“Is Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie a sex story? A mystery story? A detective story? A romance?” asks the film’s original 1964 trailer. This ice-cold and brutal film is actually all four. A critical and box-office failure when it was released, Marnie is Hitchcock’s darkest work. The director’s vicious trip through the mind of a disturbed woman offers little in the way of respite, but captures the attention through intrigue, and the sheer filmmaking abilities of the master of suspense.

Hitchcock discovery Tippi Hedren, who made her debut in his previous film, The Birds , plays Marnie, a kleptomaniac who robs businesses by posing as an office clerk and then breaking into their safes. When she takes a job at a company owned by rich business­man Mark Rutland (Sean Connery, between making James Bond films), she doesn’t realise that he’s aware of her plans.

Rutland uses her criminal past to blackmail her into marriage, but the relationship falters when he finds out Marnie is terrified of sex. A deeper psychological dimension unfolds when Rutland hires a private eye to uncover the cause of her mental illness.

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Hitchcock uses the full repertoire of filmmaking, especially drawing on his earlier exposure to German Expressionism, to depict Marnie’s inner hell, and the script – which went through three writers – knits together perfectly.

The characters are complex and unlikeable, and don’t follow the usual mystery-movie stereotypes. The film is controversial because Rutland rapes Marnie, yet still becomes the hero who tries to save her – an approach that the initial scriptwriter, Evan Hunter, strongly disagreed with. Hunter was fired as a result.

The history of the production is as disturbing as the film itself. In her auto­biography Tippi: a Memoir, and in inter­views, Hedren accuses Hitchcock of having sexually assaulted her, harassed her and jealously inter­fered in her private life during the shoot. (In another book, Hitchcock and the Making of Marnie, by Tony Lee Moral, members of the crew dispute these allegations.) Hedren also says that Hitchcock used her contract to stop her working for two years after Marnie, thus ruining her career.

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Grace Kelly, who had worked with Hitchcock three times before becoming Princess of Monaco in 1956, was the original choice for the role of Marnie, but pulled out either because the people of Monaco didn’t want their princess to play a thief, or because the royal family, who had financial troubles, decided they didn’t need the money after all.

Marnie will be screened on January 22 and March 26 at The Grand Cinema, in West Kowloon, as part of the Cine Fan programme.