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BFI Hitchcock Season – ‘Rebecca’

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Written by Robert E. Sherwood
1940, USA

Another crucial film in the villain’s gallery (believe it or not there is a method to my madness) that haunts Hitchcock’s career is Rebecca, his first American film since his emigration in 1939, just as Europe was plunged into inferno and genocide. Based on the novel of Daphne du Maurier whom Hitchcock had previously adapted with Jamaica Inn the year before and would return to again with the avian carnage of The Birds a quarter of a century later Rebecca is a dark, sweeping, gothic romance of an innocent and slightly naive woman swept into the arms of high society and privilege, of dark secrets and forbidden desires locked in remote rooms and fragile hearts. Famously the film won the Academy Award for best picture and began a rather tortured working collaboration between Hitchcock and the prodigious American super-producer David O. Selzneck, not a bad start from the expatriate director for the first film of his long Hollywood career, although famously he was overlooked for the best director golden statuette throughout the remaining thirty-four years of his career.  The BFI unveiled a glowing new digital print of the film which shimmered with a customary glow, introduced with some trenchant analysis by the newly elected  head of exhibition and director of the London Film Festival Clare Stewart (which gets its full 2012 line-up announced tomorrow), before the lights went down and we dreamt we were in Manderley again….

Joan Fontaine, an early favourite of Hitchcock’s, a then relative unknown was cast over the producers wishes and the leading man’s, both of whom wanted Vivien Leigh to star as the ‘hot’ follow-up to the astronomically successful Gone With The Wind. Fontaine, who would also star in Suspicion with Cary Grant a year later is the slightly mousey but undeniably enthusiastic nameless woman (as in the novel her character is only ever referred to Mrs. de Winter) who have being recently orphaned has taken the job of travelling companion to the haughty, supercilious upper class snob Mrs. van Hooper. Lazily scouring the Côte d’Azur she stumbles across the mournful Maximilian de Winter (Laurence Olivier), teetering on the end of a cliff side, perhaps with the intention of throwing himself to certain doom. As their paths cross at breakfast and lunch in the five-star hotels of the region a budding romance blossoms, and soon the tortured Lord Maximilian is speeding his slightly confused and blushing bride back to Manderley, the aristocratic seat of power of the de Winter kingdom. Moving in a bewildering, alternative social circle our heroine finds herself overwhelming with her new duties and the uncertain affections of her distant husband, a precarious position made increasingly perilous by the mistress of the house Mrs. Danvers (a brilliantly glacial and spiteful Judith Anderson) who clearly idolised the absent first Mrs. de Winter, seeing the new object of the Master’s affection as an inferior, infuriating cuckold. As Mrs de Winter investigates the mystery of her predecessors demise some gloomy mysteries are unearthed, waves crash dramatically against the cliff lurching manor house, and danger stalks the misty vestibules….

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Having access to ‘the best train set a boy could have’ as Welles infamously claimed, Hitchcock went to town with the infamously gifted technical prowess of the studio system, the elite practitioners of the production line which by the 1940’s was at the absolute apotheosis of its prowess before the advent of television, with scores of designers and writers, actors and extras, camera technicians and musicians on tap to render the fictional as film. Rebecca  is a beautifully crafted gothic melodrama with opulent production design and heightened theatrical performances  which can see very clipped and forced, and emphatically unconvincing – Fontaine weeps and waifs around the house and grounds, Olivier a parody by today standards of the elite British gentleman – but if you’re in the mood for such historical material then there is much to enjoy. The central star of the film is the throughly absent first Mrs. De Winters of course, a figure never seen even in photograph or silhouette, as Hitchcock’s invokes her presence through silent movie techniques, wordlessly suggesting an invisible, incorporeal presence who haunts the corridors and gardens of Manderley, alongside the minds, memories and affections of those remaining amognst the tortured mortals.

The now infamous lesbian subtext between Mrs. Danvers and the departed ghost of Mrs de Winters that still haunts the estate is barely submerged; she clearly idolised her glamorous queen far beyond her good breeding and beauty. It’s a thwarted love that makes her simmering hatred for the inferior replacement seethe and contort in the very foundation stones of the ancient house, a collusion of sexuality, of the depraved and the psychological that also materializes with the lover / killers of Rope. The entire film is invested with a dreamy, half conscious and somnolent texture, through the ethereal photography of George Barnes which drenches the film in gossamer greys and subdued whites, as Hitchcock has Mrs. Danvers loom over Fontaine in angles and camera movements which suggest an almost physical manifestation of the intangible threats of history which she vociferously battles. Speaking of vanished women, and I’m not talking about the frequent Hitchcockian motif of invisible, non-existent or disappeared characters (think North By Northwest, Vertigo, Psycho, The Lady Vanishes) now would be a good time to spotlight Alma Reville, Hitchcock’s wife since his first silent productions, his co-screenwriter and script editor on every single one of his films she has to be one of the great overlooked figures in Hollywood history in my opinion, and I’m still a little shocked at the lack of substantial literature or articles about her essential contribution to this extraordinary body of work. As mysterious, murky Manderley is finally cleansed with a purging fire, Hitchcock curiously doesn’t give us a satisfying coda of  the victorious Mrs. De Winter clapsed in Max’s arms, the picture just closes on the image of the defeated spirits exquisite linen disintegrating in the raging inferno, not an inelegant visual metaphor for the sensual and searing work to come.

John McEntee