MARNIE Deconstruction of a Scene: Marnie steals the money

Marnie is the first film in what I refer to as Hitchcock’s problematic trilogy.   This is a frustratingly flawed film, which nonetheless has many great moments and sequences.   I would like to break down the sequence in which Marnie (played by Tippi Hedren) steals the money from the safe at Rutlands.

The sequence runs just a couple seconds over five minutes, and contains 29 editorial cuts.  This averages out to 10.4 seconds per shot, which is a high number for a Hitchcock suspense sequence.   Sound is just as important as vision in this sequence.  Let’s see how Hitchcock did it.

If you’ve read my deconstructions before, you may have noticed that Hitchcock often opens sequences with a dissolve.  In this case the preceding scene fades to black, and he holds the black for two full seconds before fading in on this scene.

It is the end of the workday at Rutlands, and employees begin to file out.  Marnie heads to the ladies restroom.  Hitchcock does this in one shot lasting 26 seconds, tracking behind Marnie as she walks to the bathroom door.  The office is a hum of activity.

 

We next cut to the restroom interior as Marnie enters, and goes in a stall.  There are several women at the sinks, freshening their makeup and talking over each other in a constant murmur.  This shot lasts 10 seconds.

 

Hitchcock next cuts to the interior of the stall, which is impressively lit.   In many ways, this is the most important shot in the sequence.  Hitchcock holds this scene for 54 seconds, which is a long time for a scene which is visually static.  The key here is the sound.  As Marnie waits and listens, the sounds gradually diminish as the other women leave the restroom.  Finally there is complete silence.   This silence is important; there is no musical score in this scene either.

 

We then get an 11 second shot of Marnie leaving the stall, listening quietly, and exiting the restroom.   Hitchcock next cuts to the reverse with an exterior shot of Marnie coming out the restroom door.  This 3 second shot is the first quick cut in the sequence.

 

Here Hitchcock gives us the first subjective POV shots of the sequence as we see Marnie glancing around the office, and then cut to what she is looking at.  These are brief shots lasting only a couple of seconds.   We then get a 28 second shot that tracks with Marnie back to her desk, showing her getting a bag from her purse, and walking to the desk with the safe combination.  The emphasis here is on the key in her hand.

 

Next we get a close-up insert shot of the safe combination.  Generally insert shots of this type are very quick, a second or two at most, but Hitchcock lingers a bit here, giving us time to read the specifics of the safe combination, and to realize that Marnie is doing the same.

 

Next comes another 28 second shot which begins with the camera above Marnie’s head, one of Hitchcock’s favorite places to put the camera in a moment of tension.  The camera stays on her as she opens the door behind her and walks to the safe

 

Next up comes another fabulous shot:  a long shot showing both the office with Marnie on the right, and the corridor on the left.   The effect of the staging is rather like a split screen.  As Marnie takes the money out of the safe, we can see the cleaning lady mopping the floor on the right.   Hitchcock heightens the tension here by giving us knowledge that the characters on the screen do not have, and also by keeping us farther away in a long shot.   This shot is held for 47 seconds without a cut.

 

We then cut to a medium shot of Marnie at the office door.   We get two more subjective POV shots, as she looks first at the cleaning lady, and then at the stairwell, which is her means of escape.  We then see a medium shot of her feet as she slips out of her shoes, then slips the shoes in her coat pockets, one on each side.   It is important to point out that this sequence is still silent.  There has been no noise since Marnie left the bathroom stall.

 

Hitchcock then cuts on movement, as Marnie begins to slowly walk across the floor.  Here the cutting increases as the tension increases.  Hitchcock gives us a medium close of Marnie’s feet on the floor, then a close up of the shoe starting to slip from her left pocket.  He follows this sequence a couple more times, cutting from her feet to the shoe, with the cleaning lady now visible behind her.  These shots are all short, averaging around 2 seconds each.  Finally the shoe falls and hits the floor with a loud smack.  It sounds like a minor explosion.  Why?  Because it is the first sound we have heard in over three minutes.   This moment is why Hitchcock drained the sound from the sequence.  Surely the cleaning lady must have heard it?  Nonetheless, she keeps on mopping, her back to Marnie.

 

Marnie bends down, picks up the shoe, and quietly heads to stairs.  Here we get another brief split screen effect;  as she is starting to descend the stairs on the right side of the screen, yet another employee is approaching on the left.  And this employee comes up to the cleaning lady to speak to her.  We learn her name is Ruth, and we also learn that she is hard of hearing, which explains why she didn’t turn at the loud noise of the shoe hitting the floor.   What a great way to relieve the tension at the end of the sequence, with a slightly comic touch.  (Hitchcock buffs may be interested to note that this brief role of Ruth the cleaning lady was played by Edith Evanson, who had played the more substantial role of Mrs. Wilson in Rope 16 years earlier).

 

This great sequence then ends on a dissolve.   So in this case, Hitchcock created tension by employing all three of his favorite camera techniques:  the long take, montage, and the subjective POV.  But more importantly he used sound, or the absence of sound, to great dramatic effect, making this one of the most memorable moments in the film.

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Me and Hitch by Evan Hunter

ME AND HITCH by Evan Hunter

1997 – Faber and Faber Ltd. – 91 pages

Evan Hunter was much better known by the pseudonym Ed McBain, which he used to pen dozens of novels, primarily crime fiction and police procedurals.  He was an accomplished author when Hitchcock reached out to him to write the screenplay for The Birds.  Almost a quarter-century after his dealings with Hitchcock, Hunter wrote a small volume relating his experiences working with the master of suspense.

The book in written in a light, anecdotal style, and at just over 90 pages it absolutely breezes by.  The biggest surprise to me is how dismissive Hunter is about The Birds.  He makes it quite clear that he thinks the film is not that good, and thinks that Hitchcock is partly to blame, for editorial decisions made in the writing process.

Hunter doesn’t mince words, as you can see from a couple of examples (italics are the authors):  “The trouble with our story was that nothing in it was real.  In real life, birds don’t attack people  and girls don’t buy lovebirds to shlepp sixty miles upstate for a practical joke…Even if the script had worked – which it didn’t – Tippi Hedren and Rod Taylor were no Grace Kelly or Cary Grant.  But Hitch never gave it an honest shot.”

He doesn’t save all of his disparaging comments for the leads in the picture:  “Jessica Tandy played the part of the mother like a deer caught in a truck’s headlights, one of the few bad performances she ever gave in her life.”

Wow!  Strong opinions indeed.  Evan Hunter also details  his writing of the first draft of Hitchcock’s next film Marnie, a job which he didn’t complete.  He was fired, and not by Hitchcock directly, but by his assistant Peggy Robertson.   Hunter had difficulty penning the rape scene; he felt the male lead would not be redeemable in the eyes of the audience afterwards.   The woman who replaced him and completed the screenplay, Jay Presson Allen, later told Hunter “You just got bothered by the scene that was his reason for doing the movie.  You just wrote your ticket back to New York.”

Evan also includes some correspondence between himself and Hitchcock, and also with Peggy Robertson.  Reading Peggy’s letters, one can see that she had a wit every bit as wry and sharp as her boss.  In one letter, she corrects a grammatical mistake in his letter to her, saying finally “No, please do not thank me for this lesson.  The fact that I am able to rectify even one small mark of illiteracy is reward enough.”

Although my views on The Birds differ mightily from Hunter’s, I thoroughly enjoyed this very slight, but engaging book.  Highly recommended for fans of Hitchcock.

Tippi: A Memoir by Tippi Hedren

TIPPI:  A MEMOIR by Tippi Hedren

2016 – William Morrow – 288 pages

(While this book is not specifically about Alfred Hitchcock, he is a significant figure in it, so I decided to include it here.)

Say the name Tippi Hedren to a film buff, and his or her first thought will likely be of Hitchcock’s The Birds.  After all, it is Tippi’s most iconic role.  After reading Tippi’s memoir, I now associate her with Hitchcock for very different reasons.  But more importantly, I know that her interactions with Hitchcock were one small chapter in a much greater, and more fascinating life.

Tippi begins the book with her early life, growing up in a small Minnesota town.  When she was a teenager, Tippi was approached on the street and asked if she wanted to model.  Tippi, who had no experience or desire to model, agreed, and ultimately parleyed this into a very successful and lucrative modeling career in New York City and Los Angeles.

Eventually, a television commercial she appeared in was seen by Alfred Hitchcock, who was taken by her appearance, and tracked her down.   Imagine Tippi’s surprise when she was invited to meet Alfred Hitchcock.  Not only did he sign her to an exclusive contract, he cast her as the star in his next movie, The Birds.

Tippi relates both the highs and lows of her time working with Hitchcock, and the lows (which have generated some publicity since the release of the book) make for unnerving reading to say the least.   On one occasion during filming, Hitchcock attempted to kiss Tippi while they were riding in the back of a car.  Tippi relates the harrowing experience of filming the famous attic scene in The Birds, which caused her to have a breakdown, and required her to take a week off from shooting to recuperate.

Tippi claims that after Hitchcock cast her as the lead in his next movie, Marnie, he became more aggressive.  Her is a brief portion of Tippi’s account of an episode that occurred in Hitchcock’s office:

     …he suddenly grabbed me and put his hands on me.  It was sexual, it was perverse, and it was ugly, and I couldn’t have been more shocked and more repulsed.  The harder I fought him, the more aggressive he became.

This paints a pretty vivid picture, despite her reluctance to delve into specifics.  Suffice it to say, after completing Marnie Tippi Hedren never worked for Hitchcock again.  Interestingly, she still has kind things to say about him as a director and mentor.

Tippi talks about her charity work, and about her daughter (actress Melanie Griffith), but the bulk of the book is devoted to, believe it or not, lions and tigers.

Tippi and her second husband Noel Marshall, began adopting lion cubs, with the ultimate plan of making a film about people living with big cats.  The film did come to fruition after many, many years, a lot of money, and a few injuries from aggressive animals.  If you have not seen the movie Roar, I suggest you check it out.   The camera work is amateurish, but much of the footage is jaw-dropping.  There is no doubt that you are observing real people interact with real lions and tigers.

The bulk of the book deals with the big cats, and these chapters are charming indeed.  It’s surreal to read about a lion cub wandering through a Sherman Oaks neighborhood, or two lions peeking over a fence at the neighbor, or coming home to find three lion cubs dragging a king size mattress out a sliding glass door!  Eventually, Tippi and Noel would buy a compound, where the movie would be shot.  And that compound still exists today as Shambala, a non-profit preserve for big cats.  What began as a crazy idea about a film ended up becoming Tippi’s life work.    Tippi presents herself as a very grounded, and grateful woman, with an interesting life story.  This is definitely unlike any other Hollywood memoir I’ve ever read.  Recommended.

 

THE GIRL (2012): “Blondes make the best victims.”

THE GIRL (2012) – BBC/HBO FILMS – ★★★1/2

Color – 91 minutes – 1.85:1 aspect ratio

Directed by Julian Jarrold

Featuring:  Toby Jones (Alfred Hitchcock), Sienna Miller (Tippi Hedren), Imelda Staunton (Alma Reville), Penelope Wilton (Peggy Robertson).

Written by Gwyneth Hughes

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Most fans of Alfred Hitchcock are aware of his obsession with his leading ladies.  He would cast them, mold them into his desired image, and charm them on the set and off, often engaging in playful banter.   This HBO film from a few years ago suggests that in the case of at least one actress Hitchcock crossed a line; that his banter became overt harassment.

The Girl deals with the relationship between Alfred Hitchcock and Tippi Hedren, who starred in The Birds and Marnie for Hitchcock.    Anyone who has read Tippi’s engaging autobiography of 2017 will recognize most of the incidents that make up the bulk of this film.

The film begins with Hitchcock reveling in the success of Psycho, and planning his next feature film.  He chooses The Birds, based on a short story by Daphne du Maurier, and hires Evan Hunter to write the screenplay.    Hitchcock and his wife Alma are taken with an attractive young woman in a TV commercial, and Hitchcock brings her in for an interview.  This young woman is Tippi Hedren, who has years of successful modeling behind her, but zero acting experience.  Hitchcock gives her a screen test, and then signs her to an exclusive contract.

The director/actress relationship begins promisingly enough;  Hitchcock runs lines with Tippi, giving her acting lessons in the process.  Sienna Miller is very good in the title role as Tippi Hedren;  in the beginning we share her excitement and eagerness to do well.  Later, as things become more difficult, we feel deeply for her.  Toby Jones is a wonder as Hitchcock.  He completely loses himself in the part, and plays Hitchcock with real depth, and never crosses the line into caricature.   Imelda Staunton is equally good as Hitchcock’s wife and collaborator Alma Reville.

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Hitchcock is portrayed as having moments of jealousy, as well as petulant outbursts.  He also attempts to kiss and grope his leading lady on at least two occasions.  These scenes are difficult to watch, as they should be.  There is also an implication that Hitchcock exacted revenge on Tippi Hedren for refusing his advances by making the shooting of the film more challenging.   It is well known that Tippi Hedren spent a week shooting the penultimate attic scene in The Birds, having live birds thrown at her over and over again.  This film suggests that Hitchcock physically and emotionally traumatized her on purpose.

I’m not going to address the veracity of the movie’s claims in depth.  Regarding the sexual harassment, it is a shame that Hitchcock is no longer alive to address the accusations.  At the same time, I absolutely believe Tippi;  she has no reason to manufacture such claims at this point in her life.   Some of the other episodes in the film however, the suggestions that Hitchcock made the shooting more difficult on purpose, I find hard to swallow.   Tippi herself has said that the movie over-dramatizes some elements.  She says if it was really that bad all the time she would have left much sooner.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of the film for a Hitchcock fan is the recreation of several scenes from The Birds being shot by Hitchcock and Tippi Hedren.  The attention to detail by director Julian Jarrold and his technical team is impressive.

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Ultimately, this is the tale of a young woman whose Hollywood story had a fairy tale beginning that turned dark quickly, and her ability to overcome the obstacles in her path.  It is an entertaining film, despite stretching the truth in places.

The Girl is currently available to purchase on DVD and is available to stream on HBO streaming platforms.

MARNIE (1964): “Why don’t you love me, mama?”

MARNIE – 1964 – Universal Pictures –  ★★★

Color – 130 minutes – 1.85:1 aspect ratio

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Principal cast:  Tippi Hedren (Margaret “Marnie” Edgar), Sean Connery (Mark Rutland), Diane Baker (Lil Mainwaring), Louise Latham (Bernice Edgar), Martin Gabel (Sidney Strutt), Alan Napier (Mr. Rutland), Bruce Dern (sailor).

Screenplay by Jay Presson Allen, based on the novel by Winston Graham

Cinematography by Robert Burks

Edited by George Tomasini

Music by Bernard Herrmann

Marnie has always been a somewhat divisive film in Hitchcock’s body of work.   The movie has ardent defenders, such as Hitchcock scholar Robin Wood, who goes so far as to say “if you don’t like Marnieyou don’t really like Hitchcock.”  There are also many Hitchcock fans, myself included, whose feelings are mixed at best.  It is a frustrating film;  there are many great sequences, but there are also moments that just don’t quite come together.  Just as Sean Connery’s character Mark Rutland played the amateur psychologist in the film, it is tempting as a Hitchcock fan to analyze the film and ask “What is missing?  What is it that makes this film a ‘flawed classic’ as Truffaut called it?”

The story:  The plot focuses on a compulsive thief named Marnie.    She has an established a pattern of stealing from her employer, then changing her name and appearance, moving to another town, and doing the same again.  In between thefts, she visits her mother.  The mother/daughter relationship is strained to say the least.  Marnie’s mom is friendly, but there is no sense of affection.  Marnie also has a horse named Forio, apparently the only creature with whom she has formed an emotional bond.  Marnie finally meets her match when she steals from Mark Rutland, who tracks her down.  Instead of turning her over to the police, he basically blackmails her into marrying him!  We then learn that Marnie wants absolutely nothing to do with the touch of a man.  Mark begins to play amateur psychologist, trying to “solve” Marnie.  Finally, Mark forces Marnie’s mother to come clean with a story from Marnie’s childhood, which is the root of all of her problems.

The centerpiece of the movie is the so-called rape scene.  When Mark and Marnie are on their honeymoon,  Mark forcefully removes her nightgown, and she stands naked, cold and emotionless.  Later, he forces himself on her in bed.  Afterward he is apologetic.  Evan Hunter, who had written the screenplay for Hitchcock’s previous film The Birds, was initially hired to write this screenplay as well.  He struggled with the rape scene.  He felt that there was no redemption for Mark’s character after this scene.  Ultimately, he wrote the scene two different ways in his final draft;  one was the way Hitchcock wanted it and the other was the way he thought it should play out.   Shortly after submitting his alternate version of the scene, he was fired by Peggy Robertson, Hitchcock’s assistant.  The final screenplay was written by a woman, Jay Presson Allen, who claims she had no problem writing the scene whatsoever.

Ultimately, I think the problem with the scene is it goes too far.  When Mark removes Marnie’s nightgown, and sees her reaction, he immediately covers her with his robe.  If the scene had ended there, the impact would have been the same.  However, in forcing himself on her in bed, Hitchcock employs a subjective POV shot of Mark above, lowering himself down, as his face comes closer to the camera.  This shot is just too much.  Mark is violating the entire audience here.  It is uncomfortable to say the least.  While I don’t think this scene prevents the audience from liking Mark (after all, this is Sean Connery we are talking about), I do think the scene was not necessary.

Further, I question Mark’s motives with Marnie.  He claims to love her.  But the way he continues to try to analyze her does not play like a man trying to help the woman he loves.  Rather it plays like a man enjoying the role of armchair psychologist, trying to solve a problem that is vexing him.  This emotional disconnect is detrimental to the story.

The cast:  When this film was in the early writing stages, Hitchcock envisioned Grace Kelly in the lead role.  He went so far as to visit Grace in Monaco, and actually got a verbal commitment from her to come out of retirement to play the role.  Ultimately though, Grace declined to appear in the film, which was a major blow to Hitchcock.   Had Grace appeared in the film, it almost certainly would have been a better movie.  But even Grace Kelly could not save a problematic script and some almost lackadaisical technical choices.  One wonders if Hitchcock was not already starting to lose interest when Grace Kelly bowed out.

Grace Kelly’s handwritten letter to Hitchcock, declining to return to the big screen.

Technical choices:  By the time Marnie was made cinema was changing in significant ways.  The French New Wave was helping to break down some of the staid stylizations that had been commonplace in movies.  Hitchcock loved to shoot on the lot, where he had complete control.  But many of the things that Hitchcock employed frequently, like back projection and matte paintings, were already starting to look old-fashioned.  For the street where Marnie’s mother lives, Hitchcock ordered a large matte painting of a ship to be placed at the end of the street.  This setting has a clear artificiality to it.  Some critics have called this a deliberate choice, implying that Hitchcock was returning to his German expressionist roots.  However, even Hitchcock himself admitted in an interview that the painted backdrop was “bad”.

The scene in Mark’s office, with the very expressionistic storm, and the tree crashing through the window, has a very artificial feel too.

Finally, every time Marnie sees the color red she has a strong emotional reaction.  For these scenes, Hitchcock colors the screen in a garish red, while a musical cue from Bernard Herrmann repeats.

Ultimately, these visual choices do not completely dampen the film’s experience, but they do give it a slightly tired, old-fashioned feel that is at odds with the emotional complexity of the story.

Hitchcock touches:  After focusing on some of the elements that are problematic, let’s look at what works.  After all, this is still a very solid film.  The opening sequence is great.  Marnie is introduced walking away from the camera, yellow purse tucked under arm.  An air of mystery is established.  Her change of identity is done in montage, showing only hands.  Finally she gets her big reveal as her head rises from the sink, and Herrmann’s score rises.    It’s a strong and memorable sequence.

All of the scenes at Rutland’s come off very well, employing many of Hitchcock’s trademark subjective shots, as Marnie and the viewer learn the ins and outs of the office, including where the combination to the safe is kept.  And the actual theft of the money is filmed ingeniously, with a “split-screen” effect, as the cleaning woman works her way down the hall on the left side of the screen while Marnie steals the money from the office on the right.

All of the scenes with Diane Baker as Lil work very well.  Hitchcock’s camera frames her face in many interesting ways.

Finally, the party sequence is fantastic.  Hitchcock borrows from himself, with a long, slow tracking shot down a stairway that reminds the viewer of a similar shot in Notorious almost thirty years earlier.

Performance:   Tippi Hedren isn’t bad in the starring role, but somehow I just don’t quite feel as if she pulls it off.  Granted, it is a challenging role, but Marnie the character is not as good a fit for her as Melanie Daniels was in The Birds.  Sean Connery was well cast in his role, again a role that is very challenging.  The way the part is written, it’s hard to feel much sympathy for this guy.  The real stand out performances for me are Louise Latham as Marnie’s mother, and Diane Baker as Mark’s sister-in-law Lil.  Alan Napier is an always solid character actor, but he wasn’t given much to do with his part.

Source material:   Hitchcock’s film is based on the 1961 novel by Winston Graham.  The novel is interesting for a couple of reasons.  First of all, it is written in the first person.   Being a man myself, I won’t comment on how “womanlike” the voice may or may not be (I leave that to the experts) but it is a very engaging read.  So not only did Mr. Graham decide to write a book from the point of view of a woman protagonist, but he also made her a thief with a troubled childhood.   The basic plot of the story is the same as the movie.  The book takes place in Britain, not the States.   There is also a psychiatrist in the novel, who Marnie sees basically to placate Mark.  In the movie, Mark became the amateur psychiatrist himself.   Also featuring prominently in the novel is a character named Terry, a cousin of Mark, who puts the moves on Marnie more than once, and ends up betraying her at the end, as a way of getting back at Mark.  His character was eliminated from the novel, and replaced with the Diane Baker character Lil.

Here is a small sampling of Graham’s writing, in this case the rape scene:

He grabbed my other arm, and my frock slipped down.  I felt an awful feeling of something that seemed to be half embarrassment and half disgust.  I was fairly shivering with rage.  One minute I felt I’d let him get on with his lovemaking and be like a cold statue dead to every feeling except hate, and just see what he made of that.  But the next I was ready to fight him, to claw his face and spit like a she-cat that’s got a tom prowling round her that she doesn’t want.

Recurring players:  Tippi Hedren had just starred in The Birds.  Bruce Dern would later star in Hitchcock’s last film, Family Plot.  Henry Beckman, who plays a detective, had earlier played a prisoner in The Wrong Man.  Edith Evanson, the nearly-deaf cleaning lady who doesn’t hear Marnie, had earlier played the housekeeper Mrs. Wilson in Rope.  Kenner Kemp and Bert Stevens (extras in the party scene) had earlier appeared as extras in The Paradine Case and North by Northwest.  Louise Lorimer, who plays Mrs. Strutt, would later play Ida Cookson in Family Plot.  And Hal Taggart (man at racetrack) would later play an ambassador in Topaz.

Where’s Hitch?  Hitchcock’s cameo comes just at the 5:00 mark in the film.  As Tippi Hedren walks down the hotel corridor, Hitchcock exits a hotel room in the foreground, looking somewhat guilty.   One wonders what he was up to in that room!  He then glances to his right, looking directly at the camera for an instant.

What Hitch said:  Hitchcock’s feelings about Marnie were mixed.  He did say the following in conversation with Truffaut:

What really bothered me about Marnie were all the secondary characters.  I had the feeling that I didn’t know these people, the family in the background.  Mark’s father, for instance.  And I wasn’t convinced that Sean Connery was a Philadelphia gentleman.  You know, if you want to reduce Marnie to its lowest common denominator, it is the story of the prince and the beggar girl.  In a story of this kind you need a real gentleman, a more elegant man than what we had.

I find these comments very interesting.  While this film has some issues, I certainly don’t think Sean Connery was not enough of a “gentleman”.

Definitive edition:  The 2013 blu ray release is the best version of the film available.  The picture quality on the Marnie blu ray is not consistent;  it is very grainy, and has some color issues as well.  This film could do with a proper restoration, which it probably won’t get, so this may be as good as it gets.  The 2 channel soundtrack is good.  Included is a 58-minute documentary, which includes interviews with Tippi Hedren, Diane Baker, Louise Latham, and Jay Presson Allen.  Also included are “The Marnie Archives” which includes production photos and vintage promotional material, and the original theatrical trailer.