Setting the Record Straight: Hitchcock and the Making of Marnie (Book Review)

By Joel Gunz, AHG

Behind Vertigo, Marnie might be my favorite movie of all time. And so, when Tony Lee Moral published Hitchcock and the Making of Marnie back in 2002, I rushed out, snapped up a copy and promptly began wearing it out with excessive reading. I’ve just finished his new edition, updated with four additional chapters. Oh, let the geekery begin!

Making of Marnie follows the standard format of the “making of” genre, beginning with the genesis and writing of the film and progressing chronologically through post-production and its critical reception. Taking advantage of newly-available source material and other recent developments, four new chapters extend beyond that scope:
  •       “A Woman’s Voice” – A discussion of novelist Winston Graham and screenwriter Jay Presson Allen’s contribution to the screenplay.
  •       Mary Rose” – The story behind the development of one of Hitch’s most personal projects, which unfortunately never received a green light.
  •       “Through the Lens” – This chapter discusses the intensely subjective approach Hitchcock and his longtime collaborator, cinematographer Robert Burks, brought to Marnie.
  •      “Hitchcock Remembered” – Who was Alfred Hitchcock? Moral collects the memories of several cast and crew members who worked on his films during this period to help answer that question.

Marnie is Hitchcock’s most maligned film; some even insist that it’s a grandiose failure. Andrew Sarris pronounced it “a failure by any standard except the most esoteric.” But it’s also received some of filmdom’s most lavish praise. Robin Wood went so far as to declare it “one of the four or five most beautiful films the cinema has yet given us.” Well, which is it? Disaster or masterpiece? Tony Lee Moral makes a 267-page case for the latter. I’m with him—with reservations.

Marnie, a complicated film about a complicated thief and the complicated man who falls in love with her has a likewise complicated making-of story. It took some three years and a parade of as many writers just to bring forth a workable screenplay. In one of Hollywood’s greatest what-could-have-been episodes, the lead was first assigned to Grace Kelly, who subsequently backed out of the project. And then there was the film’s nearly end-to-end rejection of cinematic realism and—a first for Hitch—an awkward eruption of hostilities between the director and one of his stars. It’s to these latter aspects of the film’s story, along with more recent attention it’s received, that Moral shows special interest.  

His research goes deep; every page is a revelation for film buffs and Hitchcock geeks alike. For instance, it’s here that we learn that Jay Presson Allen recommended Louise Latham for the part of Mrs. Edgar, and that the two had been friends since their teen years. We also learn details of Allen’s life that uncannily parallel events in the film. Allen has distanced herself from the screenplay, declaring the final product to be “a very flawed movie, for which I have to take a lot of responsibility—it was my first script.” But the former insights suggest that she was digging deeper than she may have been willing to admit, perhaps even to herself. The resulting, highly praised, screenplay is a case of “trust the art, not the artist.”

It’s also here that Moral, quoting from transcripts of recorded conversations between Hedren and Hitchcock, explains Hitch’s rationale for some of his more bizarre visual effects. I’d always wondered why he used an extreme high-angle shot to follow Marnie, in tight close-up, as she ascends staircase of the Rutland mansion after she’s shot her horse. Hitch himself answers that one:
“I am going to try and photograph it in a kind of grotesque way.… I don't want to lose the crazy mood of going up the stairs…. I'm terribly scared that after the craziness of the horse [that the mood could be lost].… I don't want to lose any of the mood between there and at the safe…. [Up until] the time you go into that trauma in Baltimore, I don't want any normality to intrude anywhere.”
 The high angle scene is indeed weird and unsettling, and Hitch’s comments above show that if you want to understand his rationale for any of his cinematographic choices, look no further than your gut.

Moral devotes considerable energy to an assessment of Hitch’s special effects. Marnie is replete with numerous filmmaking tricks including rear projection, matte process and painted backdrops. These scenes are distractingly artificial, and this, primarily, is what has led critics at the time—and still many today—to dismiss the film as second-rate Hitchcock. 

These apparent flaws, it is generally believed, crept in as a consequence of Hitch’s lack of diligent attention to the details of his craft—a lackadaisical attitude, so they believe, that stemmed from his falling-out with Hedren. The prevailing belief is that Hitch went into Marnie hoping to make a masterpiece but that after the two fought, he lost all interest in the film. Tabloid biographer Donald Spoto went so far as to tell the London Times that after Marnie, Hitch “lost all interest in his women, his actors, his stories—indeed, in movies.” Others disagree, arguing that these seeming flaws were part of the movie’s overall design.

Moral aims to settle the question once and for all, promising to “unequivocally argue that the techniques employed were intentional and that Marnie, as an art film, is the culmination of Hitchcock’s concept of ‘pure cinema,’ … part of a larger campaign by Hitchcock to be taken seriously as an artist.” Citing intensive research from the Hitchcock archives at the famed Margaret Herrick Library in Beverly Hills, he reconstructs a clear narrative of the use of special effects in this movie from development on, including Hitch’s own at times contradictory remarks after the fact.

For Hitch, location shooting was a tricky proposition, often involving a trade-off in which literal realism was gained at the expense of authenticity from the actors. Rubbernecking crowds, backgrounds noises and other distractions can put actors off their game. Hitch preferred the controlled environment of the studio, where he could create and sustain a mood on the set. But this approach necessitated the use of special effects, which had their own drawbacks. And as if to up the ante, Hitch created an enormous technical challenge for himself[1] by shooting in the studio several emotionally-charged scenes of Marnie riding her horse. Says screenwriter Evan Hunter: "We wanted to show who the real woman Marnie was, with the wind blowing in her hair. We were going for a feeling of being safe." How to effectively capture these moments indoors, particularly within the limits of then-available technology?[2] Quoting art director Robert Boyle:
“In Marnie we were dependent on back projection in relation to the movement. For the horse riding scenes we used backgrounds shot from a helicopter, but the results were not too satisfactory. But for Hitch it didn't matter. His main concern was the visceral sensation—the feeling aroused was more important to him than the technological perfection.” (Italics mine.)
Hitch wanted these studio-made scenes to look more real than they did and they tried two other processes that promised—and failed—to live up to the promise that they would provide a more natural, convincing effect. Rear projection was a last resort. Some commentators have argued that the resulting “f-f-falsity,” to quote Norman Bates, of the scene was intentional. But Moral debunks that as wishful thinking.

Other scenes that also appear fake, such as the painted backdrop of a giant ship that’s moored at the end of Marnie’s childhood home, seem to have been more intentional. The perspective and lighting were off, and though his crew implored him to reshoot the scenes in which it appears, Hitchcock was adamant to let it remain as is. Quoting matte artist Albert Whitlock and others, Moral concluded that he “wanted this looming image because it was such an important memory from his childhood.” 

For me, these expressionist gambits works—to a point. Among all his films, with the possible exception of Vertigo, Marnie is the one film that lingers in my consciousness for days after viewing it. This, I believe, is due to Hitch’s strict adherence to the principles of pure film that he’d been cultivating for decades: a combination of visuals, editing, soundtrack and Bernard Herrmann’s score all serving one objective: to move his audience emotionally. Nevertheless, during the experience of the film, the special effects are jarringly unsatisfactory.

Hitchcock often complained tongue-in-cheek that he’d rather not shoot his films at all, because the realities of filmmaking inevitably led to compromises with the screenplay that he’d spent months or even years perfecting. With Marnie, the special effects are among the most controversial, and despite Moral’s research, I still find it hard to draw a clear line between Hitch’s intentions and the final results. While I agree with Moral that Marnie was Hitch’s bid to be taken more seriously by highbrow critics, and that his use of effects may indeed have been intentional, the effect they had on his audience was definitely not what he intended. Hitchcock was going for respect, not jeers.

Moral’s new edition of Hitchcock and the Making of Marnie was evidently prompted, at least in part, by recent events in the media. In the last year, two movies have been released about Hitchcock: The Girl (with Toby Jones as Hitchcock), which promised a behind-the-scenes story about the making of Marnie and Hitchcock (with Anthony Hopkins in the lead role), which told the story of Hitch’s efforts to make Psycho. Unfortunately, both movies represent a highly inaccurate view of the man. (Anthony Hopkins told interviewers that he prepared for the role by watching the intros from Alfred Hitchcock Presents. This was his first mistake: the drolly somber persona Hitch cultivated for his TV show was very much unlike his real-life personality, which was much more down-to-earth and animated.)

The Girl, however, was the more sensational of the two films, depicting Hitchcock as a sexual predator and a tyrant committed to a non-stop campaign of harrassment. (At one point, Hitchcock violently lunges at Hedren (played by Sienna Miller) in the back of a limousine.) True, by his own admission, Hitchcock was highly controlling of his fledgling star. But while he was alive, Hedren made no no sexual harassment accusations for him to defend himself against (indeed, they continued to have contact and she attended his funeral). Those allegations came decades later. Tony Lee Moral interviewed everyone he could find who was connected to the production, and one clear story emerges: yes, there was tension, but no one was aware of any sexual misconduct. Actor Louise Latham, who played Mrs. Edgar, sums it up:
“I find some of the allegations hard to believe. My observations are so far from what Tippi claims, and I'm a rather observant person, and was trained in the theater.… I wasn't aware of her being hassled on the set…. For Hitchcock to go down as this monstrous thing, to the degree that [Tippi] was vulnerable, is not accurate.”
Hedren's recent, self-contradictory behavior seems like a last ditch grab for publicity—at the expense of her former mentor. Since the making of The Girl, Tony Lee Moral has waged a fierce online battle to expose the distortions made by Hedren and defend the memory of Hitchcock. Guest writer Elisabeth Karlin and I have also taken up the standard

You can also read all about Hedren's terrifyingly bizarre (and hypocritical) behavior with regard to her Shambala Preserve in my article on that phase in her life: Part One and Part Two

It’s easy to forget that the rich and famous are just as human and vulnerable as the rest of us. Given the subject matter Hitchcock dealt with, he was an easy target. Nevertheless, Tippi Hedren’s complaints and aspersions about Hitch’s character sound as shrill as those of Spellbound’s Dr. Brulov, who insists that John Ballantyne is “a schizophrenic and not a Valentine.” Like Constance Peterson, Tony Lee Moral reminds us that “We are speaking of a man.”

[1] As he did with almost every film he made. See also: the long take experiments of Rope and Under Capricorn and Frenzy; the dizzying staircase effects in Vertigo; the elaborate set for Rear Window, which proved to be difficult to light and achieve proper depth of field, etc.

[2] One example: the Steadicam, which afforded image stability in a hand-held camera, wasn’t invented until 1975. I would have loved to see Hitch, whose work at times begged for its invention, explore its possibilities, but time ran out for the director. Still, his sinuous long-take techniques laid the ground for the next generation to explore this technology’s potential.


Joe Holmes said…
Joel --

Fascinating stuff. I immediately wanted to buy the book, but it seems to be priced extremely high for some reason. New copies are $76, used for $67. Any idea what that's about??
Heidenkind said…
I agree. I love Marnie but it isn't without flaws, and I can understand why people WOULDN'T like it. Personally, though, I think it's fascinating and an example of pure film-making. If it had had a better score and been shot on-location, I think it would have been immediately counted as one of Hitch's best films.
Doug's Blog said…
This and your other articles ,Joel, have gone a long way to to reshaping the way I saw "Marnie" previously in the Hitchcock canon. The Hedren-Spoto recounting of events seems to be more controversial than I first accepted when I read the latter's "The Dark Side of Genius". It seems, as in Hitchcock best work, there is always more to the story. ALL of the testimony needs to be told and it sounds like Mr Morel, yourself and others has done just that.
Doug's Blog said…
This essay and others have gone a long way in re-evaluating "Marnie" as a film. The story behind Hitchcock's working relationships with Hedren is not uncontested, despite his no longer being to answer for himself on personal matters. It seems, like Hitchcock's best work, there is perhaps more to be fathomed than many of us simply accepted.
Z Sam B said…
Even kindle versions are $45. I'd love to read the book, but not at that price. -- Sam