Jeff Light’s review published on Letterboxd:
I'm coming to the end of my exploration into Hitchcock's lesser-revered films, and I had a bit of a dilemma when I considered this one for my viewing list. On the one hand, it was one of only a few films after his Golden Age run of masterpieces, perhaps a final, misunderstood one? On the other, nearly every piece I read on it wrote about the horrible rape scene and how detestable the film was, and little else. Knowing Hitchcock's Weinstein-esque relationship with starlet Tippi Hedren, I had to decide if I was masochistic enough to subject myself to this reported testament to chauvinism and rape-culture...
In the end, I just had to watch it for myself, perhaps out of morbid curiosity. I'm glad I did, as it's a pivotal film for Hitchcock, and viewers concerned about their outrage being stoked should actually be looking to several other Hitch films before this one.... because there actually wasn't any rape scene filmed here. More on that in spoiler-talk at the bottom.
I started to write about how this film marked the end of Hitchcock's masterful run, but that it seemed to be due to his collaborators more than the man himself. However, diving into Hitch on that level can get pretty long and detailed, so I saved that for My Best-Of Hitchcock List (letterboxd.com/nottheacademy/list/the-best-of-hitchcock/) in the notes section. I try to give credit where it's due there, though I'll bring up some specific details as they apply to his film, which really has a lot of good parts to it.
In my review of Rear Window, I make a case that part of the genius behind Hitchcock is actually his best scripts, most by John Michael Hayes. "What I brought to Hitch was character, dialogue, movement, and entertainment," remembered Hayes. "And he supplied the suspense element. You see, if a writer goes to work with Hitchcock, he doesn't need to bring suspense with him, because Hitch has that." Of course, while Hayes took some real writing risks with that film (like the limited location and unconventional hero) and his others with Hitch, he didn't write this film.
The original writer of this film, Joseph Stefano, was also into taking risks, particularly in applying new psychological concepts to suspense narratives. It paid off in spades for him with Psycho, a real wild swing of a story that appears to be about a RIGHTLY-accused WOMAN in a twist on Hitch's staple. But it turns out to be much more about psychological trauma and how mothers who withhold love (another Hitch staple) can fundamentally mess up their children. Stefano wrote the original treatment for Marnie, and it's obvious that he and Hitch are riffing and remixing Psycho the same way that Hitch remixed and remade many of the themes and plot points of his earlier films.
However, Hitch and Stefano fell out over several writing issues, notably the handling of Marnie's character, and Hitch brought on a series of other writers to work on the script, even as he'd already started filming. The resulting movie has many great technical aspects, but the story never quite comes together in the way that Hitchcock's masterpieces do. The influence of Psycho is obvious from the start, however when we meet Connery's character, Mark, the film shifts to something more like Notorious, where Grant is fascinated by the "notorious!", rebellious character of Bergman's sexually-liberal femme fatale in the making. And the latter half of Marnie clearly evokes Spellbound, with the crux of the film hanging on resolving a pseudo-psychological mystery. The treatment of women in those films might've been fine with 1950s audiences, but it doesn't resonate with me today, and neither did it here.
But there are always one or two scenes in a Hitchcock film which stand out for the way they were shot, and often for the way they create suspense. Probably the most impressive scene in this film is simply a horse chase over a broad field which switches from over-the-shoulder to a crane shot, gradually pulling high up to show the horses really hauling it through the lush countryside. I kept marveling at how Hitch clearly shot Hedren actually riding her horse, even though it seemed to use rear-projection also. (He put the horse on a treadmill!)
There's also a wonderfully-framed robbery scene where a wide shot clearly lets the audience see both the robber's progress and the potential threat of a cleaning lady getting closer and closer. However, due to a lack of close-ups, or possibly lack of score, it never has quite the intensity that we expect for a Hitchcock scene. And the problem too, is that we're not sure if we're supposed to be rooting for the robber to get away or not at this point. The script is just rather muddled on what mood it wants to put the audience in.
In fact, I started imagining the whole thing as a tawdry romance novel written by Jay Presson Allen, the lady brought in to pull together the final script last minute. "A stubborn heroine who's had to struggle her whole life finally meets the man she can't beat! A charming Scottish-American rogue, he's tall, dark, handsome...and rich! Impossibly tolerant and understanding, he goes to great lengths to protect her while still determined to break her spirit and make her his own...." The novelization of Marnie would probably sell like hotcakes, replete with the scene where the rakish Mark has had enough of our heroine's frigidity. Heck, the rather explicit rape scene in Gone With the Wind is still regarded by many women as one of the most romantic ever.
But about that rape scene....there's honestly nothing explicit here, especially given the films of the day. In '64, Connery was manhandling Pussy Galore in Goldfinger, and films around the world were embracing and portraying sexual scenes in adventurous ways. The Killers, The Naked Kiss, and The Carpetbaggers. In Japan, Woman in the Dunes, Pale Flower, and Yearning. In France, La Ronde and Diary of A Chambermaid. In Sweden, Loving Couples. In Italy, Blood and Black Lace. By comparison, the supposedly shocking and transgressive scenes here are almost chaste. The opening of Psycho was more shocking. I could honestly show this to my mother and not feel uncomfortable at all...I think the implications are so subtle that she'd write them off.
When I got to the end of the movie, I had to "rewind" the film to find what rape scene people had written about. I literally missed it on first watch. So I'd have to say that while this film doesn't really resonate with me, it's definitely no worse than many, many other Hitchcock films. The biggest issue is that it's just rather boring and overlong, but it's quite well-made and worth watching for yourself to judge the content. Just watch it yourself and skip the rest of this review to avoid SPOILERS...
Romance novel Mark has figured out Marnie's game and inexplicably fallen for her. He decides that this mixed-up girl is going to get herself arrested, or worse. So like a knight in shining armor, he decides to blackmail her into psychotherapy, hoping she'll eventually realize he was right all along and gratefully consent to marriage. But of course, events conspire to speed up Mark's plans and they end up putting the cart before the horse, getting married, then going on a honeymoon cruise where Mark hopes to wear Marnie down. They have a long conversation about how he'll sleep in a separate bed until she accepts him, and he dutifully stays up reading psychology books every night until she falls asleep.
Of course, this is a very 1950s script, and remember that in the '50s women were still going to college just to find the most marriageable men. Forcing your wife to have sex if she didn't want to wasn't even considered a crime. Heck, women could easily be involuntarily committed to an insane asylum by a male relative. So in this atmosphere, Mark eventually gets in a fight with Marnie over her uppity casualness. He pulls down her dressing gown, leaving her stark naked and paralyzed. He then immediately apologizes and covers her up, then kisses her gently on the forehead and lays her down on the bed.
The next morning, we see Mark getting up out of his own bed, and the unwrinkled side of the other bed shows that only the part where Marnie slept was used. However, she's not there, and Mark has a bad feeling. He looks all over the ship for her and finally finds her face down in the pool, where he pulls her out and resuscitates her. I viewed this as her cry for help because she couldn't get over her issues but saw no way out of this fake marriage. Mark even asks her why she didn't just jump overboard if she actually wanted to die, and she makes a wry joke in response. However, apparently a lot of people read this as her wanting to die because Mark raped her. In looking back at the previous scene, there is a single close-up of Mark looming closer to Marnie as he lays her down, and he does look rather more sinister than sentimental...
Jay Presson said that she never called that scene a "rape" scene when she wrote it, and the word was never used by Hitchcock to her. She described it as a scene about "marital troubles", but then again, I told you the expectations of the time. Hitch may also have inserted that shot of Connery without it actually being written, as it's the only tell of something sinister happening. Mark is otherwise inhumanely understanding for a man of that age.
It's easy however to see Hitch filming this whole sequence, and indeed the whole movie, as an allegory for his own obsession with Hedren. His grooming of her has been well-documented at this point, and his Weinstein maneuvers on her were the reason she refused to work with him after this movie. He blackballed her in Hollywood in retaliation. (Not that she was up to the level of Bergman, Kelly, or Saint anyway, but still.) It makes the whole film rather uncomfortable to watch, knowing what was happening behind the scenes, but maybe all the more fascinating...