Wednesday, October 3, 2012

When Marnie Met Alfred Hitchcock

Winston Graham's novel "Marnie" with a movie tie-in cover.

I've often thought that Alfred Hitchcock's film Marnie (1964) was one of his most underrated. I saw it for the first time on television and have wondered since why it has never received more attention from film buffs. 

For one thing, it stars Sean Connery during the peak of his 007 fame--his only appearance in a Hitchcock film. The power of Connery's performance dominates every frame of the movie, even though the story is about Marnie.

Recently, a friend sent me a copy of the book on which the screenplay was based: it is different from the film but just as intriguing. 

Marnie is the story of a woman with several criminal obsessions. What makes this more interesting is that she is completely disconnected from the trauma in her life that is causing her to act out.

The book makes this idea even more powerful by having Marnie be the narrator--a technique an editor friend of mine calls "the uninformed narrator." It doesn't take you long to see that Marnie isn't telling you the whole story because she doesn't know it herself, and doesn't even know she doesn't know it.

If you had to read Ring Lardner's short story The Haircut, when you were in school, or if you've ever read The Remains of the Day, you'll know exactly what I'm talking about in Winston Graham's Marnie. As in these other tales, we get to be an insider in the story as we can see, before the narrator does, how far off center is her own understanding of her own life.

Hasn't this happened to you in real life? That's what makes the idea so true.

An advertisement for Hitchcock's Marnie.

The story features Hitchcock's twin obsessions of sex (in this case, fear of sex) and crime: in this case the heroine of our tale is also the criminal. The icy blonde with the tiny voice, Tippi Hedren, (now better known as Melanie Griffith's real-life mother) has the title role.

Film historians say Hitchcock wanted Grace Kelly for the part: what director would not? How much of this was wishful thinking we will probably never know. Kelly was, by then, a 35-year-old princess with two children, and she hadn't been on screen in eight years. Her husband--Prince Rainier of Monaco--supposedly put a stop to the plan, and Hitchcock had to make do with Hedren. Who knows? It is fantastic to imagine Kelly in the part.

Hedren looks wonderful and does a good job. But nobody could fill in for Grace Kelly.

The film has lots of flaws as I think many Hitchcock films do. Hedren has to count as one. And it suffers from all the "inside the sound stage" shots Hitchcock always loved so much. But the plot is really interesting, Connery is a wow, as he practically always is, and you're never quite sure where the movie will take you.

Which is also true of the book. It has a different ending from the movie and a reader is left wanting more. The writing is first rate. Graham (1908-2004) was awarded an OBE in his native country and there is now a literary prize in his name. He was also the author of the Poldark books, which must have served to pay his rent and then some, as they were turned into a BBC program and ended up many years ago on Masterpiece Theatre.

The book is set in Britain, and as I read it, I kept wondering if Graham based Marnie on some real case. If you do a little Internet research you'll find she's a composite of several women he knew or read about. What a terrific writer he was: to create this character, find her voice, and keep her so long "uninformed" about her own story.

It captured my imagination half a century after it was conjured up in Graham's mind. It captured Hitchcock's need to film his own strange obsessions. And we, the audience, can still be entertained by both versions of this strange mystery. That, as they say in London, is a good job of work.

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