d. Alfred Hitchcock / USA / 130 mins.
Although I have a general distaste for melodrama, I have an intense admiration and love for Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca, his first film in America. It is a melodrama, to be sure, but one in the gothic and psychological thriller tradition. Masterfully accomplished, it fused two great creative forces – Hitchcock and producer David O. Selznick – into one spectacular film.
Hitchcock had become interested in Daphne du Maurier's 1938 novel Rebecca while working in England (although at the time refused to pay the high price for its rights). The film was a solid first collaboration for Hitchcock and Selznick, no doubt appealed to both their sensibilities – Selznick for the drama and romance, Hitchcock for the psychology and ghoulishness. The plot focuses on a young, beautiful woman (Joan Fontaine) who rises from a service position to aristocracy when she meets and falls in love with a wealthy widower named Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier). Their marriage seems almost an afterthought, and he quickly brings her home to his country estate named Manderley, which is haunted by the ghost of his first wife, Rebecca. Okay, it's not officially haunted by her ghost, but it might as well be: her presence and aura have infused every aspect of Manderley, and all who pass through can't seem to stop comparing the new Mrs. de Winter (for Fontaine's character is never given a name of her own) to the old Mrs. de Winter (who we never see but construct in our head). Rebecca's greatest fan might be Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), the head housekeeper at the estate who instantaneously resents the new wife and charts a course of personal destruction.
The film is a success from general entertainment to its technical aspects. There's a wonderful score by Franz Waxman, and the sets are impeccable. The acting is resolute, with three (Olivier, Fontaine, and Anderson) earning Oscar nods. Olivier, fresh off of a breakthrough cinematic performance in William Wyler's Wuthering Heights (he's about the only good thing in that movie), is crisp here, a man haunted by memory in the most unlikely of ways. Fontaine is perfectly fragile as the worried and belittled wife who is perpetually stuck the tar-like omnipotence of Rebecca. It is tough to watch her whittled away by Mrs. Danvers, her own sanity seemingly on the brink of collapse (although this might not be due entirely to her acting, as we shall soon consider). I mentioned how I tend to find melodrama rather ingratiating, but for my money, Olivier and Fontaine put on one of the most succulent scenes of melodrama in all of cinema in a small cabin when Maxim reveals to his new wife some, shall we say, compelling details about his relationship with Rebecca. The music, the weather, Fontaine and Olivier in pained turmoil: it's timeless.
The supporting cast is strong in the unsavory department. Sanders, best known as the vitriolic critic in All About Eve, gives the film one of its delicious villains. The second is Anderson is absolutely chilling as Mrs. Danvers, Manderley's head housekeeper, so obsessed with the late Rebecca that she invokes genuine fear in the new Mrs. de Winter. Anderson too seemed willing to go where Hitchcock wants her to go but where the 1940s censors wouldn't have allowed; her adoration and possibly homicidal defense of Rebecca's memory is flat out sexual in the most bizarre way, and its innocence on the page is manifestly palpable through the lens of Hitchcock's camera. In contrast to the polished and beautiful blonde persona the new Mrs. de Winter embodies, Danvers is straitlaced and manipulative, her hair pulled back tightly and always draped in black. Danvers is the archetypal opposite of the Hitchcock blonde: an ambitious predator, no doubt reminiscent of the stern Jesuits from Hitchcock's childhood.
Rebecca won Best Picture of 1940 in a crowded field of terrific nominees: Charles Chaplin's The Great Dictator; Joseph L. Mankiewicz's The Philadelphia Story; Wyler's noir The Letter; Hitchcock's other release from that year, Foreign Correspondent; and two films from John Ford, The Long Voyage Home and The Grapes of Wrath (which, in all honesty, is the better picture). The film was nominated for eleven awards overall, including one for Best Director. It would be the first of five that Hitchcock didn't win (it went rightfully to Ford for Wrath). This is one of Hitchcock's great films, although it is always obscured by his more accomplished (and yes, greater) productions. It is not as good as Rear Window, Vertigo, Strangers on a Train, Notorious, Psycho, The 39 Steps, or a handful of his other productions, but it is also a fundamentally different picture for Hitchcock (ironic too that the Master of Suspense would only see this film win Best Picture). Although it must stand at the altar of his later films, it is a top-down masterpiece of high order on its own.
Perhaps no other Hitchcock movie has a more gossipy behind-the-scenes story than Rebecca. After all, the film pitted the megalomaniacal (and incredibly talented) producer David O. Selznick against a director of equal professional self-esteem. Although it is thanks to Selznick that Hitchcock received a contract to come to America and begin shooting films, Hitchcock never imagined himself forgoing his artistic and creative instincts. Predictably, they butted heads. First, it was the cast – for Maxim, Hitchcock wanted Robert Donat, but Selznick preferred Leslie Howard, Melvyn Douglas, or William Powell. For cinematographer, Hitchcock wanted Harry Stradling (with whom he had worked on Jamaica Inn) but Selznick wanted George Barnes, who eventually won an Oscar for the film. They feuded on the script, which saw multiple drafts: Selznick warned Hitchcock to be faithful to du Maurier's novel, but the first draft included all sorts of bonuses put in by Hitchcock and his writing team. (Hitchcock wanted to include flashbacks of Rebecca; Selznick, wisely it should be noted, nixed that idea.) Selznick brought in Robert Sherwood, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, to polish the script that was co-written by frequent Hitchcock collaborator Joan Harrison, but the director still managed to include some his own zingers.
For the role of the new Mrs. de Winter, Selznick wanted Vivian Leigh (whom Olivier was bedding at the time), but the part eventually went to long-time Selznick squeeze Fontaine. Hitchcock liked her, but Rebecca came in the highest reaches of the director's "actors are cattle" mantra and pushed her perhaps more than he had ever pushed an actress. Today we might consider it a violation of the Geneva Conventions. He exacerbated Olivier's dislike for her and openly admitted such; he threw her a birthday party and didn't request any of the film's other stars attend; he gave Olivier the day off and shot her in close-ups with a badgering stand-in voice for Olivier off-camera. After forcing her to cry for multiple takes, she told Hitchcock she didn't have any tears left. "I asked her what it would take to make her resume crying," Hitchcock recalled, according to biographer Patrick McGilligan. "She said, 'Well, maybe if you slapped me.' I did, and she instantly started bawling."
Hitchcock had the film to himself initially, while Selznick labored over Gone With The Wind, but once production was completed Selznick turned his attention back to Hitchcock. He visited the set and second-guessed many of Hitchcock's decisions. But the director got his comeuppance fair and square: if Selznick was going to look over his shoulder obsessively, then Hitchcock would give Selznick very little material to play with in post-production. Famous for his intense storyboarding, Hitchcock seemed to edit Rebecca in his head and in the camera, producing very little by way of superfluous material and alternative takes. (Hitchcock boasted that Selznick didn't understand "my goddamn jigsaw method of cutting.") The gamesmanship continued, with Selznick feeding Hitchcock suggestions after watching the dailies and Hitchcock tweaking those suggestions (and thus tweaking Selznick's patience), often for the better, according to those on set. The final product is a collaboration in every sense: it is Selznick's script, Hitchcock's visuals, Selznick's post-production details, Hitchcock's untouchable nuance.
The history has been well documented even beyond what I've written, but I think it's of utmost importance for the purposes of this film criticism as well. It is necessary to consider that if Selznick had had his way, Hitchcock would have obeyed as willing as directors in Hollywood, and if Hitchcock had had his way, Selznick could probably have just gone to hell. Their professional relationship was instantaneously strained by their time together on Rebecca. They collaborated officially on two other films – Spellbound and The Paradine Case, neither of which are anywhere close to the greatness of Rebecca. When you read what Hitchcock and Selznick wanted to accomplish separately, it's difficult not to believe Rebecca might have turned out to be a second-class melodrama. It was the forced cooperation between the men, each giving and taking, that seems to thrust the film forward, first to immediate acclaim and now into the annals of cinema.
13 October 2008
d. Alfred Hitchcock / USA / 130 mins.