Alfred Hitchcock’s 1964 film Marnie presents the culmination of Hitchcock’s use of artifice and his exercise of control over his films. Marnie contains elements of a thriller and a psychodrama. But, ultimately, it is a love story in the most twisted way possible.
Much of the criticism surrounding Marnie focuses on the artifice in the film. Hitchcock used rear projection landscapes throughout his career. Debra Fried has noted “Hitchcock employs a shopworn device to the ends of psychological portrayal. In classic studio films, rear projection, sometimes called a process shot, is a way to save the time and money of filming on location” (Fried 19). However, Marnie was released at a time when Hollywood conventions, such as rear projection, were being replaced by a more realistic cinema. This new trend was counter to Hitchcock’s cinema because the director was not trying to make realistic films. Hitchcock once said, “Some films are slices of life, mine are slices of cake.” Hitchcock believed drama is life without the dull bits. He enjoyed manipulating his audience throughout his career.
In Marnie, the artifice of the film, including painted backdrops and rear projection, directly correlates to Marnie’s fractured psychological state and the emptiness of the life that she leads. Hitchcock’s use of exaggerated sets and backdrops harkens back to German expressionist cinema in which characters’ mental state is reflected in the mise-en-scene. Hitchcock was very much influenced by German expressionism. The most obvious example of a painted backdrop in the film is in Marnie’s hometown in Baltimore. A giant, painted ship looms in the background. At the end of the film, when Marnie has recalled her childhood trauma, it seems as if she has been effectively “cured.” However, aside from Bernard Hermann’s uplifting musical accompaniment, the final shots of the ghostly children staring at Mark and Marnie before they drive off towards the horizon has a different tone. The artifice is still present. Furthermore, in the final shot, Mark and Marnie are driving directly into it, implying either that Marnie has not been fully cured or that she will go to jail and suffer the consequences for her actions. Whatever her fate, one thing is certain. It is not a happy ending nor is it as simple as many critics have cited.
After his 1940 film Rebecca, Hitchcock quickly established himself as an American director who indirectly commented on American values and ideology. After breaking away from American producer David O. Selznick, Hitchcock exercised a great deal of control over his films and his actors. Robin Wood said “As soon as one begins to contemplate Hitchcock’s work thematically, it becomes evident its technical elaborations, the manifest desire to control audiences, have a thematic extension…the desire to control, the terror of losing control, such phrases describe not only Hitchcock’s conscious relationship to technique and to his audiences, but also the thematic center of his films” (Fried 16).
Released twenty-four years after his first American film Rebecca, Marnie is Hitchcock’s last truly great American film. It marks the last Hitchcock film to feature his trademark icy blond, a musical score by composer Bernard Hermann, and cinematography by Robert Burks. It represents Hitchcock at his most controlling with regards to his relationship to the film’s star Tippi Hedren. Robin Wood also states “The personal relationships that fascinate Hitchcock invariably involve the exercise of power, or its obverse, impotence (Fried 16). Marnie is the perfect example of Hitchcock’s control, which is manifested in the plot of the film. Mark “traps” Marnie and forces her into marriage with him.
Hitchcock’s films are love stories, however distorted they may be. Marnie is no exception. Like his 1958 film Vertigo, the male protagonist in Marnie has a fascination with the female that borders on obsession. Fried states “In order to look Hitchcock’s films squarely in the face, we must look with equal scrutiny at a large body of other films, classic Hollywood films in particular, whose “essential subject matter” is also love between a man and a woman” (Fried 23). “The legitimizing of marriage” is one of the thematic concerns central to the romantic comedies of the 1930s and 1940s. Even though it lacks the humor to be deemed a romantic comedy, one of the central themes in Marnie is the legitimacy of Mark and Marnie’s marriage. Mark tries to mold Marnie into his perfect wife. This is not unlike the way in which Hitchcock molded Hedren to be his perfect female lead and the manner in which Scottie Ferguson molded Judy to become the woman of his dreams in Vertigo. Mark buys Marnie a $42,000 ring and takes her on an expensive South Seas honeymoon cruise. But, Marnie is too psychologically damaged to have sex with Mark, who is not psychologically stable himself.
In conclusion, Marnie is a perverted love story that continues many themes and motifs used throughout Hitchcock’s career. It is a film about control, both on and off screen, and is full of Hitchcock’s artifice. If one embraces the artifice, one will find a complex and disturbing portal into the female and male psyche.
 Hitchcock would go on to produce one more great film, Frenzy, which was produced in Britain.
Fried, Debra. “Love American Style: Hitchcock’s Hollywood,” Hitchcock’s America, 5-28.