Monday, March 20, 2006

Film Review - Rebecca

It is hard to imagine that the only film from director Alfred Hitchcock’s comprehensive filmography to receive an Academy Award for Best Picture was the one project with the least ‘Hitchcockian’ mannerisms for which he is world renowned for today, but it’s true. Truth be told, Rebecca, based on the novel by Daphne Du Maurier, was more of a David O. Selznick production then your typical Alfred Hitchcock picture. Selznick was in charge of the highly expensive adaptation of the now-classic Civil War period piece, Gone with the Wind, starring Cary Grant and Vivien Leigh, and while this production preoccupied a vast majority of his time, he was still able to keep Hitchcock on a tight leash. For the British director who up to this point had never directed a film in America before, he had little influence on the direction in which the picture was going and he reluctantly obliged with the producer’s demands. And while Rebecca went on to win for Best Picture of 1940, Hitchcock himself lost out in the Best Director category to John Ford for The Grapes of Wrath. He would be nominated four more times in his career but would never lay claim to the coveted golden statuette. Hitchcock affirmed in later interviews what many had come to accept, ‘he’ never won an Academy Award, Rebecca included.

Laurence Olivier provides a dry wit to the lead character, George Fortescu Maximillian de Winter (Maxim for short), in much the same light as he did for Wuthering Heights one year earlier. There unquestionably is sexual chemistry between him and Joan Fontaine, this in spite of his objections to her being cast opposite him (he really wanted Vivien Leigh for the role). For the most part Maxim is seen as a rather placid figure but it is the twist near the end, the revelation of the infamous Rebecca’s true demise, which truly elevates the audience’s absorption of the character to a whole new level.

Joan Fontaine is simply remarkable as the timidly apprehensive Second Mrs. de Winter (as with the novel the feature film adaptation is based on her character is never named). It may however come as a surprise to some that not only was Fontaine not the initial choice of either DOS or director Alfred Hitchcock but she also never placed on the short list of actresses considered for the role. In fact it was quite a stroke of luck that Hitchcock met Fontaine at a Hollywood dinner party shortly before production on Rebecca was set to begin and thought she would be perfect for the part. Originally when Olivier was cast as Maxim de Winter, he insisted that Vivien Leigh be cast opposite him in the film. At the time Rebecca went into production he had been romantically linked to the sexy starlet of Gone with the Wind, news that caused quite a scandal in Hollywood because both stars were married to other people. Nonetheless, her screen test with the director went so badly (not even executives at DOS who were incessant that she remain pre-occupied with another film project while Gone with the Wind went through a lengthy post-production were impressed) she was turned down for the role.

Good thing too. Leigh as a woman is too confident and independent with herself for an audience viewing Rebecca to take seriously in the role of an innocent, naïve young woman thrown head first into a strange new world in which she is caught way over her head and yet is too headstrong in love to turn back and admit defeat. The parting remarks of the corpulent Mrs. Van Hopper, Fontaine’s repulsive former employer, reinforce the idea that she will never look back least she face humiliation. In this way the audience identifies with her. We are embarrassed for her, not by her, when things go tragically wrong just as when they appear to be looking up. She is shy and quiet yet filled with such a burst of energy as to be accepted by her new social peers that you can’t help but root for her.

Judith Anderson gives a frighteningly enveloping performance as Mrs. Danvers, the head maid of Manderly who as the story reveals shared an unusually confidential relationship with the late-Rebecca. While in the end the Hays office whose production code restrictively governed how motion pictures were produced (and people complain about the censorship of the MPAA today) eliminated any direct reference to (as director Alfred Hitchcock put it) Mrs. Danvers and Rebecca’s intimately proto-sexual bond – in other words, that they were lesbians – was eliminated from the final print, Hitchcock was not one to let such restrictions ties down his artistic vision. There are enough allusions in the film, including Mrs. Danvers’s line that Rebecca’s underwear was handmade by cloistered nuns (a moment of particular enjoyment for anyone in on the inside joke), to create the suggestion that the two were indeed lesbians in the minds of the audience without having to directly say it. As for Anderson herself, she gives a remarkable intimate performance, surprising given that this was only the second film role of her career (the first belong to the 1933 gangster film, Blood Money). The final climatic sequence in which Mrs. Danvers is engulfed in the flames that have ravished Manderly, one of the more memorable scenes in Rebecca, is truly a highlight of her career.

Unlike any other Alfred Hitchcock production, before or since, Rebecca is respectively dialogue driven. This was of course a stipulate demand of producer David O. Selznick. Some how Hitchcock makes it work. While it is arguably slow to start off with, it becomes more tolerable, even gratifying, as the story progresses over the course of its two hour plus running time. This said however there are unmistakably specific lines of dialogue which don’t translate well from their literary source to the big screen. For example, when Maxim de Winter says to The Second Mrs. de Winter while holding her in a powerful embrace, “I want to make violent love to you behind a palm tree”, it just comes off as ungainly. Common sense would dictate that it would be ‘under’ not ‘behind’ a palm tree and even if it were meant to be ‘behind’ it doesn’t make sense because there is no cover at all behind a palm tree. It’s a stick in the ground, nothing more. And finally, why ‘violent love’? Shouldn’t it be ‘passionate’? Whatever the grievances against this particular line of dialogue, clearly it doesn’t fit within the context of the film.

There is on the other hand one scene in particular, easily the most ‘Hitchcockian’ in the entire film, that works better on film then it ever would have simply on paper. It is the scene in which having just yelled at his second wife for covering up the small statue she broke earlier responds to her question of whether he is happy with her or not by saying, “Happiness is something I know nothing about”. He then turns and says to her, “Oh, look … there’s the one where I left the camera running on the tripod, remember?” as home movies from their honeymoon project onto a screen before their eyes. Vibrantly brilliant.

Sure, Rebecca is flawed, probably more so then any other early Hitchcock project (with the only exceptions being Murder! and possibly The Ring), and it is agonizingly long (two hours plus), but surprisingly when you reach the end you’ll be more satisfied with it then you were an hour into it, guaranteed. This is not to say you’ll run right out and purchase the DVD, but it will be a more tolerable experience if you suffer through the first hour and give it a chance.

My Rating: **** out of 5 (Grade: B)