Wednesday, March 12, 2014


REBECCA           B            
USA  (131 mi)  1940  d:  Alfred Hitchcock

She sang beyond the genius of the sea.
The water never formed to mind or voice,
Like a body wholly body, fluttering
Its empty sleeves; and yet its mimic motion
Made constant cry, caused constantly a cry,
That was not ours although we understood,
Inhuman, of the veritable ocean.

The Idea of Order at Key West, Wallace Stevens, 1934

Hitchcock spent the first seven years in Hollywood as an employee of David O. Selznick, both admirers, by the way, of Cecil B. DeMille.  On Hitchcock’s first film REBECCA, a sumptuous melodrama and painful study in guilt and anxiety, exploring themes of love, class, deception, fear, obsession and power, there’s little Hitchcockian suspense, but plenty of psychological elements at play from a haunted house, an unseen character, and in the conflicting personalities, with one continually fumbling about completely petrified of the other.  Selznick controlled the script, edited the film, ordered retakes, re-recorded most of the dialogue, and in some cases directed scenes himself, to the point where many critics believe the film is substandard to Hitchcock’s earlier British work, and Hitchcock himself is quoted in the infamous 1962 interview with François Truffaut, “Well, it’s not a Hitchcock picture.”  The exception is a single scene that has Hitchcock’s imprint all over it, the moment the disturbed housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson, Hitchcock’s only lesbian character) shows the new Mrs. de Winter (Joan Fontaine) Rebecca’s bedroom.  Here Hitchcock evokes a terrifying fusion of sex and death in a thinly veiled fantasy conjuring up the dead with Rebecca watching over her husband in bed with his new wife.  It’s a startling moment that offers a hint of what might have been if the director was under less interference.  In Hitchcock’s mind, it’s a film that got away, not really holding together well, feeling painfully uneven, not a work he’s particularly proud of, but it’s a film with cinematic force and ideas, where much of his subsequent work is haunted by a similar Gothic imagination, including one of his next films Suspicion (1943) working with the same lead actress, where she may be even more terrified while winning the Academy Award for Best Actress.  Perhaps even more important is the groundwork the film lays for what is arguably Hitchcock’s greatest work, Vertigo (1958), a film of intense personal devastation and lost love, where the ghosts of the dead rise from their graves and wreak havoc on the living, one of the preeminent films about obsession.  Billed as a successor to the epic GONE WITH THE WIND (1939), Selznick was completing work on that film as he began casting for this new film, where the competition for the leading role was similar to Selznick's search for the perfect Scarlett O'Hara.  Fontaine competed against Vivien Leigh in both films, and while Leigh eventually won out as Scarlett, Fontaine was chosen to star in Hitchcock’s film.  Lead actor Laurence Olivier had just married Vivien Leigh at the time and was disappointed when she did not get the role, so he treated Joan Fontaine horribly, believing she was inexperienced and wrong for the part.  When Hitchcock found out that Fontaine was shaken up by her rude and belittling treatment, he told her that everyone on the set hated her, causing her even greater stress and discomfort, exactly what Hitchcock wanted from her performance.  Interesting that the only Hitchcock film to ever win an Academy Award, only four were ever nominated, the other three are Foreign Correspondent (1940), Suspicion (1943), and SPELLBOUND (1946), is one told from a woman’s point of view, perhaps the ultimate irony considering the director’s reputation for male domination. 

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again... I came upon it suddenly; the approach masked by the unnatural growth of a vast shrub that spread in all directions... There was Manderley, our Manderley, secretive and silent as it had always been, the gray stone shining in the moonlight of my dream, the mullioned windows reflecting the green lawns and terrace.  Time could not wreck the perfect symmetry of those walls, nor the site itself, a jewel in the hollow of a hand.
Based on Daphne du Maurier’s much beloved 1938 gothic romance novel, described as a picturization of a literary work, the opening lines from an unknown narrator have an almost ethereal storybook quality, where a giant mansion looms off in the distance, seen through a canopy of trees rising out of a gloomy fog, where the locked iron gate recalls Xanadu from Orson Welles’ CITIZEN KANE (1941) made the following year.  The thematic use of the letter “R” seen throughout the film to indicate the belongings of Rebecca, which have the effect of branding these objects, is also reminiscent of the giant letter “K” for Charles Foster Kane.  What’s immediately apparent is the British influence of the film, as it’s completely a British picture, where the du Maurier story, the actors, including a group that relocated to Hollywood, and a similarly relocated director are all British, complete with manners of etiquette and British accents, where the couple meets, surprisingly enough, in Monte Carlo.  Joan Fontaine is in her first starring role and Hitchcock uses that to showcase the character’s vulnerability and at times her frustrating naiveté as a shy young woman whose name, significantly enough, is never revealed, overshadowed by the nonstop conversation of her overbearing employer, Mrs. Van Hopper (Florence Bates), who speaks endlessly about aristocratic gossip and whatnot, and is bored to tears that no one of significance happens to be at the hotel.  When she happens upon an aristocratic widower Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier), she literally pounces on him, but he steers clear of her, keeping his eyes on her quiet, young companion before making a hasty exit.  Their early courtship takes place under the guise of tennis lessons, with Mrs. Hopper conveniently ill and confined to her bed, where Fontaine is literally swept off her feet by picturesque drives along the sea, where it’s obvious the more elegantly sophisticated Maxim enjoys the fact she hasn’t been stained by the upper-class air of pretense that surrounds his world, yet she’s a fragile stranger in a strange land who looks like she could fall apart at any minute.  All apprehensive eyebrows and second-guessing, Fontaine shines because she naturally exudes a quality that she herself seems unaware of, where she’s completely caught off guard when he proposes, as is the innocently deceived Mrs. Hopper, who all along continued to think that she was the object of everyone’s attention.   The rapturous entrance into Manderlay is like being transported into another world, where the newly titled Mrs. de Winter is a name she has to grow into, as she hasn’t a clue what to expect from this seemingly royal household, where the introduction to dozens of servants leaves her a bit bewildered and overwhelmed.  Maxim, on the other hand, immediately falls into a lifetime of routine, making little effort to understand the needs of his wife. 
While the film may make some faint attempt to explore contrasting social class, it’s largely dismissed by the continued arrogance of Maxim, who is simply a male version of Mrs. Van Hopper, someone so caught up in the aristocratic world of having everything at his disposal that they were born to believe the whole world revolves around them.  Accordingly, Olivier’s brooding performance is emotionally cold and not very sympathetic, where the audience quickly loses interest in his mood swings, attentive for a brief moment, but angrily dismissive the next.  Instead, it’s the introduction to the sinister housekeeper Mrs. Danver (Judith Anderson) that takes center stage, who appears like an apparition, where darkness simply surrounds her very essence, like a hanging cloud, as she expresses a cool and sneering detachment to the core.  While Mrs. de Winter tries to be polite and friendly, she is met with nothing but disdain and contempt.  Without a word from her husband, all she starts hearing about from the hired help is the first Mrs. de Winter, the impeccable Rebecca, where her name echoes through the cavernous rooms like a lingering spirit, as she apparently meant everything to Maxim, ultra sophisticated, a beguiling beauty, the victim of an unfortunate boating accident a year ago, where even in her ghostly absence, she continues to reign as the lady of the house.  Whispers are heard throughout the staff reminding the second Mrs. de Winter that Maxim was so distraught that many felt he would never recover afterwards.  What’s curious about all this talk is not only how it’s affecting the second Mrs. de Winter, making her feel inept and incapable of filling Rebecca’s shoes, but also how an unseen character is suddenly dominating and hounding her life, becoming the major focus of the film, as she was in the novel, without ever making an appearance, where her presence hovers over every inch of Manderlay, like a nightmarish dream.  Fontaine is excellent as a character continually knocked off balance, where she’s constantly ill at ease, out of her depth, made to feel inadequate in this social setting, yet she remains genuine and a pure spirit, earnestly attempting to gain a footing, both with her husband and the legions of domestic helpers, but she’s continually undermined by the devious actions of Mrs. Danver, whose dark presence dominates every scene she’s in, and whose evil intentions feel little more than wicked vindictiveness. 
As a result, it’s the completely implied lesbian relationship between Mrs. Danver and Rebecca that is so captivating, filled with mystifying sexual overtones that match du Maurier’s own bisexuality, where the housekeeper has preserved Rebecca’s room exactly as it was, like a shrine, but it’s off limits to the rest of the household, remaining a curiously unexplored secret place where interest is only magnified by the power of her protective force, with the mysterious room guarded by Jasper the dog, the keeper of the flame, so to speak.  When Mrs. Danver finally discovers the second Mrs. de Winter alone in Rebecca’s room, always sneaking up on her when she least expects it, Danver makes it clear just how ferociously devoted she was to her dead mistress, describing in intimate detail how she used to draw her bath, help her undress for bed, comb her hair, and listen to her talk about the affairs of the day, suggesting they had no secrets from each other, sexual or otherwise, feeling the delicateness of her silk negligee, stroking it with her hand, rubbing her fur coat on the new Mrs. de Winter’s face, the ultimate act of rebuff and humiliation, suggesting she could never live up to the beauty and sophistication of Rebecca, where there’s a chilling attempt to coerce the new despised mistress of the house into suicide.  Perhaps the one item Mrs. Danver most personally associates with Rebecca is a hand designed embroidered cloth she made for her with a monogrammed letter “R” that’s placed over her pillow on her bed.  Equally intimidating for the second Mrs. de Winter is Rebecca’s monogrammed address book and stationary, where everywhere she turns, the presence of Rebecca is there staring her in the face, where she comes to believe that her husband is still madly in love with his deceased wife.  When the new Mrs. de Winter mentions her suspicions to her husband, also the hatred emanating from Mrs. Danver, he laughingly dismisses this like a silly joke, where he doesn’t take her seriously and continually treats her like a little girl, calling her his “little fool” or “my good child,” where her innocence is something he routinely dominates.  There’s always a gaping emotional distance between them, where he’s old enough to be her father as he simply dismisses her every effort, but once she matures later in the film, it’s questionable whether there are any signs of romance left.  One of the more interesting scenes is seeing the couple as their marriage is falling apart watching home movie footage of their first weeks together when they fell in love, their ghoulish faces illuminated in an enveloping darkness, a startling contrast of emotions.         
It’s not until late in the film that we learn the true story of Maxim’s relationship with Rebecca, an openly confessional outpouring that comes after her body has been found on a capsized boat under the sea, where an inquest is held, as this conflicts with Maxim’s earlier identification of a washed up body one year ago.  George Sanders plays a morally dubious car salesman with cynical ambitions to blackmail Maxim (a good man to blackmail, one might add), as he believes Rebecca was murdered.  This roving court investigation slows down the pace of the film, which actually drags near the end, adding many unnecessary secondary characters, which only prolongs the inevitable, where the film cleans up the darker intentions of the book.  Nonetheless, Mrs. Danver takes matters into her own hands, becoming more deliriously mad than ever, burning down Manderlay much as Selznick set fire to Tara in his previous film, both melodramatic soap operas winning Academy Awards for Best Film.  In an unusual move, Selznick also gave Orson Welles permission to do a radio adaptation of Rebecca for his Mercury Theatre of the Air, coming on the heels of his infamous production of The War of the Worlds, guaranteed to generate free publicity for the upcoming film.  It was Welles’ reading of the film that assured Selznick to keep the novel’s first person woman’s narration.  Selznick previously asked du Maurier to write the screenplay, but she refused, hating what Hitchcock did to the screen version of JAMAICA INN (1939), while the third du Maurier book adapted into a Hitchcock film was The Birds (1963).  It was director George Cukor that suggested Selnick test Joan Fontaine, who impressed him with her work on THE WOMEN (1939).  With that, Selnick’s first choice for the role dropped out, Olivia de Havilland, Fontaine’s sister who refused to test for the role.  Biographer David Thomson suggested Selznick actually fell in love with Fontaine, writing her poetry and attempting to interest her in an affair, but she was already happily involved with her future husband, British actor Brian Aherne.  Since 1936, when actors in supporting roles were first introduced, REBECCA remains the only Best Picture winner that received no Academy Awards for writing, acting, or directing. 

Note – Shortly after the 2-hour mark in the film, Hitchcock, in a hat and overcoat, can be seen in a brief appearance passing by a policeman on the street, walking next to an outdoor phone booth where George Sanders is making a call.

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