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What Is the Color of Shame?: The Tragedy of "Marnie"

"Marnie" is one of the only films in existence to try and create what a traumatic trigger response would look like in cinematic language.
Willow Catelyn Maclay
Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Alfred Hitchcock's Marnie (1964) is showing from September 30 – October 30, 2018 in many countries around the world as part of the series Alfred Hitchcock: A Ticking Bomb.
[Trigger Warning: Discussions of Sexual Assault]
Marnie (Tippi Hedren) bleeds like an open wound, but you cannot die from this injury. The blood keeps spilling until it becomes the background of your life, coloring your own existence. There's no patching up, moving on or healing in this lingering crisis. She keeps living until she’s more wound than person and any small prick can cause the blood to overflow once more. Marnie has never known another feeling in her entire life. 
Marnie is introduced in a tracking shot, and from this opening you wouldn’t believe she has problems. Here, she’s a femme fatale, with jet black hair that runs down in waves, bouncing perfectly back and forth across her shoulder blades. The camera follows behind as she strides across a train platform, walking with utmost confidence. She’s just pulled off a heist at her previous place of employment and she’s getting away with it. The money is in a small handbag, mustard colored, offset by her olive green dress, and the banal surroundings of this everyday train station. Marnie stands out among everyone else, which is ironic, because she’s wearing a disguise. There’s a cut shortly afterwards to her jet black hair dripping gently into the sink, creating echoes of her previous identity in the pool of water. She can be heard scrubbing away at her hair until finally Tippi Hedren’s face is revealed in a glamorous shot as she whips her, now golden, blonde hair backward and smiles dutifully into the mirror of the bathroom she was using.  Marnie is in completely control, for now at least. 
We only get our first real sense that something is wrong with Marnie when she visits her mother (Louise Latham) with the intention of showering her mother with gifts. When Marnie enters the house she sees a vase of gladiolus sitting in the warm glow of the sun, making their bright red crimson color all the more astonishing, but Marnie freezes when she sees these flowers. Something is immediately wrong, a frozen look washes over her face, and she stands there slack-jawed and mute. The screen is overwhelmed with the color red, covering every inch of the frame, building in intensity until Marnie blinks as hard as she can trying to push the red down. The color red triggered this momentary lapse of reality and began to send Marnie into the spooling void of disassociation, but she quickly regained control when she removed the flowers from sight. This is the first time we see that Marnie can’t deal with the color red. 
Marnie is one of the only films in existence to try and create what a traumatic trigger response would look like in cinematic language. The trigger warning has been devalued over the complete misunderstanding some have of its reason for existence. Trigger warnings are used to prevent further psychological damage. Think of it as a band-aid keeping a wound from bleeding, but the refusal to use trigger warnings and the downright ignorance people seem to have over the usefulness of a few words that preface an article or movie put vulnerable people in danger of re-experiencing traumatic events. When we think of the word “triggered” today, many foolishly use it as a synonym for “aggravated,” when in reality being triggered can cause periods of disassociation, depression, suicidal idealization, and self-harm. For Marnie, being triggered is seeing red and in the worst instances of her traumatic episodes she becomes catatonic. She is frozen in a state of disassociation. This technique, akin to a pin-prick of blood on a lab slide, is used a half-dozen times throughout the movie to signal Marnie’s difficulty with past traumatic events. 
Alfred Hitchcock’s films work under the context of unraveling a mystery. Marnie is almost an aberration in his filmography, because it doesn’t hinge an entire narrative around the reveal of something fundamental or important to the plot. If the film does have a mystery it is, “What is the crisis-point of Marnie’s underlying trauma?”, which is less important than the fact that she is a woman who experiences trauma. Marnie is a character study more than anything else, and along with Jack Garfein’s Something Wild (1961) it is probably the very best film about PTSD in the entirety of the 1960s, thanks in large part to an all time great performance from Tippi Hedren. 
Marnie is a kleptomaniac. She steals, because it’s something she’s good at, but it also gives her some level of control over her day to day life. When asked about men Marnie is oftentimes hateful, and resentful of their very existence, calling all of them disgusting and only interested in one thing. That doesn’t get situated into the psyche of a person without reason, so something in the history of Marnie’s trauma involves a man. By always having money she can avoid the pitfalls of getting into a relationship. She stays independent. She stays isolated, and safe. 
Mark Rutland (Sean Connery) was visiting Marnie's previous place of employment when she pulled off her heist. He was just leaving a business meeting when his eyes locked onto her. Marnie didn't realize it, but she would soon be ensnared by Mark Rutland's own trap. The opening scene where it looks like she got away is made more complicated by the fact that we know she didn't. Her sense of control she has over her own life would be temporary. Connery doesn't seem like a villain at first, but a typical leading man in the work of Alfred Hitchcock. Initially, he makes sense alongside Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart. He has a commanding screen presence, is tall, dark, and handsome, and aesthetically speaking should be every woman's dream, but therein lies the mastery of his later turn towards blackmail, sexual assault, and outright villainy shielded in the lamb's fur of Hollywood's ideal man: anyone can be a villain.
Marnie runs into trouble when she plans her next office heist. She didn’t account for the fact that Mark saw her in her previous place of employment shortly before the robbery. Rutland knows she’s up to something, so he hires her immediately. Being the nosey, interested man that he is, he gives Marnie reason to stick around so he can keep his eyes on her. Poor Marnie is unaware that she’s just stepped into a bear trap. Mark Rutland would be the worst thing that ever happened to her. 
Director Alfred Hitchcock didn’t feel that way, however, which complicates everything that would follow in the depiction versus the reality of Marnie Edgar and Mark Rutland. In the book Hitchcock/Truffaut, which chronicles conversations between the two directors, Hitchcock has a more sympathetic approach to Mark Rutland: “I made the film as a fetish idea. A man wants to go to bed with a thief because she is a thief, just like other men have a yen for someone of a different race.” And Truffaut likewise commented that Rutland is simply a “protective character.” The conclusion both men make, considering the path the Rutland character takes in being an admitted “sexual blackmailer” and a scene of rape which “fixes” Marnie’s catatonia, makes the film have a tragic dissonance running throughout. Additionally, it gives us a window into viewing the gendered differences in how men and women during this time period viewed things like sexual assault with blunt honesty, and it isn’t a pretty picture. 
Rutland’s framing and the perception of his character, in terms of visual language, is often complex and downright confusing. When Marnie ends up in Rutland’s office for the first time he’s sitting behind a large oak desk, while a thunderstorm begins to brew outside the window. He’s talking casually with her until he utters the word “predator” and then a flash of lightning strikes and Marnie is sent into another traumatized spell, because lightning also affects her mindstate. The word "Predator" sets something off. It coincides with the lightning bolt. It's Hitchcock underlining a word, but that isn't the story that follows. Rutland ambles over to help pull her out of her catatonic state, but after another bolt of lightning sends Marnie deeper down the well of her own mind, Rutland steals a kiss. The music swells: this is supposed to be romantic, the film is telling you this, but it isn’t, because intellectually we know in this day and age that this is assault, and the earlier predator framing complicates Mark's presence within Marnie’s own space.
Consider a later scene, that is far more vicious in its intent: Marnie’s rape at the hands of Rutland. After Rutland blackmails her into staying with him, due to his knowledge of her various heists, he has her alone in a honeymoon suite on a cruise ship. Marnie wants nothing more than her own space and for Rutland to go away. Mark tries to psychoanalyze Marnie, but when she flees to the other side of the room he follows, she howls "no!" again and again until her own mind and body shut off, because she knows what’s about to happen next. Hedren is brilliant here, becoming like stone, while still keeping a deep resolute tragedy hidden behind her eyes, that is revealed much later, when we find out the initial crisis point of her trauma. Connery, on the other hand, is like a fox about to bite into weaker prey. Hitchcock’s camera leans completely into Rutland’s eyes until all that’s left is an extreme close-up. It’s no surprise this shot would be repurposed later in Rosemary’s Baby to personify the evil of the devil before he is about to rape Mia Farrow's character. There is no greater evil than Satan, and for sexual abuse survivors there is no difference between the two. After the shot of Rutland’s salacious, hungry eyes, the camera shows Marnie, isolated in black, mentally nowhere to be found. Mark Rutland is supposed to be the hero of this story. 
The legacy of Alfred Hitchcock is that he is a master of control; a director so in tune with suspense, time and pacing that he could make audiences suffer before unleashing a grand epiphany which made each and every person come back asking for more. This was true even in his previous film starring Tippi Hedren, The Birds. That movie was a box office smash with many of its images and isolated scenes, like the one of crows gathering on a power line, becoming iconic over time. Marnie is fascinating, because Hitchcock seems to have no control here. He's beholden to his worst curiosities and sexual perversions, and there's a moral unsureness about how to film characters like Rutland, who do obviously terrible things, because he still has sympathy for him, even if he probably shouldn't. In theory Rutland is supposed to be the hero of the story, and to some degree Hitchcock isn't sure if that should be the case—so he shoots Connery like a monster. Sometimes Mark is framed like a monster and other times he's given the broad-shouldered, warm appeal of a man who can protect, but he obviously isn't that kind of character. It makes the push and pull between what is being presented, and what is being perceived sometimes at odds with one another, making for an uncomfortable, but altogether authentic experience of trauma, and the men who cause it. Even in his opening cameo he can be seen staring at Hedren as she walks across the hall. It’s blatant, obvious, and foreshadows the path this movie would follow. It’s the rare film made by someone who was abusive in real life, that sheds light on his own negligent thought processes and is empathetic to some degree, because Hedren, the victim in this case, was given center stage to make visible her own struggles working with Alfred Hitchcock. It’s the most tragic instance of art imitating life imitating art. Marnie, in this respect, feels like an admittance of guilt and self-hatred on the part of Alfred Hitchcock, because he cannot consistently figure out what to do visually, or in the pacing with Rutland, a character he obviously personally relates towards. Likewise, Hedren’s performance as Marnie is a primal scream of visual cues and body language that are familiar to anyone who has experienced sexual assault. The tug of war between these two factors are what makes Marnie a draining, audience unfriendly affair, but behind the curtain, Marnie is the real Alfred Hitchcock. 
This comes into clear focus in the film’s false happy ending. When Rutland eventually wears Marnie down to the point where she’s nearly given up on everything, including her own life. They go back to where it all began: her mother’s home. By forcing Marnie into the point of her trauma, Rutland punishes Marnie, causing her to re-experience her worst memories in agonizing clarity. Marnie remembers everything that happened for a moment: the sailor, how he kissed her when she was a little girl, the unwanted touching, the pain of her mother when he was around, and eventually the bullet Marnie used to kill him. All of it, shot in rusted sepia tones in a long shot with fuzzy imagery to emphasize Marnie’s recovered recollection. When she finally comes to the end of the memory, the sailor caked in blood, the red overflowing once more, she wakes up and cries, realizing that she faced everything in her own memory and survived. The film treats this as a triumph, but trauma isn’t healed like cold medicine. It lingers, moving in waves, sometimes overflowing, making the person with these memories vulnerable to the agonizing pain of re-experiencing the worst moments of their life. Marnie and Mark Rutland ride off into the sunset. She doesn’t go to jail, but she’s with her rapist. She’s with the man who gaslit her into believing it was consensual sex, and the manipulation that led Marnie to give up robbery. Thievery, being the one thing in life that gave her some level of happiness amidst the chaos. The ending is a total misunderstanding, but incidentally incendiary in what it conveys in a sociological sense about abusers and victims. Alfred Hitchcock won, because he continued making movies, his directorial legacy intact, even when those movies turned out to be unsuccessful—but Hedren? Hedren disappeared. Trampled under the wheels of a blackmailing director who gave her career the break it needed, but snuffed it out when she dared to get any higher. Hedren’s legacy is much quieter, almost invisible, but that’s how it goes with women who talk about sexual assault. Marnie’s just the mirror of that tragedy that we should never forget.


Alfred HitchcockLong ReadsNow ShowingTippi Hedren
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