Saturday, December 25, 2010

REBECCA (1940)

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REBECCA (Director: Alfred Hitchcock) (Screenplay: Philip MacDonald and Michael Hogan, based on the novel by Daphne Du Maurier).

The best picture winner in 1940 was REBECCA, the second straight win for producer David O Selznick, and, more importantly, the first Hollywood film for director Alfred Hitchcock, who was about to begin an amazing run of both popular and critically acclaimed films there, eventually becoming known as the "master of suspense".  Amazingly, REBECCA is his only film to ever win best picture(even more amazing, he himself never won for best director).  While it is a polished and classy production, well made and well acted, I think it pales in comparison to many of his later classics, not to mention some of his earlier English films.
Hitchcock began his illustrious career in the British film industry in the 1920's at the Gainsborough Pictures studio; interestingly, one of his first films, 1927's THE LODGER, featured a plot about an innocent man wrongly accused of murder, a premise that he would rework and rework time and again for the next fifty years!  Although his British films are uneven, (he himself referred to 1934's WALTZES FROM VIENNA as "the lowest ebb of my career".) he quickly reached a high level of prominence as he made excellent thrillers like 1935's THE THIRTY NINE STEPS, and 1938's THE LADY VANISHES.  Inevitably, Hollywood came to call, and he signed a seven year contract with Selznick.  The two had an often adversarial relationship, with Selznick's micromanaging memos angering Hitchcock to the point where he edited the film in camera, shooting scenes in a manner in which they could only possibly be edited together the way he wanted them to be.
He may have been the master of suspense, but with REBECCA  Hitchcock made more of a romantic drama, with some ghost story elements, rather than a suspense film.  In it, Joan Fontaine plays a young woman (who's first name is never mentioned), who, while vacationing as a paid companion to an older woman, meets Maxim De Winter(Laurence Olivier), a good looking, wealthy middle aged man; they quickly fall in love and marry, and all seems well until they return to his palatial estate of Manderlay, where the memory of his deceased first wife, Rebecca, is inescapable, and threatens to wreck their marriage.

Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier

Fontaine, who was not a well known actress at the time,  is excellent as the young bride in over her head; she is immediately likable and garners our sympathy easily, which is important since most of the film is told from her point of view.  Olivier is also good, managing to be both romantic and charming in the first part of the film, and withdrawn and mysterious in the second, and he does what he can with a long, exposition heavy speech that he gives late in the film.  But the movie is really stolen by Judith Anderson as the villainous house maid Mrs Danvers,who is obsessed with the memory of Rebecca; with her pale skin, protruding nose, tightly bound hair and single black outfit, Andrerson's Danvers is a truly ghostlike and frightening figure.  I love the way that Anderson gives her voice a flat, cold tone that makes even the most pleasant words sound like a threat.  Her best scene comes when she quietly but forcefully tries to talk Fontaine's character into committing suicide; without overplaying it, she almost makes suicide seem like a logical conclusion for the young bride.  Another interesting element of her character is the implication that her obsession with the dead Rebecca may have more to it than a maid remembering her mistress; the fact that she keeps Rebecca's now empty room exactly the way she liked when she was alive, and that she praises the dead woman's beauty more than once, implies a possible sexual interest.  Hitchcock would return to giving  homosexual leanings to his villains in other films like STRANGERS ON A TRAIN and NORTH BY NORTHWEST, and while the fact that it always a villain that is gay makes them homophobic, it also does add some interesting texture to the characters.

Joan Fontaine and Judith Anderson

The early scenes, with the romantic leads meeting and falling for each other, are charming and lively, and Olivier gets to deliver one of the great movie proposals: "I'm asking you to marry me, you little fool."  The shift in tone to darker drama is effective, one nice touch is the way Hitchcock shoots the Mandalay estate, which looks big and beautiful when the married couple first get there, but gets much darker and more foreboding as the specter of Rebecca's memory is cast over it.  He also pulls off one terrific tracking shot that starts with Fontaine sitting at a dinner table with Olivier for their first meal at Mandlay; the camera slowly pulls back to reveal how enormous the table is and how they are both flanked by servants, until Fontaine herself seems to shrink, effectively illustrating how overwhelmed she is.
Unfortunately, after a strong start, the film's story looses momentum, with too many scenes of the forlorn Fontaine wandering around Manderlay; Hitchcock films rarely sag, but this one does, and other than the aforementioned dinner table shot, and the big fiery conclusion, there are few memorable visuals or camera setups to be found.  Also, like GONE WITH THE WIND from a year before, too many big dramatic moments are revealed in the final third of the film, pushing it into melodrama, and moving the story away from Fontaine's character and her conflict with Mrs Danvers, which is the most interesting part of the story.  Also, the film lacks the dark wit that make so many Hitchcock films a joy to watch, and that are a big part of why they hold up so well decades later.  Indeed, even his little walk on cameo comes at the end and is barely noticeable.

Although it's easy to see why the Academy would give the award to a stately  and well made film like REBECCA, it is not my favorite of the year that also produced Howard Hawks's HIS GIRL FRIDAY, Walt Disney's PINOCCHIO, and Hitchcock's own second release that year, FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT.