As the film opens, it's revealed that Marnie (Hedren) has just emptied the safe of an office where she used her feminine charms to be hired without references. Changing her hair color from black to auburn, she takes a new job at a company run by Mark (Connery) who, unbeknownst to her, is aware she is the culprit responsible for the earlier theft. After staying behind in the office one evening, Marnie relieves the safe of its contents but is later tracked down by Mark who uses the opportunity to blackmail her into marriage. When he discovers his new bride has an extreme reaction to the color red, Mark sets about discovering the reason behind her affliction.
The opening act of 'Marnie' contains some classic moments of Hitchcock's visual storytelling. The first sequence, Marnie walking away from the camera onto a train platform carrying a distinctive yellow handbag, immediately hooks us. Why aren't we seeing this character's face? Why are her nails painted pink rather than the traditional red? What's in that bulging handbag? We follow Marnie without seeing her face up until the moment when, having rinsed the black dye from her hair, she rises into view with a cheeky smile of satisfaction. The sequence detailing her studying the process by which the office safe is opened plays brilliantly by focusing solely on her attentive eyes. Her evening raid on the safe in question is a great moment of suspense as Marnie is unaware a cleaning lady is at work outside the office she's in the process of ransacking. Attempting to leave the building without being heard, Marnie puts her shoes in her coat pockets but one of them slowly works its way free, hitting the floor with a clatter. The twist is that the cleaning lady is deaf, allowing Marnie to escape.
Unfortunately, the film's remaining two acts are extremely troublesome. Hitch has put us into the shoes of Marnie so, when Mark forces her into marriage against her will, the story, in the mind of the audience at least, becomes focused on how she will escape. This isn't the story we're presented with, as Hitch uses the plot-line as a cheap way to introduce a twisted sexual element. Bizarrely, he asks us to identify with Mark, even after we've seen him rape his unwilling bride. The plot focuses on the question of why Marnie is "frigid", even though earlier we saw her happily exchange a kiss with Mark before he turned into a sex fiend. "Why won't she sleep with me?" asks Mark. "Because you're a psychopath!" the audience answers. Had the film been made twenty years earlier (and starred say, Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman rather than the wooden Hedren and Connery), the sexual aspect wouldn't, or rather couldn't, have been brought up and instead it could have sat comfortably alongside the similarly themed psycho-drama 'Spellbound' or those more successful tales of twisted relationships, 'Rebecca' and 'Suspicion'. After a cracking first forty-five minutes, we spend the rest of the film wanting to beat Mark about the head with a weighty copy of 'Sexual Aberrations of the Criminal Female', the book he reads to get an insight into why women don't enjoy rape.
While it can't be classified as the last "classic Hitchcock", (that would be the preceding 'The Birds'), 'Marnie' acts as a bookend to his golden age, featuring the end of some significant collaborations. Cinematographer Robert Burks, editor George Tomasini, and production designer Robert Boyle would all end their association with Hitch after this film. Though Bernard Herrmann would go on to write an unused score for 'Torn Curtain', this would be the last time his evocative music would accompany Hitch's visuals, ending a film-maker/composer relationship which remains unsurpassed. 'Marnie' is one of his finest scores, though it's often unfairly criticized for being a 'Vertigo' knock-off.
Before 'Marnie', Hitch had found his time in Hollywood relatively trouble free. With a poor critical and financial reaction to the film, 'Marnie' would mark the beginning of the worst, and arguably the only poor, creative chapter in the director's long and illustrious career.