Friday, October 16, 2009

OctoberFlix #2 – “Rebecca”

This week’s Halloween film really exists in a world of shadows, a world where identity is continuously cast into question, & a world haunted by a formidable ghost. This is the world of Manderlay, Alfred Hitchcock & (apparently to a lesser degree) David O. Selznick’s film adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s novel Rebecca.

Ghost stories concern memory, of course, & Rebecca is no exception. But memory is an unreliable faculty—we take memory to be an exac
t record of events, but memory is always subjective: what two people recall about the same event usually is different, whether the difference is great or small. The same is true about what we remember concerning a person, & particularly about one who is only accessible thru memory—the story we have constructed about that person in many ways says at least as much about us as it does about the actual remembered person.

This is the situation in Rebecca—not only does the character of the deceased Rebecca De Winter become the biggest presence in the story—despite never appearing on
screen, even in flashbacks—but the way that presence haunts those who continue to live at Manderlay, the sprawling De Winter estate defines each character. The new Mrs. De Winter—played brilliantly by Joan Fontaine—is cowed by the perception that Rebecca was everything she’s not: Rebecca was sophisticated & accomplished, & beautiful, with a sense of elegance & style; of course, Ms Fontaine possessed considerable beauty herself, but she is rendered unglamorous, at least by 1940s Hollywood standards, thru much of the film. Furthermore, she’s convinced that her husband Maxim is still desperately in love with Rebecca & that he constantly compares her to his first wife to her own disadvantage. The fact that Ms Fontaine’s character has no name other than “the second Mrs De Winter” of course speaks volumes about her situation.

Of course, (& this is a bit of a spoiler), the second Mrs De Winter completely misreads her husband’s feelings, to a large degree because he is so secretive & guarded. In fact, Maxim De Winter (played by Sir Laurence Olivier, also very good in this role) despises h
is first wife’s memory, as he despised her—yet he also lives in fear that Rebecca will be able to strike at him from beyond the grave, destroying his life & any potential for happiness. In fact, this fear precludes any possibility at happiness, either in his life overall or with his new bride once “the honeymoon is over” & they return to Manderlay.

The other character who is largely defined by her memory of Rebecca is the stern h
ousekeeper Miss Danvers—a strong portrayal by Judith Anderson. In fact, Danvers almost completes the equivalent of a love triangle with Maxim & the second Mrs De Winter, in that her passion for Rebecca also reinforces the Fontaine character’s sense of inferiority, & in turn makes it even easier for the second wife to believe that she can never approach Rebecca in her husband’s eyes.

The cinematography in Rebecca is really quite breathtaking, & in fa
ct George Barnes won the 1940 Academy Award for Best Black & White Cinematography—Barnes was a veteran by 1940, with his career having begun in the late ‘teens; he also worked on such notable films as Meet John Doe, Jane Eyre, & Spellbound (I believe this was his only other collaboration with Hitchcock). Perhaps the most notable visual feature is the film’s use of shadows—they dominate the scenes at Manderlay: shadows of all the characters (& especially Miss Danvers’, which seems to elongate supernaturally against the walls), but also shadows of plants & objects. Manderlay is indeed a shadow world: dominated by Rebecca’s shadow, which has in turn rendered the living occupants of the mansion into shadows themselves, shaped by their “memory” of Rebecca.

Daphne Du Maurier described her novel as being about “the relationship between a man who was powerful and a woman who was not.” This is certainly carried on in the film adaptation; the difference in age bet
ween Maxim & his second wife is stressed both in the plot line & visually, as Olivier is given graying hair, while everything about Fontaine, from her clothing to her hair style to her awkward bearing speak of an ingénue. In fact, the Fontaine character really falls under everyone’s power—not only Danvers, but also the butler Fritz, dominate her (tho the latter is domineering in a somewhat less sinister fashion). Furthermore, as regards her husband, the story bears distinct hints of the “Bluebeard” tale—the husband’s secret, the forbidden room (in this case a seaside cottage), & the husband’s involvement in Rebecca’s death. Not to give too much away for those who haven’t seen the film, but this role is downplayed in the film adaptation, simply because this was necessitated by the Hollywood Production Code. Given this disparity in power & Maxim De Winter’s brooding proclivity for secrets, one has to question how much hope for this couple there may be—as we know from the beginning narration (the whole film is told as a flashback), the Fontaine character continues to be haunted by Manderlay into some indefinite future.

Rebecca was awarded the Oscar for Best Picture in 1940, in addition to its a
ward for best black & white cinematography. It was nominated for a total of 11 award, including Hitchcock for best director, Fontaine for best leading actress, Olivier for best leading actor, & Anderson for best supporting actress. All of these nominations were richly deserved.

Although it may not be standard Halloween fare, Rebecca is an adult ghost story, a fascinating & compelling of memory & identity. You can watch it at midnight eastern time on Turner Classic Movies on Friday October 24th, & of course it’s available from Netflix as well as any well-stocked video rental shop.

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  1. Judith Anderson is terrific as Mrs. Danvers, and of course the whole Hollywood "British colony" turns out for supporting roles(except for Florence Bates, the wonderfully boorish American). A great book, where skewed subjective perspective gets bashed so skillfully and mercilessly.

  2. Great review! I'll have to watch this again soon and keep an eye out for those shadows.

  3. This may very well be Hitcock's finest.

    Mrs. Danvers was among those who attended the manor ball this week, and I must admit, I was a bit frightened of her steely stare.

  4. I keep thinking I must have seen "Rebecca", but if so, it was many years ago. Next Friday, eh? It would be interesting to see Mrs. Danvers in her own element. I think the high spirits of Willow's Ball put her at a bit of a disadvantage.

  5. This is one of my all-time favourites, to be sure. I would love to own a copy on dvd, but Criterion is the only seller as far as I know and that means it's about 50 bucks!
    The Mrs. Danvers role was a great one and Dame Anderson was expertly cast.
    Just curious, have you ever seen a British film entitled, "Dead of Night"? It's an anthology flick of disturbing and creepy vignettes. Michael Redgrave plays a ventriloquist (they creep me out at the best of times) you will never forget it if you see this film.

  6. I've seen the film and it's so good I almost can't bear to watch it again. Who could forget the fire at the end?

  7. This is one of my all-time favorite books! I haven't seen the movie, but I must find it. Thanks, John.

  8. A truly great story John and some wonderful writing By Du Maurier, some really classic lines.Haven't seen the film , or read the book,(I have it as an audio book,) but must try to.Pip pip!

    Ps. Don't forget John, there's always room for one more on the bus!!?? :)

  9. this is one of my all-time favorite movies--probably because it was one of the first "adult" books I ever read (and still on my bookshelf!) To this day. Mrs. Danvers still frightens me in both film and print.

  10. Hi Everybody:

    We're just back from the ocean, so belated thanks--no 'net there!

    Jacqueline: What a cast all around. I must confess, I haven't read the book (Eberle has of course).

    Raquelle: Yes, do check it out--& thanks.

    Willow: This is definitely a great Hitchcock film! Don't know that I'd want Danvers at my party!

    Sandra: I think you'd like it. It's difficult to conceive of Miss Danvers be at a disadvantage in any setting!

    Kat: I don't believe I've seen it--will keep my eye out!

    Dominic: I feel that way about some films--maybe Blade Runner or Paris, Texas.

    Karen: Yes, do check it out!

    TFE: Interesting way to take in the book. I do think about the bus, TFE, I really do--thanks for the friendly reminder!

    Lana: I don't think I knew that--& I'm with you all the way on Danvers!

  11. Fantastic review! I'd really like to read the book to compare now --

    I love how you describe the shadows in the house. I always like it in films when they do subtle things in the cinematography to reflect the story but unfortunately I usually need someone else to point it out before I notice! I'll definitely pay attention to that the next time I watch Rebecca!

  12. I like your blog very much. And your selection's films too. So eclectic, like me!

  13. Hi Marisa: So glad you like Robert Frost's Banjo, & thanks for following! I haven't been doing much with film lately--perhaps this is a reminder to do some more!


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