Marnie (1964)

2009 #6
Alfred Hitchcock | 125 mins | DVD | 15 / PG

MarnieMarnie is a film grounded in the field of psychoanalysis, though that word is never used and none of the characters are a therapist. Instead, it just concerns itself with a main character suffering under the strain of repressed childhood memories, though this isn’t revealed until the end. Unfortunately, psychoanalysis was only an emerging area at the time of production, and the price Marnie pays for being ahead of the pack in the mid ’60s is that it looks dated and inaccurate now.

For one thing, it’s slow paced. Not necessarily a bad thing, and here it does serve to gradually build some elements, but at times you wonder where it’s all going. Part of the problem is that much of the story’s first half is just a distraction from the main point, in which case I suppose it’s Hitchcock’s famous MacGuffin; but the changes between elements of crime, romance, family drama and internal struggle come across not as a measured part of a considered whole, but as a mishmash of genres. One might consider this a good thing, adding variety and complexity to the film, but as it merrily switches back and fore it doesn’t seem to fulfill any genre to its full potential.

That isn’t to say Marnie is meritless. Plot-wise, the central mystery does get more intriguing as it goes on and the whole film gets better with it. It’s not just that it becomes a more interesting story, but almost every scene is more engaging, better written, acted and directed. Also, without a single frame of grinding, moaning, kicking or screaming, it contains one of the most sinister (suggested) sex scenes in the movies, thanks to the combined skills of Hitchcock and his two stars.

In the title role, a lot is asked of Tippi Hedren — a lot more than she had to manage in The Birds the year before — but she rises to the occasion, most of the time. It’s through no fault of hers that Marnie’s aversion to red is overplayed, especially as it’s the picture constantly fading through red that almost pushes it to the point of amusement. This is again a problem of being one of the first to try to film an entirely internal struggle. In the other lead role is Sean Connery, just two years after he created James Bond on screen, and here he plays a smooth playboy-esque character with a fondness for women and a tendency to violent outbursts. Not straying too far afield then, but he fits the role like a glove.

In this DVD age, I’d also like to point out that the film’s trailer is truly fantastic. Narrated by Hitchcock, he merrily takes the mick out of his own movie for several minutes. It’s a slice of joyous irreverence that makes you wish he’d brought some of it to the actual film, and wonder what would happen if a film was advertised with such a tonally incongruous trail today.

Trailer aside, Marnie is sub-par Hitchcock, but even then his considerable skill coaxes it to greater heights than many — perhaps any — other director could have achieved with the basic material.

3 out of 5

The Birds (1963)

2009 #6a
Alfred Hitchcock | 114 mins | DVD | 15 / PG-13

The BirdsI first saw The Birds on TV so long ago that I can’t even remember how long ago it was. Only two parts of it have stuck with me since: the justly famous scene with the climbing frame (ooh it’s brilliant), and a dead Dan Fawcett with his eyes pecked out (ooh it’s chilling).

If that didn’t give it away (and as if you didn’t already know), The Birds is a horror film. A horror film of the proper kind too — the kind that scares you, rather than making you jump at regularly-spaced committee-decided intervals. It’s the kind that slow burns its way to the horror — we meet the characters, see their relationships, arrive at the right location… There are hints at what might be coming, but they idle past in the background, almost unnoticed… but gradually increasing.

This isn’t time wasting; it isn’t really character development either, despite how some of it may seem (more on that in a bit). It’s how Hitchcock builds suspense — we know it’s coming, we just don’t know when — and likely contributes to some sex-related subtext too. (I haven’t just pulled that out of thin air, incidentally. There’s the odd moment where that subtext almost breaks through into the text, though Hitchcock quickly reels it back in.)

The second half is where all this time spent delaying and manoeuvring pays off. The titular demented avians attack, and attack again, a near relentless series of assaults and set pieces that allow Hitchcock to show off his apparently endless array of shooting and editing tricks. These aren’t just spectacular action sequences — though there are some, of a fashion — but sequences of unnerving horror. And it’s all achieved without a single note of music — no slowly rising throb in the background to tell us we should be getting scared, no dramatic thud to make us jump, no piercing musical shrieks as the birds attack — yet some sections are almost unbearably tense, built entirely with camera angles and masterful editing.

If there’s a weak note it’s the romantic subplot. While it initially drives the film, it’s largely abandoned later on, becoming no more than an excuse to move characters into place for the birds’ attack. In fact, Hitchcock seems to just get tired of it, allowing the film to jump abruptly from will-they-won’t-they to cuddling and kissing — and it’s not even like a first kiss. Intriguingly, a deleted scene included on the DVD (which has been lost, only surviving through a script segment and production photographs) seems to provide the ‘missing link’ in the central relationship. However, it also offered an explanation for the birds’ attacks (albeit a jokey one), something Hitchcock was keen to avoid, which likely explains its removal.

But that’s mostly beside the point. The Birds is a tension-based horror movie, and every sequence of tension is perfectly staged. This is where Hitchcock is really in his element, and all of the preamble is worth enduring just for the chance to see the master let loose. Dan Fawcett’s lack of eyes has probably stuck with me as much thanks to Hitchcock’s impeccably paced build up as to the gruesomeness of the actual image; and the birds amassing on the climbing frame outside the school is an absolutely perfect sequence, a moment of pure cinema.

5 out of 5