Thursday, July 31, 2014

Rebecca (1940)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock


British director Alfred Hitchcock makes his premiere in Hollywood producing an adaption of Daphne du Maurier’s novel for the screen which went on to be named Best Picture at the Academy Awards. For years American studios had been attempting to land the great filmmaker to make the transition to American cinema and when he finally took the leap it would be bittersweet as it produced a great final product, but not without its bumps along the way. This thriller played on the themes of romance, domination, murder, and psychological torture which were transitioned from book to screen.

Fontaine plays the nervous new bride of Laurence Olivier.
Rebecca is a thriller about a young lady that marries a widowed aristocrat, but it continually tortured by the reminders of the dominating presence that is her husband’s deceased first wife. Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier) marries on a whim a fresh-faced, innocent young lady (Joan Fontaine), the main character of this tale, but she does not realize what being called “Mrs. De Winter” entails. Ever reminded that she can never fill the shoes of Rebecca, or rather the former Mrs. De Winter, she is driven to a near breakdown, especially with the psychological torturous games of the cold and overbearing housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson). Maxim reveals a dark secret that his marriage to Rebecca was a sham and he in fact hated her, feeling responsible for Rebecca’s death which he covered up in a staged boating accident. Rebecca’s body is recovered and signs of foul play are brought up. Rebecca’s cousin, and at the same time her lover, Jack (George Sanders) suspects Maxim of murder because he believed Rebecca was carrying George’s baby pushing Maxim to murder, but it is discovered that Rebecca had cancer and her death was accidental at the hands of Maxim. Upon returning to Maxim’s lavishly symbolic estate they find the structure set ablaze by Mrs. Danvers, who parishes with the flames with all that remembrances of Rebecca.

Manderley, the estate of De Winter, plays almost a a character in itself.
The film remains rather true to the source material of the novel with a few exceptions that were made to fit the parameters of the Production code that frowned on murder without consequences. The picture captures the innocence of the nameless main character and the torture of discovering that she does not fit in the world that was laid out by Rebecca, who had died before the story even begins. With production value that perfectly accents the story and its quietly thrilling drama, this Hitchcock production, his first in the United States, does feel a little bit removed from the style which he was building with back in Europe. However, the movie is very gripping and does the novel justice as the tale has more twists and turns than the tree lined driveway of Manderley, the lavish de Winter estate in the picture.

After years of studios attempting to attract Alfred Hitchcock to move his skills stateside to Hollywood the filmmaker would do so in the wake of growing turmoil of World War II breaking out in Europe. Producer David O. Selznick was known for his higher quality productions and it was with his studio Hitchcock would make his first home in Hollywood. Despite the director’s obvious skill Selznick was a very hands-on producer. He insisted Hitchcock to remain as close as possible to the novel as well as insisting on various creative decisions within the picture that Hitchcock took exception to.

To avoid Selznick from tinkering with Hitchcock’s editing of the picture Hitchcock would develop a way of shooting that would not allow for much altering in post-production. Essentially Hitchcock was editing the movie “in camera” by plotting out how he wanted the film to look before he shot it, therefore very little was left to change in editing. Director and Producer butted heads on many creative matters within the film that made the picture feel a little less Hitchcock-like compare to his growing style back in England, but it produced a very well-constructed picture as its final result. In fact it would be awarded Best Picture at the Academy Awards, for which the award goes to Producer David O. Selznick.

The picture would experience many Academy Award nominated performances from its cast. Laurence Olivier’ presence on the American screen was rising as he portrayed the brooding widowed aristocrat in Maxim. Twenty-two year old Joan Fontaine happened upon her opportunity to play the nameless main character when she met David O. Selznick at a dinner party and their discussion took them to the novel landing her an invitation to audition. Alfred Hitchcock created a sense of great dislike towards Fontaine while working on the picture to create within the actress a feeling of nervousness which can be seen in her performance. It was not until after production that it was revealed to her that Hitchcock was very fond of her and was only doing so to get the inspired performance out of the actress.

One of American cinema's greatest villains, Mrs. Danvers
The two stars of the picture would be nominated for leading performances, but it is the supporting role of Mrs. Danvers that is most remembered in Rebecca. Played by Judith Anderson, Mrs. Danvers was made much younger in the picture than was described in the novel, but she still gave off the ominous sense of foreboding. Anderson’s cold Mrs. Danvers presents American cinema with one of its most heralded villains. Her stare alone could burn holes through your soul, but her psychological torture to Fontaine’s character presents evil beyond what one would have thought of in the film. This performance opened many new doors for the actress as she would portray various menacing roles in the future.

As mentioned beforehand, aspects of the original story were altered to fit within the confines of the Production Code that judged morality in Hollywood cinema. Maxim in the book murders Rebecca by shooting her, while in the movie it is explained that Rebecca slips and falls mortally bumping her head while Maxim is only thinking of killing her. To avoid the code which stated that murderers pay for their crime, Maxim is made more sympathetic and is in a situation of happy coincidence, being that he hated Rebecca and she happened to die.

If it were not of Selznick Hitchcock would had deviated far from the original story of Rebecca. If not for Hitchcock Selznick would have made a rather more stylized and overly dramatic version of the novel. The two parties needed each other to come up with the final product that would be named Best Picture of the year by the Academy.

Rebecca remains as a wonderful picture beautifully shot in Academy Award winning black and white cinematography. Thrilling and dramatic, the film makes a great first impression of Alfred Hitchcock in the America cinema market. Contemporary audiences and critics rate the picture as one of the very finest from its time and beyond, even landing on AFI’s list of top thiller pictures of all time at #80. Rebecca is more than a great adaptation of a good novel, but very fine filmmaking by one of the industry’s best storytellers.

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