Worth A Look: 33.33%
Just Average: 0%
Pretty Crappy: 3.7%
1 review, 21 user ratings
A masterpiece of stylistic contrasts, Rebecca would likely have come apart at the seams but for the relentless, Benzedrine-fueled intensity of producer David O. Selznick. It was adapted from the reflective, dreamlike novel by Daphne Du Maurier, but directed by the claustrophobic “Master of Suspense” Alfred Hitchcock; it featured prominent stage actor Laurence Olivier working opposite Hollywood ingénue Joan Fontain; and it was subject to Selznick’s own uncompromising vision of sweeping grandeur and absolute fidelity to the novel. But somehow these conflicting elements fused as one, to create a first-rate epic romance with a unique, enigmatic texture of its very own.Joan Fontain starts as the shy, young heroine, whose name remains untold. She finds herself in Monte Carlo, a paid companion of the obtrusive would-be society dame Mrs. Van Hopper (Florence Bates). There she meets the esteemed Maxim De Winter (Laurence Olivier), owner of Manderley, a fabled manor house on the west coast of Britain. She is attracted to his kindness and sincerity, but he –under the shadow of some dark secret –is often aloof and brooding, even morose. Mrs. Van Hopper declares that he is a broken man in the wake of the death of his wife, Rebecca, less than a year ago.
"Gothic mystery and romance on the big silver screen"
To our heroine’s great surprise, Maxim returns her affection and proposes marriage. She agrees, and after a carefree honeymoon in Italy, she returns to England with him, to become the new mistress of Manderly.
But the fairy tale is darker than she had imagined. Unsophisticated, awkward and shy, she is no match for the ever-present memory of Rebecca, who was beautiful, fashionable, charming and loved by all. Maxim seems unable to forget her, and meanwhile the house staff cannot but help notice that the new Mrs. De Winter is ill-prepared to continue the tradition of planning for each exquisite meal, paying meticulous attention to the house and grounds and throwing lavish parties. Her shortcomings are particularly resented by the odious head servant Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), who was devoted to Rebecca.
Maxim carries on, insensitive to our heroine’s plight, adding to her feelings of oppression and isolation. The return to Manderley seems to accentuate his moodiness, make his brooding memories of lovely Rebecca more dominant. And what about the deserted boathouse, down by the sea, that Maxim dare not even approach? Somehow its mystery is intertwined with that fateful night when Rebecca drowned. Perhaps the real truth about Rebecca is even more fearful than her legend…
The film, 130 minutes long, has a strange warmth, for all of its black and white, expressionism-based cinematography. Below the surface, the fundamental clash between director and producer is quite evident.
Hitchcock’s style is invariably psychological, peering into the conflicted psyche of his characters. He uses shot compositions and camera movements that tend to reflect, metaphorically, inner experience and values. Through this method he brings us inside the characters, making their experiences our own. We identify with them in a subliminal, almost reflexive way. Sometimes we even become trapped in their little world, vulnerable, unable to escape. This is an ideal scenario for a director who seeks to create atmosphere, suspense and shock.
Selznick, on the other hand, prefers to enliven the characters and situations by making them larger-than-life. His vision of Manderley is less a psychological metaphor than the abode of an alluring fantasy. The fairy-tale quality of Maxim’s relationship with the heroine promises more interest than a dissection of its Freudian secrets. Selznick’s vision calls for a completely different kind of storytelling –broad and sweeping –cameras gazing up instead of staring down, pulling away instead of encroaching inward. Massive sets that celebrate the grand possibilities of life. Sentiments as big as a Macy’s Parade float.
To his credit, Selznick’s penchant for bigness was tempered by an acute appreciation of character and story. He would not let his characters ascend to the threshold of being maudlin or overblown, and his impressive settings would always stand in the shadow of a more impressive story situation.
After some difficulty, the relatively inexperienced Joan Fontain was cast in the part of the heroine. Ultimately, she delivers a memorable interpretation, thanks to superior direction and extensive rehearsal. (Also, truth be told, a lot of dialogue re-recording and a fair amount of fancy editing.) Her teary, fluttering performance gives the role the exact sentiment it needs, but not, perhaps, so much of a larger than life quality. Selznick, who championed the casting of Fontaine against a lot of resistance, deserves praise for valuing truthfulness over showiness.
Olivier delivers a masterful performance in the role of Maxim. He succeeds in making interesting a character who is a closed book, a kind of cipher, for much of the story.
This kind of un-communicating male lead is found frequently in Hitchcock’s work. When the film is told from the heroine’s point of view, as it is here, we are really seeing only the fragment of the male’s inner life to which the female can connect. Thus, at a metaphorical level at least, the theme is less an indictment of male conceit rather than a practical admission of the difficulties that both sexes must overcome in the course of a successful relationship.
The supporting cast do their part to expand the story and atmosphere. Particularly welcome is George Sanders (in the role of the cad Jack Favell), whom film scholar Leonard J. Leff describes as “a rake-hill, onscreen and off”. His laconic, indulgent comic style breathes fresh air into the film, and helps immeasurably to enliven the somewhat plotty final third of the story.
The resolution of the clash between cinematographic styles is not something that can be explained in so many words. Hitchcock began to employ longer and longer takes (a style he would continue to pursue in later movies), discovering new and interesting ways to emphasize mood and evolving relationships, but also providing a more visceral sense of place. Other parts were filmed in his earlier, more fast-cutting style, and others filmed probably more as Selznick had indicated. Some scenes actually were filmed by Selznick. The resulting look is both intimate and grandiose, with an elusive vagueness about the point-of-view that merely adds to the aura of mystery and dream.
Much of the screenplay consists of multiple short-ish scenes, snapshots of a tale taking place over a longer period of time. These are neatly welded together by the nearly omnipresent Franz Waxman score, which provides an all-encompassing dramatic arc and eases the strain of the constant scene changes so that we are not jolted or fatigued by them.
The emotional intent of the score is clearly in the Selznick camp. The beautiful, orchestral strains discover the romantic, sentimental possibilities in each scenario. When it does descend into gloom and doom, the feeling is purely external, like watching a battle from a distance. It captures the panoramic sweep of a Big Story, and only at certain, sudden moments does it come up close enough to rattle our cage. It is certainly the polar opposite of the gripping, intrusive scores later to be composed for Hitchcock by the great Bernard Herrmann.
Per Selznick’s insistence, the screenplay is slavishly faithful to the Du Maurier bestseller. A large part of the dialogue in the film is lifted straight from the book, and the storyline is closely followed. Scenes are, of course, tightened up for length, and seemingly redundant material eliminated. The visit to Maxim’s mother is removed, and there is a general condensing of the action towards the end of the film. Also, the dinner scene involving Colonel Julyan was reportedly shot, but ended up on the cutting room floor.
Minor changes were made to enhance the visual storytelling. For example, the scene where Maxim spills the beans about Rebecca is transposed to the boathouse, making this one of the most dramatically effective sequences in the film.
The strict Production Code of the time necessitated certain other changes. Most glaringly, the cause of Rebecca’s death had to be altered. Selznick expressed his feelings about this as “heartbroken”.
Other things had to be toned down as well. In the novel, the cad Jack Favell gives the line “A lovely woman isn’t like a motor tyre, she doesn’t wear out. The more you use her, the better she goes.” This dubious utterance cryptically resurfaces in the screenplay: “I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced the feeling of driving an expensive motor car which isn’t your own…”Despite the many forces pulling “Rebecca” in all different directions, the film emerges as a coherent and intriguing whole. It manages to be both sentimental and unvarnished, both fairy tale and thriller, both faithful to the book and a compelling work in its own right. Hundreds of films fall into the “gothic” camp; this is one of the very best –an expansive, captivating classic.
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originally posted: 09/01/05 22:38:27