Of the three movies in which Sean Connery starred in 1964, two are remembered not only for their individual brilliance but also for what they represent in a sequence of films. (Woman of Straw, the other one, is seldom discussed today.) Goldfinger was Connery’s third outing in the role of James Bond. Fans differ on whether it’s the finest, but it is at the very least emblematic of what Bond came to represent in both personality and accoutrements. Then there was Marnie, one of Alfred Hitchcock’s most difficult films. Coming off a string of classics from the director, Marnie was dismissed at the time, but it has since taken its place in Hitchcock’s sizable pantheon. While both (and, in fact, all three) films could be lumped into the broad category of the “thriller,” Goldfinger and Marnie could hardly be further apart in their approaches to jolting the audience. Still, the two very different Connery performances in question share a taste for psychological gamesmanship. Sexual ethics are an unavoidable avenue of inquiry, for the simple reason that in both films, the Sean Connery character rapes a woman. To say this is to make brutally plain what each film leaves murky, what earlier eras might have waved off for one of two reasons: first, in Goldfinger, because the woman acquiesced and then appeared to “like it,” and second, in Marnie, because the man and the woman were married.
The smug chauvinism of James Bond is a thoroughly familiar subject by now. The franchise itself has been trying to recalibrate this aspect of the character for at least his last two iterations, notably by making his boss a woman. Even in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, made a mere five years after Goldfinger, Bond’s relationship with women is given some welcome twists, to put it mildly. As for the Connery iteration, however, it is essentially remorseless. An overt fantasy figure for whom licentiousness is an epigrammatic feature, this Bond gets away with everything. In Goldfinger, he not only chases women, he chases women on the job, repeatedly. He plays tricks on the villain even before he knows what the villain is up to. The nature of that primary conflict is unusual for a spy movie — not a Cold War battle for world domination, although the climax involves an attack on the United States in which China participates, but simply the foiling of a heist. Auric Goldfinger (Gert Frobe) locks horns with 007 on personal terms. From gold bricks to golf clubs to airplanes, not to mention the laser between Bond’s legs, there’s ample symbolism to let us know what they’re measuring.
Into this contest strides none other than Pussy Galore (Honor Blackman). The name, as you might know, is part of Bond lore, collecting in one dirty single entendre every instance in the franchise of women as conquests, as rewards. But when we’re presented with the actual character, this empyrean image is immediately complicated. Not only is Ms. Galore a formidable enemy, working for Goldfinger, but as written by Ian Fleming, she’s also a lesbian. The film, of course, doesn’t say that directly, and whether Blackman’s performance is coded I’ll leave to people with more expertise on the subject. In any case, from a narrative standpoint, Bond needs to bring Galore over to his side to tip the scales. The only way he knows how to do that is by engaging her sexually, despite her total lack of interest in him. They struggle, but Bond gets the upper hand. Like many a red-blooded movie hero before him, he kisses her forcefully until she kisses back. Dissolve to the next scene.
The strident approach to sex in the Bond films is worlds away from Alfred Hitchcock’s torments and neuroses. One of the most famous of all auteurs, Hitchcock often employed strong autobiographical elements in his films. Their stories can often be interpreted as reflexive — films that are concerned with the manner in which their maker makes films. The most common reading of Hitchcock is that, when Grace Kelly retired from acting to marry into royalty, his quest to replace her feminine perfection became obsessive. Vera Miles, Kim Novak, Eva Marie Saint, Janet Leigh, and finally Nathalie Kay “Tippi” Hedren were all recruited for one or two films between 1956 and 1964. (Kelly herself only starred in three for Hitchcock.) All played steely-eyed blondes, some duplicitous, but each a subject of fascination for the main male character. Vertigo is the most searing self-portrait, with James Stewart’s character ferociously controlling Novak’s character just as Hitchcock sought to make a new Grace Kelly. Marnie bears some resemblance to that acknowledged masterpiece, a swooning mystery in which a smitten and frustrated man chases an unapproachable woman. In both cases, the woman is unapproachable because she’s understandably terrified of the man, even if she can’t quite explain why.
The plot of Marnie is more convoluted than Goldfinger‘s, but suffice it to say that Hedren’s eponymous character works for Connery’s Mark Rutland. Rutland starts to fall in love with her at roughly the same time that he discovers her kleptomania and shifting identities. Marnie Edgar is a damaged figure, exponentially more sympathetic than any woman James Bond had encountered to that point, introduced with a suggestive close-up image of a yellow handbag. Even so, the film boils down to a man entering her life in order to “fix” her, which he does with some rudimentary detective work and by virtue of simply being a man. He comes between Marnie and her mother, unlocking at last Marnie’s repressed memories. Before that, however, he schemes to marry her, not knowing that her trauma includes terror at being touched by a man. Sensitive to this at first, he soon grows impatient. His ultimate violation of Marnie, on the honeymoon cruise, isn’t a vicious attack. He strips off her nightgown but then apologizes. Instead of leaving the room, he gives her his robe and pulls in for an embrace, stroking her hair and kissing her. What follows is an astonishing series of shots of a dead-eyed Hedren and a leering Connery. Pan to porthole and fade to black.
The word problematic is useful in critical evaluations of art when it is given space to get fleshed out (i.e. not on Twitter, where the word frequently appears). Fifty-plus-year-old films can’t be expected to match up with current norms, but at the same time, the interrogation of past norms is instructive. On top of that, it’s important to understand how a given scene is shot, what it communicates in the context of the film as a whole. Sean Connery, it must be admitted, plays the good guy in both of these films. James Bond is a much more tongue-in-cheek hero, not aspirational in any realistic sense. But his actions with Pussy Galore register as an important and positive breakthrough. The scene in Marnie, on the other hand, reads as sinister. But Marnie’s antagonism toward men (not unlike Galore’s sexuality) is treated as a problem to be solved, so Mark’s actions can be seen as another crack in the shell/prison. Connery himself plays these men with a canny mix of arrogance and self-awareness. Hitchcock, meanwhile, abused Tippi Hedren in real life and did lasting harm to her career when she wouldn’t succumb to him. For lovers of film, these issues that have made countless headlines recently can no longer be swept under the rug. I don’t think disqualifying Hitchcock as a great director is a viable option, but we can’t afford to see him as the only kind of great director. A crucial component in the reformation of societal norms is identifying the antecedents of current bad actors. It’s a scary process that leaves no one unscathed, no popcorn entertainment spotless. As the song goes, “…his lies can’t disguise what you fear / For a golden girl knows when he’s kissed her / It’s the kiss of death…”