Archive for Daphne DuMaurier

FORBIDDEN DIVAS RIP

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 3, 2020 by dcairns

Certainly, what we’ve been missing here at Shadowplay is an Olivia de Havilland appreciation, and who better to provide it than David Melville Wingrove?

Who Killed the Black Widder?

“A halo can be a lovely thing – but you must be able to take it off now and again.”

  • Olivia De Havilland, My Cousin Rachel

In 1952, Olivia de Havilland stood at the pinnacle of everything an actress in Hollywood could reasonably hope to achieve. She had made her screen debut at eighteen in the classic Warner Bros extravaganza A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935) and was the one actress in it not to be upstaged by the costumes. In her eight films with Errol Flynn, she had formed half of the most enduringly popular on-screen couple of the 30s. She had played a leading role in Gone with the Wind (1939) – the most commercially successful film of all time – as the ‘good girl’ Melanie Hamilton to Vivien Leigh’s ‘bad girl’ Scarlett O’Hara. When Warner Bros tried to prolong her contract illegally, she had taken the studio to court and won her freedom. She had rounded out the 40s by winning two Oscars for Best Actress, one for To Each His Own (1946) and one for The Heiress (1949). She was not, to put it mildly, what anyone could ever call an underachiever.

On a personal level, de Havilland had grown out of the shadow of her loving but controlling mother and her jealously competitive sister Joan Fontaine. Having been linked romantically to James Stewart and Burgess Meredith, John Huston and Howard Hughes, she had finally got married at the age of thirty to the writer Marcus Goodrich. In 1949, she had given birth to her son Benjamin and taken three years off from movies. Not that she had stayed at home washing nappies. Instead she had fulfilled a lifelong ambition by appearing on Broadway in Romeo and Juliet, in a 1951 staging that can be described politely as a succès d’estime. Apart from her on-and-off feud with her sister, she had lived with consummate discretion and good taste. Unusually for a Hollywood star, there had been no sleaze, no scandal and no dirty rumours of any sort. At the age of 35, Olivia de Havilland was a woman who had very little left to win. Her only wild card was how much she might have to lose.

Whatever she might have chosen to do in the early 50s, it was bound to involve a high level of risk. She had famously turned down the role of Blanche du Bois in the film of A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) stating that “a lady doesn’t say or do those things on the screen.” Her dilemma, in that case, was how to remain a lady while expanding her range as an actress into a new decade. That may have been part of what drew her to My Cousin Rachel (1952). The heroine of Daphne du Maurier’s novel is neither a ‘good girl’ nor a ‘bad girl’ but a woman who may be an angel or a demon. She is a glamorous and sophisticated Anglo-Italian countess of the 1830s who finds herself widowed and penniless and burdened by debts. She marries a wealthy Cornish gentleman who dies of unexplained causes just a few months after the wedding. But his estate does not go to his widow. It passes instead to his callow and naive young cousin, Philip Ashley. It is not wholly a surprise when Rachel shows up on his doorstep – and the young man starts to fall irresistibly under her spell.

At no point in the novel do we get any clue as to what Rachel is thinking. As in du Maurier’s most famous book Rebecca – the Alfred Hitchcock film of which had made a star of Joan Fontaine in 1940 – we know the title heroine only through what the other characters say about her. The novel is narrated entirely by Philip, who falls obsessively in love with Rachel although he suspects – and with good cause – that she may have poisoned his cousin. Soon enough, she starts brewing Philip her special herbal tisanes and he has every reason to suspect she is trying to poison him. That does not dim his ardour one bit. Our hero falls in love with Rachel, not despite the fact she may be a murderess but, more likely, because of it. It is even possible that Rachel poisoned one or both of her previous husbands, but still feels genuine love for Philip. The depths of masochism in this story are profound; its central love affair makes any film noir of the 40s look like a model of domestic bliss.

The question of Rachel’s innocence or guilt – which the book leaves unanswered – presents any film-maker with a dilemma. It is similar to the one faced by David Lean in Madeleine (1950) another film about a genteel Victorian lady who may or may not have poisoned her lover. “The public wants to know if she did it,” said Noël Coward bluntly, “and you don’t tell them.” There are levels of ambiguity we can accept more easily in a novel than in a big-budget movie. But these are the levels of ambiguity de Havilland serves up with such lethal but seductive expertise. She makes her entrance robed entirely in black and photographed from behind so we do not see her face. (She is bit like Count Dracula, fresh off the boat from Transylvania.) Once she lifts her veil, we are won over by her angelic expression and her mellifluous purr of a voice – but alarmed at the same time by her cold, hard, watchful eyes. It is obvious from the first that she is playing Philip (Richard Burton) the way a virtuoso pianist might play a baby grand. But that does not make her a killer. Or does it?

In her early scenes, her dark widow’s weeds are demure almost to the point of bring dowdy. But as she gains in her ascendancy over Philip, her gowns (although they are still black) become gradually more décolleté. Her most alluring dress is off-the-shoulder and topped with lace that suggests a black spider’s web. (The costumes by Dorothy Jeakins are a film unto themselves.) Before too many scenes have elapsed, My Cousin Rachel starts to revel in one of Hollywood’s most ill-kept secrets – namely that Olivia de Havilland, for all her gentility, was a stylish and extremely sexy woman. Her performance here owes mercifully little to Terry, the Psycho Bitch Sister from Hell in the ‘identical twins’ melodrama The Dark Mirror (1946). It is a fascinating foretaste of her role as Cousin Miriam in the campy Southern Gothic gore fest Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964). There is no way to separate the light and dark facets of either Miriam or Rachel. This woman is charming because she is deadly and deadly because she is charming. Her allure turns the entire audience into the hapless Philip. Had this film only been made in 3D, we too might be stretching out our hands and begging for a cup of tisane.

Nothing and nobody else in My Cousin Rachel ever rises to the level of its lead performance. Initially, de Havilland had hoped for either George Cukor or Mitchell Leisen to direct it. But Cukor decided ungraciously that she was “an actress without a secret” – and sought to cast Vivien Leigh or Greta Garbo instead. Leisen had directed her with triumph in Hold Back the Dawn (1941) and To Each His Own. Better still, he was a close friend who knew Olivia’s secrets as well as anyone in Hollywood ever could. Alas, he was under contract to another studio and 20th Century-Fox was unwilling to pay the money it would have cost to borrow him. Hence the director of My Cousin Rachel is the competent but wholly uninspired Henry Koster. Richard Burton – whom de Havilland described as “a rather coarse-grained gentleman with a rather coarse-grained talent” – does well by a role that consists of glowering and looking glum for the best part of two hours. In some shots, the backs of his hands are so hairy that we wonder if he will turn out to be the Wolf Man. His co-star cannot have been pleased when Burton got an Oscar nomination and she did not.

A good film that should have been a great one, My Cousin Rachel turned out to be Olivia de Havilland’s last role as a major Hollywood star. She divorced her husband, married again and moved to Paris. She played her last movie role in the schlock killer bees epic The Swarm (1978) but stayed active on TV for another decade. For years after she retired, there were rumours she was planning a comeback – most recently in a James Ivory film of the Henry James novella The Aspern Papers. But this and any number of other projects failed to happen and her status in later years was largely symbolic. The last surviving star of the pre-war studio era, she lived on as a gracious, witty and unfailingly articulate emissary of a bygone age. She became Hollywood’s own far more glamorous answer to the Queen Mother.

But no, she never did tell us if Rachel did it or not.

IN MEMORIAM DAME OLIVIA DE HAVILLND (TOKYO 1916-PARIS 2020)

David Melville

Without Feathers

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 25, 2009 by dcairns

Hitchcock slows down markedly after PSYCHO — at first because he spent a long time publicizing his monster hit, and then because he developed MARNIE for Grace Kelly, who proved to be unavailable for a year, and then because THE BIRDS was a more elaborate and technically complicated production than anything Hitch had attempted before. From here on, also, there seem to be more false starts, movies that never saw the light of day, screenplays that stalled, writers who fled into the night.

But this movie doesn’t strike me as the obvious start of a decline, not a bit, even if the structure is more flawed than the strong of masterpieces that came before it. Hitchcock seems to have greatly enjoyed working with Evan Hunter, despite misgivings all round about the script’s overlong opening and failure to fully integrate the human drama into the apocalyptic crisis. A letter from Hitch’s old collaborator Hume Cronyn, who was also married to BIRDS co-star Jessica Tandy, neatly skewers the screenplay’s failings — the character tensions have a way of dissipating, leaving nothing for the people to work through except the bird attack: our spoiled heiress heroine Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) is already a largely reformed character, the possessive mother (Tandy) isn’t really so terrible. And learning these undramatic facts eats up pages of boring conversation: photographs of people talking. Had these character dilemmas been allowed to fester, they could have actually been resolved via dramatic action at the film’s climax — since they’d all been cleared up, the movie’s ending cause Hitch considerable anxiety.

Another novelty logo, following on from VERTIGO, NORTH BY NORTHWEST and PSYCHO. Hitchcock seems to be the only filmmaker messing with studio logos at this time. Apart from Tashlin. Here, the Universal globe floats in a milky void — the same blank screen of death Jimmy Stewart topples into in the Special Sequence of VERTIGO, perhaps? There may be apocalyptic overtones here. Death for Hitchcock = a blank white screen.

No Saul Bass — the magnificent team built up over the previous movies starts to slowly fragment. But the titles are very good indeed. Hitch, like Kubrick and Wes Anderson, seems to have had a favourite font, although his is more classical than their sans-serif Futura. Bernard Herrmann has an advisory role here, supervising the electronic bird noise score. As with the avian visuals, the soundtrack is a mixture of the real and artificial.

Tasha, our Siamese, reacts blearily to the sound of birds from the TV.

San Francisco — Tippi — small boy whistles. This is a recreation of the TV commercial Hitch first spotted Hedren in. At one point, he’d planned to open on a montage of faces looking upwards at the unexpected cloud of gulls: arguably a stronger opening than this. But maybe too strong? The birds have to slowly flutter into this story.

Departing from Daphne DuMaurier’s short story (this is Hitch’s third DDM adaptation, although he denied any special interest in her work), and seeking perhaps to replicate the structural whammy of PSYCHO’s act II change of direction, Hitch planned with Hunter to begin in screwball comedy mode, dropping in little bird references, then shocking the audience with the ferocity of the second half. Evan Hunter would later regard this as a mistake. Screwball comedy is hard — by the 60s, hardly anybody could do it anymore, and Hunter had no form in this genre. The pet shop scene (with primo Hitchcock cameo) is nice, but then the film devolves into a strangely plodding, procedural account of Tippi’s following Rod Taylor out to Bodega Bay to deliver some love birds. The birds leaning into the curves as Tippi’s Aston Martin whizzes along is possibly the funniest moment in the movie, but feels a little too broad. This may be the problem — screwball is such a stylized tone of comedy, a transition into numinous horror would be an utter clash if you did it properly. So we have a romantic comedy that daren’t be too comical. Which is why the movie picks up enormously when the horror starts.

Then there’s Tippi. I like her fine. Fiona, watching along with me, is more critical. The point where Fiona wins any argument is when Suzanne Pleshette enters the frame. Pleshette is just inherently more interesting. She occupies the eye. We want to know more about her. Turns out the character’s backstory isn’t too exciting, but we’d still rather hear about it than Tippi’s glamorous hi-jinks. (This is the Fiona-and-I “we”, not the royal Kael “we”, you understand.) They’ve done everything they can to dowdy her down, but she’s still more alluring than Tippi, and she’s unusual.

Hitchcock said he found himself pushing the film more towards Tippi’s character POV as he made the film, departing somewhat from his usual predetermined approach. This seems to work: use of POV makes the film seem more like a thriller in the early stages than it ought to, preparing us for the genre-switch. Tippi’s approach to Rod’s place by boat, her leaving the love birds, and her escape, are all shot exactly like a sincere suspense sequence, so that the birdstrike doesn’t totally come out of the blue, so to speak.

With admirable economy, the gull-swoop now gets Rod and Tippi together (unlucky for Tippi: with THE TIME MACHINE and ZABRISKIE POINT on his CV, he’s MR. APOCALYPSE). “It’s just peroxide,” says an attendant townsperson, tending the wound. “You ought to know what that is, judging by the state of you,” remarks Fiona, somewhat cattily, I thought.

So now we’re into “hang around and get to know the folks” mode. There’s Jessica Tandy, as Hitch’s third overbearing mother in as many films (admittedly, Mrs Thornhill, Mrs Bates and Mrs Brenner are varied in other ways) — Hume Cronyn warned that the possessive mom was something of a cliché in American culture at the time. The powerful mom weakens Taylor’s character, then turns out to be weak herself, and the conflict with Tippi fizzles out before the climax. Then there’s the extraordinary Veronica Cartwright, later a genius screamer in ALIEN and INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHER (Philip Kaufman version — almost my favourite) who is a terrifying child: every facial feature seems locked in a deadly war of attrition with its neighbours. She totally grew into that striking visage. Here, it’s like it’s growing into her, or something, I don’t even know what I’m saying. Her dialogue, which seems kind of too young for her, kind of emerges in a slightly mechanical way at times, but my God she can freak out. Her hysteria is sensational. A taste of things to come.

And there’s more Pleshette, which is good. And little foretastes of doom, but we’re more than halfway and still waiting for the movie to start. Everybody did notice the script’s front-loaded lumpen-ness, but they couldn’t solve it. Then, all hell breaks loose, and as everybody knew it would, the movie starts to work. Hitchcock, facing the biggest technical challenge of his career, aces it.

The children’s party is good, nasty fun (after we get past the turgid scene between Tippi and Rod, written by Hitch himself, alas), but only a starter before the school mayhem. And the farmer with his eyes pecked out: rammed home by two cuts taking us closer and closer to the orb-less stiff, like James Whale’s intro of Karloff in FRANKENSTEIN. An editing strategy copied numerous times since, notably by Spielberg (who also re-popularized VERTIGO’s exponential zoom trombone effect). The whole farmer scene is knockout. Just the shot of Tandy in the corridor is stunning. And she arrives in a truck with no dust, calmly, and leaves in a truck belching smoke and dust and panic.

The cops are no use at all.

The church scene, coming after that interminable two-hander between Tandy and Hedren, gets things up on their feet again. Hunter had to write extra verses for that song the children sing as the crows gather behind Tippi. Dramatic irony — poignancy — suspense — Hitch’s old line about the bomb under the table, we the audience know it’s there, but they the characters don’t. Tippi innocently puffing away at her ciggie the while.

Special effects mayhem! Cutting so frenetic yet clean and clear, it distracts us from some of the very odd special effects — the fact that the kids aren’t actually running down a hill — or rather, some of them are, the ones farthest from the camera, but the closer ones are on a treadmill in front of a yellow screen (Disney’s sodium vapor process, as grisly as that sounds). In all the madness, there are a couple of fakey shots with hand-operated crows, but a hundred other bits of artifice fly past — literally, fly past — while we’re digesting the one dodgy bird.

It’s all admirably sadistic.

And then the real meat of the film, the diner scene. Evan Hunter was rightly proud of his writing here. John Russell Taylor points out that the drunken Irish doomsayer is derived from various characters in Sean O’Casey’s plays, and a bit from O’Casey himself: JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK was worth it in the end. And everybody in that diner is an emblem of human attitudes in the face of disaster, from the bird expert (85-year-old Ethel Griffies, whom Hitch had seen on the London stage as a child, and made a mental note of: “Must work with her someday!”) to the hysterical woman who scapegoats Tippi. It’s like THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL, and also it’s the inspiration for THE MIST: Frank Darabont and Stephen King spun a whole movie out of this one sequence.

Charles McGraw! I never even realized he was in it before. When you meet him in a diner, as in THE KILLERS, you know you’re in trouble. I never recognized him because his face, described I think by The Guardian‘s John Patterson as “as beautiful as a knife,” has softened with age, become NORMAL. A shame.

Chaos! I dig the exploding man, but I don’t particularly dig those short static cuts of Tippi watching the burning petrol flow. It’s an interesting idea but for me it doesn’t come off. If the cuts were shorter? They’re already unusually short… Of course, naturalistically, Tippi should be in motion, her head turning to follow the burning gasoline. The idea of presenting that fluid motion in a series of snapshots is dramatic and striking, but it feels awkward. Some people have looked at it and said that Tippi Hedren can’t act, but if the sequence seems unconvincing it can’t be blamed on her: the reaction shots seem strange because of the stylization, not the performance.

After the gas station explodes, the ultimate Hitchcock God Shot, from on high, looking DOWN on the birds looking down on the scene of their triumph. A multiple exposure effect, with the fire filmed on the Universal lot, a matte painting by Albert Whitlock supplying the landscape, and matted-in gulls.

Tippi in the phone box as all hell breaks loose does remind me unfortunately a little of the “panic” scenes in AIRPLANE, with everyone screaming and shouting — the possibility of a topless woman or a couple of fencers passing through frame seems imminent. But soon we are back in the diner for the conclusion of that little play.

And the final siege of the house is excellent — particularly this slow pull-back, which seems like a foretaste of Sam Raimi and THE EVIL DEAD. This is where the character stuff should get settled, and there are hints of it, but I think Hitch may have been saving something for the climax — which he chose not to shoot. So Rod’s final choice between his mother and his lover isn’t quite there. In fact, that conflict is then folded away by the attack on Tippi in the attic. Of course, there’s no reason for her to go up there, but I have a feeling that if you watched the film in a cinema, the question wouldn’t arise. When two watch it together on DVD, one will always ask, “Where does she think she’s going?”

And the reason the bird attack doesn’t get the same praise as the shower scene in PSYCHO despite being possibly more elaborate, more brutal and more elegantly made, is that the soundtrack doesn’t back up the shock effect. The fluttering of wings is neither gently enough to make a striking contrast with the violence, nor loud enough to reinforce it the way Herrmann’s score does in the previous movie. Plus, I do think the scene might have been better darker, with the shaking flashlight doing more to dazzle the audience. That kind of piercing  optical pain would really enhance the effect.

Fiona does allow that Tippi is excellent at being shellshocked in greige lipstick. Indeed, all the heroines do excellent shock and terror (only Suzanne is a tough cookie).

Escape — through an apocalyptic birdscape (in the name of realism, everything should be streaked and striated white, until it forms a blinding void like the one the Universal logo sits amid at the film’s start). Note the convertible. Hunter’s scripted climax would have had the birds attack the car as it races off along winding roads, pecking the roof to shreds to get at the tasty, expensive morsels within. At the last moment, some kind of Marnie-esque Freudian revelation, coming from nowhere and going nowhere, was added by Hitch, so that Tippi comes to terms with her absent mother just as the roof flies off the Aston Martin, and then they escape. The idea of a bird-dominated San Francisco, with our feathered friends lining the Golden gate Bridge, was discussed, but never seriously plotted as part of the script.

Hunter was horrified by the additional lines, but equally horrified by Hitch’s deletion of the ending (Note: Hunter had his problems with Hitch, and certainly was very critical of THE BIRDS, but he loved and respected the director and would have liked to work with him again). What does the ending, as it stands, say? I think as a kid I experienced it as an abrupt halt, almost SIMON OF THE DESERT style, abruption + incompletion. Sort of what Hitch seems to have intended. The widescreen DVD, however, has followed Hitch’s original wishes and removed the THE END title (I think that’s the case — or maybe that title was never there and it’s the final Universal logo he objected to? Anyone know for sure?). And my feeling this time, as we stray behind with the roosting birdies, os that they’ve won. Our fleeing humans have nowhere to go and can’t outrun the next attack, but that’s not even the point. This little spot belongs to the birds, and this is the wave of the future.

This, it seems, is exactly what Evan Hunter disliked, this sense of doom and hopelessness. Rarely has an ending in which a family drive off into the sunrise seemed so bleak.

Mr and Mrs de Winter

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 10, 2009 by dcairns

Laying aside Charles Barr’s excellent English Hitchcock, I pick up Bill Krohn’s Hitchcock At Work and Leonard Leff’s Hitchcock and Selznick, as we enter the second half of Hitchcock Year.

reb1

The casting notes for REBECCA, Hitchcock’s first US production, are pretty funny, in a cruel sort of way. Hitch could be blithely dismissive of the talent arrayed to seduce him. As Selznick wheeled countless actresses past the plump director for his approval, Hitch wrote pocket-sized character assassinations of each: “Too much Dresden china,” “Too much gangster’s moll,” “”Too ordinary — too chocolate-box,” “No quality of gentility at all,” “”Too big and sugary,” “Good reading and test, but unattractive to look at,” “Too Russian looking,” “Homely,” “Read with a faint whiff of old lavender — very pale and uninteresting,” “Too matronly,” “Questionable personality and very snooty,” “Grotesque.”

Hitchcock even dismissed Rene Ray, who had popped up as a maid in THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, and Nova Pilbeam, whom he’d directed twice, even though Selznick was very keen on her.

Criterion have very helpfully supplied their splendid DVD of REBECCA with screen tests showing Vivian Leigh, Loretta Young, Margaret Sullavan, Anne Baxter and Joan Fontaine. The deal-breaker seems to be the line “I’m shy,” which sounds very odd coming from Loretta and especially Vivian. Laurence Olivier, already cast as Maxim de Winter, helped his wife by reading with her, but that accentuated the problem: she looks like she wants to leap out of shot and tear his trousers off. It’s strange to hear the same dialogue, which seemed inherently imbued with meaning and nuance when read by all the others, utterly flattened and robbed of all dramatic point.

Alma and Joan Harrison, Hitch’s assistant, seem to have preferred Baxter and Sullavan, who are both good — Sullavan isn’t so shy but she’s, as always, fascinating — but somehow Joan Fontaine emerged as the winner despite all sorts of anxieties being raised. Hitchcock would labour fantastically to get the required performance from her, and even in post-production the work continued, with many of her lines being dubbed on afterwards (this sometimes results in noticeable “lip-flap”).

rebecca

Hitchcock had come to Hollywood, with English producer Michael Balcon spluttering “Deserters!” in his wake, before war seemed certain, and signed with David O Selznick (the O stands for nothing) as producer and brother Myron Selznick as agent, unmindful of the obvious potential for conflict of interest in such an arrangement. Plans to make THE TITANIC were soon laid aside and it was decided that Hitch’s first American film would be a story set largely in England, Daphne du Maurier’s best-seller, which Hitch had tried to buy for himself. With JAMAICA INN and later THE BIRDS, Hitch would, shall we say, “freely adapt” DdM’s stories, but Selznick would stand for no liberties, pronouncing himself “shocked beyond words” at Hitch’s first treatment.

The documentary HITCHCOCK, SELZNICK AND THE DEATH OF HOLLYWOOD seems to suggest that Hitch had in mind turning Rebecca into one of his British chase thrillers, but in his book Leff suggests that the alterations were not that great. But the first credit of the film calls it a “picturization” of the novel, and that’s exactly what Selznick had in mind — translating the words to the screen as faithfully as possible. Censorship issues and length were the only factors that would convince him to alter anything.

This leads us to a central question — whose film is REBECCA? In later years Hitch was happy to ascribe the movie mainly to Selznick, who certainly oversaw the whole thing and approved every major decision. But you can’t direct by remote control, so a considerable amount of Hitchcock also seeps through. The major stylistic tropes are all Hitchcock’s, such as the confession scene, in which Hitch brilliantly avoids the need for flashback by moving the camera through space as if following the action of a scene that happened a year ago. Selznick was careful not to force casting decisions on Hitch, and given his obsessive nature, seems to have behaved as considerately as he could. Those lengthy memos are actually masterpieces of tact, slapping Hitchcock down when Selznick felt he’d missed a vital point or misplayed a moment, but always being careful to include praise and enthusiasm also.

Leff praises Selznick for introducing a new depth to Hitchcock’s work. I think he perhaps overstates this, given the emotional intensity of SABOTAGE, for instance, but REBECCA certainly unites this emotional maturity with an unusually sound structure, excellent casting, and of course enormous production values which Hitch could never have dreamed of in Britain. The miniatures of Manderlay, unlike the toy trains and houses of the Gainsborough pictures, are obviously massive and finely detailed, often looking entirely convincing, or else so madly elaborate as to make one doubt they could be specially constructed.

Titles: the Selznick logo, a sign hanging before a lavish mansion marked “Selznick International Studios” — is his studio his house? How cosy! Then another mansion, the ruins of Manderlay, visible after the camera has floated, ghostlike, through the front gate (a breakaway prop allows the camera’s passage) accompanied by Joan Fontaine’s VO. This is how the Second Mrs deWinter begins her narration of the novel, but given that the film features no other voice-over, a new interpretation can be placed on this passage: it could be interpreted as the voice of the First Mrs dW, Rebecca herself. Her faithful servant Mrs Danvers will later suggest that Rebecca returns to walk through the rooms of her former home…

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We begin afresh in dear old Monte, where Joan Fontaine as mousy lady’s companion “I” meets brooding widower Maxim DeWinter, played by Lawrence Olivier. Joan Fontaine, in her inadvertently funny score-settling autobiography No Bed of Roses (which could be subtitled The Complete Story of How Everyone I Ever Met Was perfectly Beastly To Me — sample sentence: “Vivien [Leigh] and I were to cross swords again in 1965.”) does seem to have good reason for resenting him. He of course, resented his wife not getting the part. When he used a rude word after blowing a take (“Though I’d seen it … written on walls and fences, I’d never heard it spoken aloud.”) Hitch cautioned the actor: “Joan is just a new bride.”

“Who’s the chap you married?” asked Larry.

“Brian Aherne,” said Joan with pride.

“Couldn’t you do better than that?” sneered Olivier.

Although Joan is actually quite well disposed towards Hitch (compared to just about everyone else, anyway) she did suspect him of a “divide and conquer” approach to the cast. It’s been suggested that Hitch coached the other actors into snubbing and slighting Joan the way “I” is snubbed and slighted by just about everybody in the film. On the other hand, it’s a pattern which repeated itself on plenty of films Hitchcock did NOT direct…

A cigarette in the cold cream.

Maxim — conceived by both du Maurier and Hitch as something of a boor, although Selznick seems not to have accepted this — rescues “I” from a life of indentured servitude to the monstrous Mrs Van Hopper (Florence Bates, the driving force behind the early scenes) with a brilliantly unromantic proposition: “I’m asking you to marry me, you little fool.” Not only is his wording questionable, he’s not even in the room with her when he says it. I’m not the most romantic guy, but I flatter myself that I wouldn’t shout a proposition like that through from the bathroom.

These early scenes are terrifically effective, with Hitch generating suspense from a romantic peril rather than a physical danger — will Joan get Larry and escape Florence? Of course she does, and then her troubles really start. REBECCA works as a romantic melodrama because it plucks its heroine from a humdrum, oppressive existence, and deposits her in an excitingly terrifying one. 

At his ancestral home, where he really shouldn’t have returned, Max introduces “I” to the servants, who proceed to make her as uncomfortable as they know how, particularly Mrs Danvers, inimitably played by Judith Anderson with mad staring eyes and fish-faced froideur. The script, credited to Joan Harrison and Robert E Sherwood (WATERLOO BRIDGE — Hitchcock later gave him the lion’s share of credit), with original “adaptation” by Michael Hogan and Philip MacDonald (a prolific Scot who also contributed to THE BODY SNATCHER, BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN and THE DARK PAST) does a fine job of balancing Joan’s struggle to reach her distant husband, to master the running of the house and establish her own personality in place of Rebecca’s, and her tentative investigation into Rebecca’s death.

“It’s the first one of your pictures that evokes a fairy tale.”

Filming was unusually fraught for Hitchcock, unused as he was to the kind of obsessively close supervision Selznick favoured. He would complain of having to summon the producer to the set to get approval of the last rehearsal before shooting it. Labouring with cinematographer George Barnes to create intricate shadows and lighting effects within the imposing sets, Hitchcock took his time, worrying Selznick. Hitchcock had boasted of the efficiency of his “cutting in the camera” approach, so Selznick couldn’t understand why things were taking so long. Of course, Hitchcock may have shot less coverage than average, but he used more angles, and he was dealing with an inexperienced star, and supporting players like Gladys Cooper and C Aubrey Smith had trouble with their lines.

One of the many pleasures of REBECCA is its finely calibrated use of humour — Hitchcock found it lacking in this regard, but he managed to incorporate some wit anyway. After Mrs Van Hooper is left at the wayside, the film darkens and deals with the travails of “I” as wife of Maxim and mistress of Manderlay, then gets a blast of comic energy from the entrance of George Sanders, through a window.

“A fellow comes in the door, you got nothing,” lectured Billy Wilder. “He comes in the window, you got a situation.”

Sanders, as unspeakable cad Jack Favell, has such fun being a rotter that he could easily derail the film’s Gothic earnestness (a friend of Kurt Vonnegut’s once defined the Gothic formula as “A young girl moves into an old house and gets the pants scared off her,”), but in fact he provides just the right amount of relief, and as the story progresses his blackmail scam, unveiled with much purring smarminess, becomes so vicious and offensive that he’s subsumed into the more serious drama.

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A word about George — one of those uber-English actors (he was actually Russian) for whom the word “yes” begins with several “m”s.  I love him deeply, and regret that he’s only in two Hitchcocks (he’s great fun in next week’s), so it was a pleasure to pick up Brian Aherne’s biography of him, A Dreadful Man. His autobiography, Memoirs of a Professional Cad, is also good value. But it doesn’t give the details, as Aherne does, of the unfortunate financial venture which nearly landed Sanders in trouble with the real authorities, a shady business in which Sanders was a senior partner, although he denied being aware of any of the details when the sorry affair came to court. The name of the company? Cadco.

Now, George’s casting in REBECCA, as a car salesman, invites one to ponder who would buy a used car from George Sanders, but really, who would buy shares in a company run by George Sanders, especially one called Cadco?

You can see your hand through it.

George’s entrance lifts the mood and injects fresh intrigue, providing contrast with Mrs Danvers’ big scene in Rebecca’s bedroom, where she shows “I” around, waxing lyrical over the translucent nightie. Hitchcock introduced the brilliant and scary idea of the mimed hair-brushing, the kind of touch Selznick was able to accept. This is a tough scene to write about because it’s all been said, really. But I think DOS’s addition of a freeze-frame on Danvers at the end is a very productorial kind of mistake. Hands-on guys like Selznick love to make the material do things it wasn’t designed to do, and in extreme cases you get something like the infamous “Love Conquers All” cut of Terry Gilliam’s BRAZIL, assembled by Universal boss Sid Scheinberg. Selznick obviously wanted to extend the shot, whereas Hitch intended to end the scene as soon as Joan leaves, obeying the rule that she’s our eyes and ears at this point of the film and we can’t be anywhere without her. Danvers’s famous trick of entering and leaving a scene unseen — like Wodehouse’s Jeeves, who “sort of shimmered, and was gone,” — is really a result of Hitchcock’s adherence to POV. He abandons the dramatic tension of showing Danvers enter, unnoticed by “I,” in favour of making us share the heroine’s shock at the sudden arrival.

Truffaut: “It’s an interesting approach that is sometimes used in animated cartoons.

Droopy: “I do this to him all through the picture.”

Selznick’s freeze-frame is very obvious, but this wasn’t a period when such things were done for effect. Hitchcock would have dismissed the freeze as distracting, whereas Selznick, having seized upon it as a way to make the footage do what he wanted, was blind to its technical inadequacy. This might also account for some of the bad dubbing.

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Enjoying the film with me, Fiona nevertheless asked, with some justification, how it was that Mrs Danvers (“Danny” to her friends) managed to keep her job after going all weird here, then tricking Joan into wearing the upsetting dress, and then trying to talk her into defenestrating herself to death. Narrative pace is the filmmakers’ best defense against such plausibilist arguments.

You thought that I loved Rebecca? You thought that? I hated her!

Hitchcock talking nonsense: “Of course, there’s a terrible flaw in the story, which our friends, the plausibles, never picked up. On the night when the boat with Rebecca’s body in it is found, a rather unlikely coincidence is revealed: on the very evening she is supposed to have drowned, another woman’s body is picked up two miles down the beach. And this enables the hero to identify that second body as his wife’s. Why wasn’t there an  inquest at the time the unknown woman’s body was discovered?”

Wrong and wrong: the body was discovered two months later, not two miles away, making it less of a coincidence. And the script is quite clear that there was an inquest. Maxim and Rebecca had presented such a convincing sham of a happy marriage that no awkward questions were asked.

Stiff and, as David Mamet has said, “grudging” in his performance, Olivier is nevertheless quite effective here. Maxim is a romantic, tortured hero in the Mr Rochester mold, but without the humour — this plays to Olivier’s weaknesses, turning them into strengths. The confession scene gives him something to really get his teeth into: you need a stage-trained actor for sustained scenes like this.

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Maxim confesses all to “I” in the boathouse, Hitchcock’s strongest bit of personalized storytelling. As a sop to the censor, Maxim is no longer guilty of murder, as in the novel, but of concealing a death. Provoked horribly by his sinful wife (his hyperbolic descriptions of how wicked she was seem unreliable, but we’ll later find out he’s quite right) he hits her, and then she trips and bangs her head and dies. Not his fault at all. For any alert viewer, Maxim is actually more guilty in the film than the book, since at least in the book he admits everything.

Still, Selznick and Hitch evidently want us to accept his version of events, since from his confession onwards, Maxim becomes co-protagonist, meaning that Hitchcock can shoot scenes in which Olivier is present and Fontaine is not. This allows him to accelerate the pace, cutting back and forth between Larry and Joan’s separate adventures, with Joan in jeopardy from a now-clearly-barmy Mrs D (I wonder what the deal is with Mister Danvers?) as Larry clears up his blackmail/legal difficulties by speaking to Rebecca’s secret London physician, played by Leo G Carroll, from now on a Hitchcock favourite. Hitchcock’s most successful films must always find a way to exploit the subjective effects which are his speciality. Here we have Fontaine as the audience’s eyes and ears for two-thirds of the story, with that role divided between her and Olivier at the end. There is one scene, involving Australian character actor and former silent comic Billy Bevan as a police constable, which is purely expository and involves neither one of them, and I feel it’s a bit of a miscalculation, although it’s brief and I always welcome Bevan in faux-cockney mode.

I’m afraid there’ll have to be another inquest.

At this point Fiona identified a curious inconsistency: Mrs Danvers tells us that she served Rebecca since she was a bride, and then that Rebecca had a doctor in London whom she had seen secretly even before her wedding. Yet the pseudonym used by Rebecca deWinter at the doctor’s was “Mrs Danvers.” This is odd since, at the start of her visits, when she was single, she presumably had never met Mrs Danvers. Presumably… Perhaps it’s just an intriguing inconsistency to hint at further, unrevealed truths, perhaps involving “Danny” and Rebecca having been acquainted in secret at an earlier date than officially admitted. That du Maurier lesbian subtext is looming larger.

“I knew the character was meant to be something of a lesbian,” says Dame Judith in interview, “Not that I knew very much about lesbians then. Indeed, I still don’t.” As if butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth.

According to Hitchcock, his battles with Selznick extended even to the closing shot. The producer purportedly wanted smoke from the blazing Manderlay to form a letter “R” in the sky. “Can you imagine?” Hitch asked Peter Bogdanovitch, wide-eyed in mock-horror. Hitch’s solution, the burning of the monogrammed negligee-case on Rebecca’s pillow, is of course more tasteful, (and anticipates CITIZEN KANE) but it’s also planted by that object’s inclusion in the dialogue earlier. Author Leonard Leff is very big on Hitch’s use of objects to express emotion. He also believes that Hitch learned a lot from Selznick, which is a more debatable point. I think having a producer challenge his ideas was useful to Hitch. I’m not sure Selznick’s power of total veto was so positive. But the creative tension undoubtedly produced something memorable with REBECCA.

Selznick allowed some slight departure from the novel (which Fiona’s read) in sparing Maxim a blinding (Mr Rochester-style) in the fire. I guess since he’s no longer guilty of murder he’s no longer deserving of such punishment. The unscathed lovers embrace, having gone through a psychological opening-up that looks forward to the analytical drama of SPELLBOUND and MARNIE. The past cleansed by fire.

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