Welcome to FlixChatter’s Classic Flix category debut, featuring this blog’s first ever guest blogger, Vince ‘Rockerdad’ Caro, whose passion and extensive knowledge of the genre never cease to amaze me!
I’m honored to include his in-depth reviews of Hollywood classics and reading ’em definitely inspire me to start watching those flicks and see what I’ve been missing!
Rebecca review by Vince C.
I’ve had many intriguing and enlightening conversations with the venerable RTM concerning our love of motion pictures, Hollywood and it’s history over the decades. While she has kept track of the film world’s current events, I have (in my adult years) remained anachronistic about movies – often stuck with the escapism and simplicity of black & white noir films of the 30s, 40s and 50s.
So, when RTM asked me to write a classic film review, I jumped at the opportunity – in part because she maintains one of the coolest and smartest film blogs in existence but also to reflect on a film that started it all for me. Late one Saturday during my teens, while tuning in to AMC (the original classic movie channel), I came across an old Hitchcock film. Something in its presentation caught my eye and I was hooked. It was the narrator’s voice – and it said:
Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderley again…
This is how the narrator, played by the excellent Joan Fontaine, opens this classic, haunting noir thriller, Rebecca (1940), based on the Daphne du Maurier book of the same name and directed by Alfred Hitchcock in his first American film. (This is his second treatment of a du Maurier novel – the first being Jamaica Inn in 1936 and later, The Birds in 1963.) The line encompasses the overall feel of the film, a gothic dream, rolling fog and all, with Franz Waxman’s overwhelming crescendos of flutes and strings and George Barnes’ Oscar winning cinematography – setting us up for the drama and suspense to follow.
Fontaine plays the unnamed protagonist in flashback, a timid, shy, orphaned heroine and paid companion to the rich, incorrigible Mrs. Edythe Van Hopper (Florence Bates). While vacationing in France, she comes across a brooding, and mysterious Max de Winter (Laurence Olivier) who seemingly is about to jump off a seaside cliff to his death. After this chance meeting, Maxim courts her to be the next Mrs. de Winter amid Van Hopper’s snide reservations. It is here that Mrs. Van Hopper uses the name Rebecca, Maxim’s beautiful and deceased first wife, to compare and humiliate Maxim’s new bride – adding to her already fragile self-esteem.
Maxim takes her back to Manderley, his large estate in Cornwall. It is here where she meets the intimidating Mrs. Danvers (played by Judith Anderson in her most memorable role), the head housekeeper of the estate. Danvers and her staff are puzzled by the new lady-of-the-house’ lack of self-confidence. Overwhelmed by the scope of her new role, she discovers that Rebecca’s personal artifacts are eerily preserved and untouched by Mrs. Danvers. In a classic scene where Danvers shows Mrs. de Winter Rebecca’s private room, the housekeeper’s dark Machiavellian, motherly (and lesbian) obsession with Rebecca is revealed.
Consumed by forever being in Rebecca’s shadow, everything falls apart during an ill-fated costume ball. Mrs. de Winter, in trying to impress Maxim, is manipulated by Mrs. Danvers into wearing Rebecca’s costume, angering him. Distraught and defeated, Mrs. Danvers convinces Mrs. de Winter she could never take Rebecca’s place and quietly opens a window for her to jump out and end her life. This is however, interrupted by a seaside flair and the announcement that a shipwreck has been discovered – Rebecca’s boat in which she drowned in. A body is found which brings the authorities to question whether it really is Rebecca buried in the family crypt. More clues are revealed about Rebecca, her trysts and infidelities. Did Maxim murder her or did she commit suicide?
The film won Best Picture in 1940 for David Selznick but Hitchcock lost the Best Director award to John Ford (The Grapes of Wrath), the first of many disappointments Hollywood would bestow on the British auteur. Although he would later disown this movie, it is undeniable proof of Hitchcock’s mastery of the suspense genre. While mostly humorless and understated, Rebecca’s atmospheric and dreamy quality is a rewarding and compelling escape into the gothic psychological thriller – 1940 style. Lacking the toughness of characters of Double Indemnity and the sappiness of Capra and Sturges for example, it is overall a contemporary romance or rather an updated Jane Eyre of the late 30s albeit an artfully detached one. Not surprisingly, Fontaine would later play Eyre in the 1944 film version. Maxim’s character is arguably a contemporary Rochester with perhaps a touch of Heathcliff.
Hitchcock did his best to own this movie by using In-Camera Editing, a process where only necessary shots are filmed for a scene – limiting the amount of alternate or excess footage Selznick could get his hands on to interfere with Hitchcock’s final cut. This experience with the Selznick studio prompted Hitchcock to fully control the final edit of his later films and we have Selznick to thank. Kubrick would have a similar epiphany after filming Spartacus with Kirk Douglas. As with Kubrick, Hitchcock proved he could be a big-time Hollywood director and handle big-time budgets with A-list Hollywood actors. It is a shame he never garnered a Best Director Oscar. The Academy tried to make it up by giving him a Lifetime Achievement Award but by then his career was over.
While not his first or best film, Rebecca is a landmark of a prestige that only Selznick’s Hollywood could offer – an elegant, gothic, romantic thriller – a far cry from Selznick’s 4-hour soap opera Gone With The Wind the previous year. It still mystifies some that Hitchcock bears his name on it – it shouldn’t. Any other director would make it too weepy and too melodramatic. Its detached and haunting nature is all Hitch. One of his best (and there are many) – and yes, he even appears in it.