Tuesday, July 27, 2010


"You wouldn't think she'd been gone so long, would you? Sometimes, when I walk along the corridor, I fancy I hear her just behind me. That quick light step, I couldn't mistake it anywhere. It's not only in this room, it's in all the rooms in the house. I can almost hear it now.  Do you think the dead come back and watch the living?"  Mrs. Danvers to The Second Mrs. de Winter (Rebecca)
There are few directors that can be defined so completely by their work.  When one watches a Hitchcock film, it is immediately apparent that it is his film done in his distinctive style.  Instead of saying North by Northwest or Psycho, we say we're watching a "Hitchcock film."  Hitchcock's flair for creating suspense and for effortlessly terrifying the audience is legendary.  That's why what is most disturbing about this horror film is  not the plot, but the struggle between Alfred Hitchcock and David O. Selznick, his producer.  The film loses that Hitchock intensity and suffers as a result.

The Plot
The film starts with the voiceover of a woman speaking as the camera pans over the ruins of an estate.  She says "Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderley again..." but goes on the say that it is impossible as it is now in ruins.  She then flashes back to where it all began.

An unnamed young woman, played by Joan Fontaine, takes a job as a companion to a fussy, elderly old woman and they travel to Monte Carlo.  There she meets Maxim de Winter, played by Laurence Olivier, a mysterious and worldly British aristocrat.  When her employer, Mrs. Edythe Van Hopper, falls ill with a cold, Mr. de Winter decides to squire her around Monte Carlo.  They fall in love, and before she must leave he proposes.  The two elope and after their honeymoon he takes her to his estate in the south of England, Manderley.

Maxim de Winter proposes over breakfast
It quickly becomes clear that the childish, inexperienced new Mrs. de Winter is ill-equipped to handle the running of an ancient, aristocratic household like Manderley.  Though Maxim has married her because she is the antithesis of a proper British wife, this quality does not help her as she attempts to navigate through society and the house itself.  In addition, much of the house still exists as a shrine to the last Mrs. de Winter, Rebecca, who died at sea under mysterious circumstances.  Mrs. Danvers, played by Judith Anderson, is the housekeeper who was devoted to Rebecca.  She keeps Rebecca's wing of the house like a shrine, arranging the room as though she expects Rebecca to return at any time.  All of the linens are monogrammed with Rebecca's initials and her dog still sits at her door and barks.  Rebecca's "cousin" Jack Favell stops by and makes Mrs. de Winter uncomfortable with veiled references to her husband.

Mrs. Danvers shows the new Mrs. de Winter Rebecca's suite.
The new Mrs. de Winter also suspects that her husband is not yet over the death of his wife.  He is brooding and unpredictable, and Mrs. de Winter's inability to command the staff drives a further wedge between them.  In an attempt to prove herself just as able as Rebecca, Mrs. de Winter gets Maxim's reluctant agreement to host a costume ball.  Mrs. Danvers tricks her into wearing a period costume of one of the de Winter ancestors that Rebecca had worn the year before, startling Maxim and making him react violently.  As Mrs. de Winter runs upstairs Mrs. Danvers corners her in Rebecca's room, telling her that she will never be the woman Rebecca was.  Mrs. Danvers attempts to convince her to jump out of the window and kill herself.  Mrs. Danvers almost succeeds, but Mrs. de Winter starts out of her trance when she hears noises below.  A ship has been sighted out in the gathering storm and everyone is going outside to help.

Mrs. Danvers tempts Mrs. de Winter to commit suicide.
When Mrs. de Winter goes down to the beach, she finds her husband visibly upset in the forbidden boathouse that had been Rebecca's special place.  Apparently, Rebecca's sailboat has been found by the divers who had gone out into the storm.  When Mrs. de Winter confronts Maxim, accusing him of still being in love with Rebecca, he finally reveals the truth.  He hated Rebecca, who had been a beautiful, morally corrupt, unfaithful wife.  After he was tricked into marrying her, Maxim had played the loving husband to preserve appearances.  The night of Rebecca's death she lured him down to the boathouse and told him that she was pregnant by Jack, one of her lovers, and that she was planning on raising the baby as Maxim's.  As they argued, she fell and died after hitting her head.  Maxim loaded Rebecca into her sailboat and dug holes in the boat before pushing it out to sea.  He confesses his love for his new wife, and they embrace for the first time as she finally grows up into a woman and a wife.

Mrs. de Winter with her husband Maxim
A police inquest follows the discovery of Rebecca's boat.  Maxim suggests Rebecca committed suicide, but Jack tries to blackmail him with a letter showing she wasn't in a suicidal mood at the time of her death.  The blackmail backfires on him, however, as the men go to check on Rebecca's secret London doctor.  The doctor confirms not that she was pregnant, but that she had contracted a deadly form of cancer and would only have lasted a few months.  Maxim realizes Rebecca had tried to manipulate him into killing her, as a form of suicide.  Jack calls Mrs. Danvers and lets her know the truth.

Jack attempts to blackmail the de Winters.
Maxim drives home to find Manderley ablaze.  Mrs. Danvers, driven to insanity by the realization that Rebecca kept something from her, has set the house on fire.  She claims that she couldn't watch Maxim and the new Mrs. de Winter happy together in their home.  Fortunately, the new Mrs. de Winter has made it out of Manderley unharmed, and she and Maxim watch as the house burns down around Mrs. Danvers, who has locked herself in Rebecca's old suite.

Hitchcock's signature cameo, when Jack finds out Rebecca had cancer.
The History
Alfred Hitchcock
Dauphe de Maurier wrote her gothic novel, Rebecca, in 1938.  Much to her surprise, it became an instant hit, and David O. Selzick bought the rights to the book as a Carole Lumbard/Ronald Coleman vehicle.  But Coleman turned down the role, so Selzick eventually settled on Laurence Oliver.  Casting for Mrs. de Winter became difficult, until finally Selznick settled on the unknown younger sister of Olivia de Havilland, Joan Fontaine.  Selznick's greatest coup came, however, when he landed framed British director Alfred Hitchcock.  Hitchcock finished his last British film, an adaptation of another of de Maurier's novels, Jamaica Inn, before heading to the states for his first Hollywood picture.
David O. Selznick

Hitchcock was unprepared for the kind of "producing" that Selznick was now famous for.  "When I came to America to direct Rebecca," said Hitchcock more than two decades later, "David Selznick sent me a memo...I've just finished reading it...I think I may turn it into a motion picture...I plan to call it The Longest Story Ever Told." Selznick wanted to be just as involved in this picture as he had been with Gone with the Wind.  He sent memos, gave suggestions, and re-wrote Hitchcock's script.  Used to directing on his own, Hitchcock chafed at being forced to follow orders.  Hitchcock therefore did the best he could under the circumstances.  He edited the film "in camera," nullifying Selznick's habit of making last minute edits.  When Lawrence Oliver was cold to Joan Fontaine (he had wanted his girlfriend Viven Leigh for the role) Hitchcock told her that everyone else on the set hated her as well, making her give the perfect performance as a young, insecure, frightened girl.  He cast Judith Anderson, a famous Broadway tragedian, as Mrs. Danvers, and made her character both younger and more mysterious than she had been in the novel.  Hitchcock purposely made Mrs. Danvers appear as a projection of Mrs. de Winter's fears, having her pop up mysteriously and float rather than walk.  He even changed Selznick's ending, allowing the final shot to be of Rebecca's burning monogrammed pillowcase, rather than a smokey "R" floating into the sky. Despite his efforts, Hitchcock never felt that this film was truly his own.  And though Selznick insisted on adherance to the novel's plot, there was one change he couldn't appose.  The Hollywood Production Code said that the murder of a spouse had to be punished. In the novel, Maxim shoots Rebecca, while in the film, Maxim only thinks of killing her.

Publicity for Rebecca
Although Hitchcock was disappointed, Rebecca was an instant hit with both critics and audiences.  Selznick played up the publicity, even staging a second gala "premiere" for the film, just after the nominations were announced.  He needn't have worried, Selznick walked off with his second "Best Picture" Oscar in a row that year.  Although it only won one other award, that for "Best Cinematography, Black and White,"  Rebecca was nominated for nine additional awards.  It would be the only one of Hitchcock's many films to win the award for "Best Picture," and Hitchcock himself would never win for "Best Director."  While it was #80 on AFI's 100 Years... 100 Thrills list, what Rebecca is perhaps best known for is the character of Mrs. Danvers.  The creepy housekeeper is #31 on AFI's 100 Years... 100 Heroes and Villains list.  She has also been frequently used since as a popular culture reference, appearing in a Vanity Fair shoot commemorating Hitchcock's great films and being used as the name for an all-female queer rock group.  Though the film is certainly not his best, the character of Mrs. Danvers may be one of his most startling creations (well...after Norman Bates).

Keira Knightly and Jennifer Jason Leigh pose as Mrs. de Winter and Mrs. Danvers for Vanity Fair
The greatest development at the Academy Awards that year was the decision to have the results be sealed into envelopes by "Price, Waterhouse" after the votes were tabulated.  The information would not, unlike previous years, be given to the press before the ceremony, which caused some serious grumbling from the reporters.  But the decision created an air of mystery and suspense that boosted ticket sales and prestige for the Awards.  The race for "Best Picture," though awarded to Rebecca, could easily have been given to The Grapes of Wrath or The Philadelphia Story.  A damper was put on the awards when Academy president Walter Wanger announced that for the first time, the Academy felt no one was deserving of the Irving G. Thalberg Award.  But everyone perked up later when Hollywood favorites Ginger Rogers and James Stewart won for "Best Actress" and "Best Actor" respectively.  The Los Angeles Examiner noted that "As he has done in many a wild motion-picture scene, [Mr. Stewart] stumbled dazedly back to his table amid shouts and applause."  Stewart gave the award to his hardware store owning father from Indiana, Pennsylvania, who immediately placed it in a glass case that had previous displayed kitchen knives.

Mrs. de Winter and Maxim de Winter
The Verdict?
My friends were not a fan of this movie.  Which was dismaying for me, as I had such high expectations of any film bearing Hitchcock's name.  For a time I wondered if this film was like my experience with Vertigo, great when I watched it alone, but horrible when I watched it with others.  Maybe.  But this film was long, drawn out, and slow.  I could feel the palpable boredom of everyone else in the room.  It is also a film that doesn't always hold up well for a modern audience; Laurence Oliver's Maxim de Winter is Byronic to the point of being a parody of himself.  His line (about the kind of proposal that Mrs. de Winter should receive) that made us all nearly die with laughter was: "It should be in a conservatory, you in a white frock with a red rose in your hand and a violin playing in the distance, and I should be making violent love to you behind a palm tree."  The phrase "making violent love to you behind a palm tree" should never be uttered to a modern audience.  The film plods through unnecessary scenes, dragging out the plot twists with a heavy-handedness that often feels forced.  It is as though the film is saying, "Look!  Something is wrong over here!"  This has never been Hitchcock's style, but it is certainly the influence of Selznick.  Just witness his desire to have a giant "R" floating up to the sky in smoke.  What works in a novel doesn't necessarily translate to film, something Hitchcock realized and tried to correct.  When the climactic final secret of Rebecca's death is revealed I found myself less than surprised.  Even worse, indifferent.

Mrs. Danvers shows the new Mrs. de Winter Rebecca's fur coat.
Not to say that this movie doesn't have its great moments.  No one does subtle creepiness the way Hitchcock does.  To walk into a house where everything is monogrammed with the previous wife's initials?  To have the housekeeper stroking Rebecca's silk negligees and repositioning Rebecca's favorite hairbrush?  The devil is in the details, and the little unsettling moments elevate this movie.  While I enjoyed Joan Fontaine's performance as the frightened child bride, Judith Anderson's Mrs. Danvers absolutely stole the show.  She led her way around corners with her beak of a nose, gliding noiseless throughout the house.  I started when Mrs. de Winter did, as she looked up and suddenly saw Mrs. Danvers lurking.  And the vague lesbian undertones of the film only served to highlight the housekeeper's quality of "otherness."  Her eyes blank in contemplation of Rebecca, and a smile drifts dreamily about her face.  In the scene when Mrs. Danvers takes the new Mrs. de Winter through Rebecca's suite, Mrs. Danvers nearly always dominates the frame before the camera closes in, trapping Mrs. de Winter.  Fontaine's shoulders are stiff in her pale gown and she is always shrinking back from the frame even as Anderson, entirely in black, closes in.  It's uncomfortable, eerie, and yet also suggestive.  One of my favorite realizations of this film is that while I never learn the new Mrs. de Winter's name, Rebecca is written all over the house in many different forms.  I find myself accidentally calling the new Mrs. de Winter Rebecca--which was probably exactly what the author intended.

Mrs. Danvers thinks Rebecca watches the new Mrs. de Winter.
For the interaction between Joan Fontaine and Judith Anderson alone, watch this film.  No one should miss a villian like Mrs. Danvers.  Then again I do have a weakness for dastardly villains (much more entertaining than heroes).  Rebecca has its moments, and Hitchcock doesn't disappear entirely, but if you're looking for a classic Hitchcock film, look elsewhere and avoid the many tedious moments of this film.

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