Jersey Reflections: Cameo Appearance

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The actors and Hitchcock did not attend the back- projections scenes shot at Atlantic City Race Track.

The actors and Hitchcock did not attend the back- projections scenes shot at Atlantic City Race Track. 

In 1964, the Atlantic City Race Course in Mays Landing made a cameo appearance in Alfred Hitchcock’s film Marnie, a psychological thriller starring Sean Connery and Tippi Hedren. But its inclusion in the movie is a unique story, differing from other movies that have used South Jersey locations as a backdrop.  
The racetrack shoot for Marnie did not have Connery, Hedren, or any other principal actors present in South Jersey, although if you watch the movie you will see them both as well as the races onscreen. This was accomplished through the use of back-projection that was commonplace in cinema at the time before location shoots became standard.

Back-projection was a technique that combined film footage displayed behind actors performing on a soundstage to give the impression that the characters being portrayed were actually at the filmed location. The effect wasn’t always successful, often failing to offer a three-dimensional visual that would have been achieved if the actors had performed at the location. When it succeeded, however, it was through careful planning and execution. Stanley Kubrick used a related technique of front-projection in 2001: A Space Odyssey and the result was a seamless and nearly imperceptible melding of live action and projected footage that holds up even to today’s standards. 

Production designer Robert Boyle has noted that “back-projection was a system used in many of [Hitchcock’s] films, mainly because he thought he was in control,” and Marnie contains several sequences that combine rear-projected location footage and processed shots with actors on a soundstage, including the Atlantic City Race Course and hunting scenes. Both segments required meticulous planning.

Tony Lee Moral, in his 2013 book Hitchcock and the Making of Marnie, reports that “in Marnie, there were a number of complicated set pieces, such as the racetrack and hunt sequences that required careful storyboarding to integrate the location filming with the studio process work.”

The Hamilton Township shoot occurred at the start of production but, as was customary for scenes without actors, Hitchcock did not attend. Moral explains that “the first film to be shot was at Atlantic City Race Track which provided the background and process plates for the scene where Mark [Connery] takes Marnie [Hedren] to the races. On September 20th, [1963], a second unit crew traveled up and captured the shots that Hitchcock and Boyle had determined a week earlier. The crew consisted of director William Witney, assistant director James Brown, cameraman Rex Wimpy, camera operator J. Dodds and matte artist Albert Whitlock.” 

By the time Connery and Hedren filmed their portion of the racetrack scene on a soundstage with the New Jersey footage behind them, sets and lighting became the primary concern in matching the projection with the studio portion.

According to Moral, “For the Atlantic City racetrack, Hitchcock asked Robert Boyle to create a small section of the paddock and stalls where Connery and Hedren were to perform in front of the back-projection filmed on location. In Boyle’s opinion, sunlight scenes on a soundstage were not effective because the only source of light, the sun, couldn’t be duplicated…the racetrack turned out to be the most artificial and least effective process photography in the film, because of the problem of re-creating natural light. In both the riding and racetrack sequences, Hitchcock and his collaborators strived for realism but were undermined by the technology available.”

Adrian Danks, in his essay “Being in Two Places at the Same Time: The Forgotten Geography of Rear-Projection,” qualifies the use of back projection in Marnie’s racetrack scene as a less-than-successful achievement and instead cites a lengthy driving sequence in the film as “quietly extraordinary…one of the most extensive and sustained uses of interesting variations on the most common setting and justification for the use of this technique, namely car travel.”

He calls the Atlantic City Race Track sequence “self-consciously artificial rear-projection.” 

"Partners in Suspense: Critical Essays on Bernard Herrmann and Alfred Hitchcock" notes that “upon initial release, Marnie was less of a success than Hitchcock’s previous films, although the film’s critical stature has grown since 1964…” It may not be one of Hitchcock’s best, but it’s still worth a look for a bit of South Jersey history. 

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