connected to the present.

Why Don’t You Love Me, Momma?

Arriving at the street of terraced houses, with her coiffed hair and expensive suit, the woman seems to be out of place in this working-class neighbourhood. The door is answered not by her mother but by Jessie (Kimberly Beck), a young blonde girl who represents both a threat in the present (as her mother literally speaks of inviting Jessie to move in) and – in being a literal reflection of the woman’s younger self – an unwelcoming reminder of her past.  She enters the humble household where she comes face-to-face with her mother who addresses her as ‘Marnie’: crucially this is the first time anyone refers to her by name, signifying that only her mother knows her true identity. As Marnie and Bernice are reunited, they seem genuinely content, drawing close to one another.  

However, this closeness is short lived as Bernice proceeds to sing Jessie’s praises and we quickly detect a change in Marnie’s speech and body language, as she reverts to a child-like state. She is clearly disappointed when her lightened up blonde hair is criticised, a choice which her mother connects with a desire for attracting the attention of men. In a struggle for affection, Marnie tries to please her mother with a luxurious gift she has bought her. This is quickly counteracted by Jessie asking Bernice to brush her hair, interrupting a tender moment of Marnie kneeling at her mother’s feet. Desperate for love and acceptance, she is promptly rejected.

With eyes hungry for acceptance and an audible wobble in her voice, Marnie asks why her mother doesn’t ‘give me one part of the love you give Jessie?’ It is evident that Bernice cannot tolerate Marnie touching her as her daughter reaches out to make contact. In response to this appeal for physical connection, Bernice strikes Marnie, sending her into a regressive state as she apologises to her mother: ‘I know you never thought anything bad about me.’ Notably, they cannot look at one another as she says this, placing a question mark over Marnie’s faith in this statement.

The Predator Spots His Prey

After this fraught visit with her mother Marnie applies for a job at Rutland’s: a publishing firm headed up by Mark Rutland, who notices her pulling her skirt down as she waits for an interview. This prompts him to recollect an earlier observation at Strutt’s that Marion Holland performed the same action: ‘as though her knees were a national treasure’. During her interview, Mark stands in the corner watching curiously as Marnie is framed by the safe, further evidence that she is, as he suspects, the thief in question. Whilst Marnie lies eloquently and convincingly, Mark remains quietly smug as he gives the nod for her to be hired; the predator has spotted his prey and is preparing for attack.

When Marnie arrives at the office to undertake some overtime for Mark one weekend, he directs her to a photograph on his desk of a wild jaguarundi, Sophie, who he trained to ‘trust him’, a clear parallel with what he plans to do with her. At first she appears comfortable in his presence, but as he makes remarks about the document he has given her to type – which covers ‘the criminal class of the animal kingdom’ in which ‘females feature very largely as predators’ – she becomes increasingly unsettled. With each exchange, the camera frames her face more tightly, reflecting her anxious mood. A thunderstorm begins, and she makes a run for the door, the lights and colours acting as a trigger related to her past. Mark takes her in his arms, and initially she seems to be comforted by close contact, but when his lips find hers she is visibly absent as she stares blankly ahead. 

This predatory approach by Mark – and holding of Marnie before kissing her – will soon be reflected in his advances towards her when he discovers she has stolen from Rutland’s in a forthcoming dark scene of sexual assault, and again when he announces in the final act that they are visiting her mother. All these moments provoke a scream of ‘No!’ from Marnie, and Hitchcock’s arrangement of these scenes emphasise the trauma she experiences time and time again.

While Hitchcock takes care to show Marnie looking and watching, she is also a constant subject for being looked at which in turn bleeds into the spying and investigating that takes place. When at the races with Mark, Marnie experiences a rare moment of content: ‘ah I like it here like this.’ However she is soon approached by a mysterious man who identifies her as Peggy Nicholson, setting her on edge once again. Thus, the motif of Marnie being watched, followed and stalked ties in with the notion of her as prey that is constantly under threat.

Made Pure For Me

Throughout the film, the colour white is an important focal point for Marnie as this represents the opposite of the red suffusions which haunt her at every turn. During her visit home she promptly exchanges the red gladiolas for white chrysanthemums, seeking to purify the space. She ensures that her life is saturated with white by two means: firstly by wearing white, and secondly through its association to cleanliness.

Marnie can be seen wearing an array of white costumes on multiple occasions. At Rutland’s she wears white blouses, during the sexual assault scene she wears a white gown as she also does post-honeymoon at Wykwyn, and furthermore she is also dressed in a white blouse whilst at the hunt.

Cleanliness to Marnie is an important, ritual-like activity which we see her engage in from the beginning as she dyes her hair over a bathroom sink. When her white blouse is stained with red ink at Rutland’s’, she makes a beeline for the bathroom to furiously scrub the garment clean. Ahead of the robbery on Rutland’s she retreats to the bathroom to conceal herself, waiting for her colleagues to disperse, and whilst on their honeymoon Mark comments upon how she has spent forty-seven minutes in the bathroom. After the sexual assault, Marnie attempts to take her own life by drowning herself in the waters of the ship’s swimming pool, a decision that seems as much about cleansing herself as it does about preferring death over sex. For Marnie, bathing and cleanliness purifies her, or as she later says of the colour white in a free association game with Mark, it represents being ‘made pure for me’.

Rebecca McCallum

Rebecca will be back later this month to conclude her analysis of Hitchcock’s Marnie.

If you’ve been affected by any of the topics discussed in this article, support is available in the UK via rapecrisis.org.uk or thesurvivorstrust.org

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