Rebecca McCallum concludes her analysis here on the character of Marnie, as part of our HITCHCOCK’S WOMEN series. Please note: the following article includes discussions of rape and sexual assault.
Holding the Reins
Unable to fight off her compulsion to steal, shortly after meeting Mark (Sean Connery) Marnie (Tippi Hedren) commits a robbery at his publishing firm. Immediately afterwards she experiences a sense of euphoria (both because she has escaped being caught and any further intimacy with Mark) as she rides her horse Forio in the countryside. However, unlike previously where the route ahead seemed to be open to her, on this occasion there is no clearing to ride off into, signifying her entrapment. The only direction she can take is towards Mark who stands, predator-like, waiting to capture and ensnare her. Mark insists that he rides Forio back to the Red Fox Inn whilst instructing Marnie to walk and – in doing so – separates her from her most treasured possession and deprives her of the opportunity to escape. He begins his interrogation, questioning her as she tells him multiple versions of the truth.
Marnie admits to stealing, but claims she fought against a blossoming romance with Mark because ‘I needed to get away, to get out before I got hurt’. Pleadingly, she asks him to let her go, but he tells her for the first time of many that ‘this is how it’s going to be’, dictating total control of her life. He also takes the opportunity to enquire into her love life, and she explains that there have been ‘no beaus, no steadies, no gentleman callers – nothing’, a pointed reflection on the difficulty she has in establishing relationships. Now that he holds the reins on Marnie, Mark sets out ‘how it will be’ as he blackmails her into marriage.
Marnie’s horrified reaction reveals how intolerable the thought of being under some else’s control is for her, and she begs for him to change his mind, pointing out that if he loves her he will let her go. Running out of options, she begins to panic and grow distraught, objecting that ‘you don’t love me, I’m just something you’ve caught, I’m just some kind of animal you’ve trapped’, and indeed it seems that Mark and Marnie are predator and prey as he tells her ‘that’s right, and I’ve caught something really wild this time haven’t I? I’ve tracked you and caught you and by God I’m going to keep you’.
The dark and possessive nature of these threats continue as they agree that she will belong to Mark, who justifies this by claiming ‘someone’s got to take responsibility for you Marnie, and it narrows down to me or the Police’. Shortly after, they are married and it is clear to see the effect upon her as they leave Wykwyn (Mark’s family home) for their honeymoon. Marnie remains polite and cordial to the family as they exchange goodbyes on the doorstep, but when she faces the audience (and away from the family) her expression communicates a feeling of entrapment and despair.
Despite enduring blackmail and being forced into marriage, Marnie has yet more dark and disturbing times ahead of her during her ‘high seas honeymoon’. She emerges from the bathroom one evening wearing a thick full-length gown that is buttoned to her neck, indicating she does not intend or desire any physical intimacy. As she stands before Mark, she has never looked more sad, fragile or afraid. Cowering into a corner on the couch like a frightened animal at his attempt to make physical contact, she tells him ‘I can’t stand it – if you touch me again I’ll die’. Seeing that she is truly distressed, Mark makes a promise not to touch her. She calls marriage ‘degrading’ and ‘animal’, and Mark demonstrates his toxicity as he tells her she ought to feel grateful for being captured by a man as ‘permissive as me’. As an alternative, he warns, she could’ve got another man ‘and jail’ by way of a ‘businessman who figured he’d take what was coming to him.’ The deep and unsettling irony that lies in this remark comes when shortly after speaking these words, he does just this himself by sexually assaulting her. With an inflated ego that assumes he knows what is right for her, he further remarks ‘I don’t think you are capable of judging what you need or from whom you need it.’ In a broken voice she asks him: ‘You won’t?’ and he confirms: ‘I won’t, I give you my word.’ With a heart-breaking sense of relief and gratitude she whispers ‘thank you’, holding her hand to her head.
Another tense exchange occurs between the couple when in their cabin one night Marnie enquires how long they are to remain on the ship. She slams the door, which prompts Mark (with a ferocity we have never seen before) to jump from his seat angrily and run from the sitting room towards her. Disrespecting her wishes and knowing that she is troubled, he tells her ‘I do want to go to bed Marnie, I very much want to go to bed.’ At this point there is only one thing on his mind, and this is not Marnie’s welfare but his own desire for sex. She shrieks ‘No!’ as he pulls off her robe, leaving her naked and traumatised. A moment later, having now broken his promise not to touch her, he apologises, covering her up with his dressing gown. Rather than continue to show care and compassion however, he proceeds to kiss and caress her, a choice that is whole-heartedly disturbing given that she remains mentally absent and catatonic, showing no signs of reciprocation. In the film’s darkest turn yet, he pushes Marnie onto the bed and rapes her. We see a predatory close-up of his eyes as she stares literally (and figuratively) into the abyss, completely empty, disconnected and victimised once more.
A Not So Blissful Marriage
Returning from their honeymoon and with Mark out of the house, Marnie takes the opportunity to call her mother. It is notable that she chooses to do this when she is feeling at her most vulnerable, highlighting that she seeks reassurance from the one person in her life who she is intrinsically connected to. However, ever the subject of surveillance, Marnie is not even granted this brief moment of privacy as Lil (Diane Baker) eavesdrops and will soon recount details of the conversation back to Mark. In addition to this, Mark undertakes his own detective work on Marnie’s background without her knowledge. In this sense, Marnie is violated not only directly (through Mark’s blackmail and sexual assault) but indirectly as he gathers information about her childhood and private life.
At Wykwyn, we are reminded again of Marnie’s entrapment as outside of the Rutland bedroom hangs a landscape painting with hills beyond and a path with no sign of an exit. This also speaks to the theme of bedrooms as a place of anxiety for Marnie, as they are deeply entrenched in her past and also (post sexual assault) to her horrific experience during their honeymoon. She hesitates to go into the bedroom and when she does she looks at the double bed with fear and trepidation.
The notion of there being no exit for Marnie is evoked once more through the ordeal she is forced to experience at the party thrown at Wykwyn. As the guests arrive, Marnie appears calm and grounded as she tells her husband ‘I’m not a bit nervous Mark’. Regrettably, this serene moment proves to be merely temporary as Strutt and his wife (invited by Lil) arrive and Marnie is set back once again. For Marnie, the cycle of trauma seems unbreakable, and one obstacle is superseded by another.
Horror at the Hunt
Even after she has survived her meeting with Strutt and attempts to settle down into married life, Marnie’s ordeals are not over as whilst riding in a foxhunting expedition her horse Forio has a tragic accident. In the hunt (the crudest presentation of predators seeking out prey) Marnie first appears free, but once she looks at those who surround her she seems disgusted, detecting something grotesque in them. Identifying with the foxes who are hunted as prey, just as she too has been hunted, Marnie flees. Unfortunately, her horse is unable to scale a stone wall and she is forced to obtain a gun from a nearby house. Marnie decides that she herself must deliver the fatal shot, which she does before a long pause followed by a whisper and an exhale ‘there, there now’. With her soft voice and words of reassurance it is almost as though she were consoling herself.
When Marnie returns to Wykwyn after Forio’s death, she has one mission – to find the safe key so she can commit another robbery, a sign of her feeling both detached and overwhelmed. However, on this occasion, upon arriving at Rutland’s her hand is unable to grasp the money. She is soon met by Mark who advises that they are going to see her mother, a suggestion that prompts her to warn him ‘if you tell my mother about me I’ll kill you.’ To Marnie then, more than anything, she desires the approval of her mother, or to be more specific, for her to perceive her daughter as ‘decent’.
A Desire to be Decent
As Mark and Marnie travel back to her family home, there is a strong sense of the cyclical and no exit being available to her. The stem of Marnie’s struggle to form relationships with men is attributed to her mother who holds strong opinions about the opposite sex: ‘men and a good name don’t go together.’ Such an attitude forms the foundation of Marnie’s distrust in men. For Marnie’s mother, nothing is more important than being ‘decent’.
The theme of decency pervades the film until it is finally revealed that Bernice worked as a prostitute when Marnie was young, thus providing the rationale for her desire to disassociate from a troubled past. Upon arrival at the house, Mark introduces himself, asking for her help to assist Marnie in remembering, promptly warning Bernice that he knows the full story. He asks ‘don’t you think you owe it her, your beautiful daughter can’t stand to be touched by men’, while pointing at himself in a way that suggests his interests are vested in his own sexual benefit rather than in Marnie’s wellness; he is merely fighting for his own lusts and desires.
After the past is exposed and understood, Marnie appears exhausted but simultaneously free of her burden as she finally knows the truth. In a brief but memorable confession of honesty Bernice tells Marnie ‘You were the only thing in the world that I ever did love’, but in using the past tense there is a sense that this love has been unable to continue. As Marnie breaks down she concedes that she is a liar and a thief but, most importantly, that she ‘surely is decent’. In a moment that mirrors the earlier scene when she was rejected in favour of Jessie, Marnie puts her hand on her mothers’ knee only to be rejected once more as Bernice asks her to move away.
A Life Behind Bars
As Marnie leaves Bernice says softly ‘goodbye sugar pop’, and although Mark promises to bring Marnie back there is a cloud of uncertainty hanging over whether this will be the case. In the film’s final and deeply ambiguous scene, Marks’ silhouette is shown behind the bars of Bernice’s front door, indicative of both the potential choice of jail and that the only other option available to Marnie is effectively a replication of imprisonment. Marnie looks down and says ‘oh Mark, I don’t want to go to jail, I’d rather stay with you.’ It’s impossible to ignore her choice of words, in particular ‘rather’ which questions whether or not she is truly happy to live her life with him as an alternative to prison. An exit appears as, for the first time, we see there is a route out of the street, pointing towards the possibility of a resolution.
Marnie is laden with examples that emphasise the entrapment and restriction of a character for whom (despite relentless trying) there are no exits available. Between the opening shot of the train station, the field where she is caught by Mark, the dividing path in the Rutland stables and to the street of her family home, Marnie is enclosed everywhere she goes. The notion of no escape for Marnie is offset by her restlessness, and as her mother remarks she is ‘jumping around from place to place’, a statement which is supported by the fact that she always seems to be on the move, be it by car, train, ship or horseback.
Complex, stirring and emotive, Marnie is the story of a woman who is desperately trying to heal, only to find herself caught in a fateful cycle of repeated trauma, with no sign of a clear resolution by the end.
Rebecca will return soon with her next essay in our Hitchcock’s Women series.
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