June 2014 Blind Spot Film: REBECCA (1940)

Rebecca_1940Poster

As with a lot of the BlindSpot viewings this year, there are a lot of firsts in regards to REBECCA. No, it’s not the first Hitchcock film I saw, but it’s the first Laurence Olivier AND Joan Fontaine film I ever saw. I didn’t know David O. Selznick produced this, which was interesting given that I first saw Fontaine’s sister Olivia deHavilland in Selznick’s epic drama Gone With The Wind just the year before.

This was billed as a dramatic thriller, as well as a gothic romance, which immediately made me think of Jane Eyre. Interestingly enough, I noticed a few similarities with Charlotte Brontë’s classic tale (and not only because Fontaine did play Jane Eyre in 1943 with Orson Welles). Both of the protagonists in Jane Eyre and Rebecca are still haunted by his first wife. A wealthy man named Maxim de Winter (Olivier) meets a young, naive girl who accompanies her employer on a trip to Monte Carlo. Their first meeting wasn’t exactly a ‘meet cute,’ in fact he was rather rude towards her [yet another similarity to Jane Eyre‘s Rochester] but after a whirlwind romance, the two got married and he took her to his estate, Manderley.

Rebecca1940Stills1

Now by the time the film starts, Rebecca is no longer in the picture, but no doubt her presence is felt throughout the film. Rebecca is definitely an overwhelming force despite the character never being shown on screen, not even in flashback. And that’s definitely what the filmmaker wanted Fontaine’s character to feel throughout the movie, that she’s overwhelmed by this unseen force who clearly still has a strange hold on everyone in Manderley.

The real suspense starts to build as soon as the couple get to Manderley. The big, expansive mansion looks and feel eerie, not unlike the ominous Thornfield Hall with a strange woman locked in the attic. The house is almost a character in itself, and it definitely plays a big role in the story. Manderley’s domineering, creepy housekeeper Mrs Danvers (Judith Anderson) definitely gives me the hibijibis. I really feel for Fontaine’s character and what she had to go through, not only did she have to endure her husband’s coldness, she also has to deal with a deranged, obsessive housekeeper who wanted to be rid of her. I kept wondering though why they couldn’t just fire Mrs. Danvers, I mean she is after all an employee at the estate. Right from the very moment she’s introduced in the movie, Mrs. Danvers is one of the most spine-chilling characters that really gets under my skin. I think the most terrifying scenes in the movie is when she gives Fontaine’s character a tour to Rebecca’s room, reminiscing on her former master and her obsession with her.

Rebecca1940Still2

Mrs. Danvers: [just as the second Mrs. de Winter reaches for the door] 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.

Mrs. Danvers: Do you think the dead come back and watch the living?

The Second Mrs. de Winter: [sobbing] N-no, I don’t believe it.

Mrs. Danvers: Sometimes, I wonder if she doesn’t come back here to Manderley, to watch you and Mr. de Winter together. You look tired. Why don’t you stay here a while and rest, and listen to the sea? It’s so soothing. Listen to it.

[turning away towards the window as the second Mrs. de Winter slips out the door]
Mrs. Danvers: Listen. Listen to the sea.

Rebecca1940Still3

You could say Judith was quite the scene-stealer in this film as you simply can’t shake her for some time after you’ve seen this film. She’s THAT creepy. The rest of the cast is equally excellent in their Oscar-nominated performances. I’m quite impressed by the luminous Joan Fontaine who’s the heart of the film whomI sympathize with right away. She went from being this frail, nervous and self-conscious young bride in the beginning, to a woman who’s able to hold her own by the end. Her character definitely *grew up* as the film progressed and her transformation is very believable. Sir Olivier is perfectly suited as the wealthy tortured soul type, hardened and enigmatic. The British thespian has played another Bronte’s dark hero, Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights just the year before, sounds like the type of roles he could play in his sleep. There’s not much chemistry between him and Fontaine but given the plot of the story it sort of make sense. Based on the documentary included in the disc, apparently Olivier was keen on having his then-girlfriend Vivien Leigh to play Fontaine’s role, but I personally don’t think Leigh would suit the role as well.  George Sanders plays this weasel character who’s trying to frame Maxim, I’ve seen him play a similar character in All About Eve not too long ago. His character seems too lively to be really sinister or threatening however, I think out of all the characters, I feel that his performance is the least convincing to me.

Rebecca1940_Olivier_Fontaine

As to be expected from the Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock truly delivered the goods with this one. This is his second feature adaptation from Daphne Du Maurier novel and clearly the material suits his style. The gothic story lends itself to the eerie, bone-chilling atmosphere, and Hitchcock is the master at building up the suspense and that dreaded sense of impending doom. Every frame, sound, ambiance is carefully crafted, coupled with Franz Waxman‘s ominous score for a total immersive experience. I didn’t see the twist coming which is always nice when that happens. Yet Rebecca isn’t reliant on that twist for you to truly appreciate the film because it’s more than just a gimmick. The story is rich, with a deep, layered symbolism that stays with you long after the credits. It’s also a beautifully-shot film with the lush setting, gorgeous costumes, and evocative lighting that brings out its supernatural quality.

This is definitely one of those films that lives up to the hype. The heightened suspense and tension is what I expect from Hitchcock — he brought Du Marier’s story alive and kept me engrossed from start to finish. Just like the literary work it’s based on, this film has that timeless quality that would stand the test of time. I am surprised that this is the only Hitchcock film that ever won Best Picture Oscar. I definitely think it’s Oscar-worthy but I haven’t seen his later works such as Vertigo and Rear Window that’s far more popular than this one. I definitely have a lot of Hitchcock to catch up on and I’m looking forward to it!

4.5 out of 5 reels


This is the fifth entry to my 2014 Blind Spot Series, as first started by Ryan McNeil at The Matinee, and continued by Dan Heaton at Public Transportation Snob .


What do you think of  REBECCA? I’d love to hear what you think!

Classic Flix Category Debut with Hitchcock’s “Rebecca” Review

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…

rebeccaposterThis 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?

Fontaine and Olivier
Fontaine and Olivier

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.