Today we’ll examine the last Hitchcock masterpiece, and begin our discussion of his slow denouement.
'Marnie' and 'Torn Curtain'
Hitchcock said in an interview that Marnie “is the story of a girl who doesn't know who she is. She is a psychotic, a compulsive thief, and afraid of sex, and in the end she finds out why.” But at the beginning of this complex film, Marnie Edgar (Tippi Hedren) is a delight, a beautiful and smart thief who can transform herself from a sexy brunette secretary in Pittsburgh, to a stylish if reserved blonde professional visiting her mother in Baltimore, to an eager redhead widow looking for a new job in Philadelphia. We see these transformations take place within a matter of minutes, complete with matching handbags and color-coded suitcases, as Marnie selects each new identity and social security card. We also see her stake out her next gig, figuring out office geographies and safe combinations also within minutes. Such pure cinematic pleasures, of heists in progress, of body transformation and deceit, of artifice and spectacle and surface, eventually have to be traded in for something different, depth and self-knowledge, memory, truth and authenticity. This growing up business is necessary, but it’s just not as much fun…
The problem is that Marnie gets caught by her latest boss, Mark Rutland (Sean Connery) who realizes that she infiltrated his company in order to eventually steal the firm’s money, which she has done countless times before. Instead of taking her to the police he blackmails her into marrying him, and they embark on a promising honeymoon fueled by his considerable wealth and obvious fascination with her. But things do not go as planned. Marnie cannot stand to be touched by a man, not even her loving husband, and his frustration with her frigidity evolves into sadism, the need to observe and subdue her. He rapes her. Then, out of wonder at the wild thing he has caught or perhaps out of remorse, he decides to find out what makes Marnie so unknowable, so compulsive, and so obviously afraid of sex and men.
The final acts of the film strike a familiar if not downright clichéd tone for us now, and it is hard to remember that it was films like this that popularized the ways childhood trauma and repression are depicted in contemporary culture. Although both Marnie and Mark make fun of psychoanalysis, Marnie slowly relives her formative trauma in her mother’s dockyard rowhouse. Inside the daring adult woman is a frightened little girl, but inside the frightened little girl is an unexpectedly effective killer. I would warn you about spoilers here but you have seen this move before: the prostitute mother, the nighttime male visitors, the little girl awakened and moved from her warm bed, the dangers of sex, the violent drunken sailor, the fireplace poker, the mother who takes the blame for the murder, and the little girl who holds it all inside.
Marnie is a disquieting film, and the last collaboration of the classic Hitchcock team. Robert Burks, Hitchcock’s director of photography for more than ten films, and George Tomasini, his editor for nine, both died soon after its completion, while creative differences made this the last Hitchcock film with music by Bernard Herrmann. Despite its elegant cinematography and great performances, and despite the implicit promise that confession equals absolution (Hitchcock was raised as a Catholic, and the logic of confession proliferates as Marnie promises to confront all her victims) the film feels somewhat sadistic too, not just because of the controversial rape sequence, but also because the film insists on making Marnie, and us, look, look into the self, look into the past, re-live repressed trauma, and take responsibility. It’s as if we have to pay for our pleasures, in the now familiar “Bourne Identity” algorithm of combining the joy of heist and multiple identity plots with the insinuation of trauma, memory loss, murder. In contrast to the surface pleasures of Marnie’s early transformations, the quest for depth creates an uncomfortable equivalence between criminal infiltration, sexual penetration, religious confession and psychoanalytic self-narration. But Hitchcock also adds another now-classic dimension to the notion of psychoanalytic catharsis: inside the religious and proper cold mother, Bernice (in a subtle and touching performance by Louise Latham), is the former prostitute, purposefully withholding affection from her daughter and demonizing men and sex in order to ensure Marnie would grow up to be decent. “Decent?” Marnie asks at the end of the film, “Oh Mama. Well, you surely realized your ambition. I certainly am… decent.” The film may overtly thematize cool criminality and sexual frigidity, but at its core features other kinds of permafrost.
When you look at the five films Hitchcock made before this often overlooked political thriller -- Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959), Psycho (1960), The Birds (1963), and Marnie (1964) -- it's hard to argue with its status as a minor member of his oeuvre. Indeed, Torn Curtain suffered from so many pre-production problems that the famed filmmaker almost abandoned the project. First, the studio was adamant that Hitchcock hire "stars" -- in this case, the recent Oscar winner Julie Andrews and established idol Paul Newman -- while he had hoped to cast standbys Eva Marie Saint and Cary Grant. Then, both the director and the studio were unsatisfied with the script. Massive rewrites were needed just to get things started. Finally, a disagreement over the direction of the score severed the long running working relationship between Hitchcock and favorite composer Bernard Herrmann.
With the Cold War as a background, the plotlines was finally set in place. We follow famed American physicist Michael Armstrong (Newman), his fiancé and assistant Sarah Sherman (Andrews) as he suddenly "defects" to East Germany. Turns out, it's all part of a plot to uncover Soviet secrets regarding anti-missile systems. After the death of a suspicious government security officer (and Armstrong's involvement in same), the duo must make their way across Europe, using an escape network known as Pi, in order to get back to the West. Along the way, they stop off in Leipzig, make a mad dash through a crowded East Berlin ballet performance, and wind up as stowaways on a ship to Sweden.
For many, Torn Curtain is Hitchcock on autopilot. The performances are rote, the narrative elements ordinary, and the resolutions predicated on the frosty relations between America and the rest of Eastern Europe. What most people remember is the farmhouse confrontation between Newman and a character played by actor Wolfgang Kieling. Staged specifically to show how difficult it is to actually kill another human being, it stands out as one of the few sequences of showboating.
Hitchcock, always known for his meticulously planned suspense sequences, is frequently off-kilter here, his eye just not focused on bringing this story in smoothly. It could be because of the script problems, or the financial issues that came up during shooting. He was also unhappy with Newman's Method acting and the lack of chemistry between his stars. Toward the end of his life, Hitchcock would muse that Torn Curtain was, perhaps, his most unpleasant directing job since his early days in the studio system.
The results speak for such discontent. While it's interesting to see the filmmaker working within a more authentic, real world dynamic, his often stylized designs fail to wholly demystify the Iron Curtain concept. Perhaps the biggest problem here was the casting -- no matter her accolades at the time, Andrews seems wildly out of place, and Newman merely does the best he can with what is, essentially, another patent passive Hitchcock hero. While he still had Frenzy to argue for his aging skills, Torn Curtain more or less signals the end of the Master's reign. As impressive as his previous time in power was, that's how ultimately underwhelming this effort remains.