Monday, April 9, 2012

Still film: Rebecca (1940).


When a naive young woman marries a rich widower and settles in his gigantic mansion, 
she finds the memory of the first wife maintaining a grip on her husband and the servants. 


A lonely man, a lovely girl... struggling against the secret of Manderley.

The shadow of a remembered woman came between their lips... but these two had the courage to hope... and to live their love!

Finally...  As promised!  (though probably a year late) :  stills from the film Rebecca (1940).
Obviously, any lover of mystery stories and dark psychological portraits like myself would be an adorer of Alfred Hitchcock.  There are few things better than sitting in a dim cozy room to watch a Hitchcock movie on a big screen for the first time, and Rebecca stands as one of my favorites.  I can't forget the first time I saw it, I was spellbound, late at night, watching this slow tale unravel in lush, mysterious settings.   As much as the character and storyline called out to me, the dense, haunted garden around the  ornate estate Manderlay captivated my imagination.  The fog, the willow trees, the rocky coastline, its such an iconic stage for a mystery murder to occur. 

Its ironic, though, for a big Hitch fan to love Rebecca so much, since it was the film he most hated in his entire career.   Hitchcock, the master puppeteer of cinema, was put-off by the veto strength held over his head by amphetamine-popping, mogul-producer David O Selsnick and later claimed that so many creative compromises were made, that he could barely put his stamp on Rebecca's final cut.  Adding another layer of irony:  Its the only Alfred Hitchcock picture to have won best picture at the Academy Awards.  Despite his remarks otherwise, the film is so classic Hitch-- before his prime, yes, but holding a psychologically terrifying, beautiful, haunting, and mysterious power like all his best pieces.  Its brilliance could also be attributed to the fact that it is also a very literal telling, faithful to the magical book it was based on (also titled Rebecca) by Daphne Du Maurier.   But then there always is the question:  Book or movie first?   I saw the film before reading the book, and I was happy to have read it second, because, though the film is amazing, the book has this lush detail that makes it so hypnotic, and gives more depth to the characters that you'll want to absorb the second time around.

Rebecca first drew me in through the main character:  a status-less, insecure young girl who's name is never uttered before her marriage (referred to as 'the girl' several times by her employer, a gossipy, rich old dowager who kept her as a 'travel companion'), and only after her marriage to the old-money, practically blue blooded Maxim De Winter (played by the regal Laurence Olivier) is she finally addressed by a name-- Mrs. De Winter (Maxim skirts calling her by her first name throughout the film only to address her as 'darling' etc).  And the saddest part yet is that she isn't even the first Mrs. De Winter to hold the title.  No, even her very weak identity through association hangs in the shadows of another.  

The first Mrs. De Winter, named Rebecca, was a sophisticated debutant of skilled social prowess who died in a tragic and mysterious accident that hovers like a cloud over Manderlay, the palatial country estate that Maxim inherited, and the main character-- the second Mrs. De Winter. You never see a single image of Rebecca in the film, and because of that, her legend looms even larger.  The most intimate glimpse of Rebecca is through her handwritten notes and initials placed throughout.   In making the film, Selsnick searched high and low for the perfect Rebecca font. One that had a "curious, slanting hand. Tall and sloping R dwarfing the other letters", as detailed by the book.  Hitchcock, of course, took an even more thorough approach, carefully choosing the handwriting of each character according to handwriting analysis:  "Mrs. Van Hooper is authoritative (large T bars), sexually stimulated (thick Y and F loops), obsessive (loopholes in E and N), unwilling to being commanded (Independence loophole in P), and rude (thick tracks in general). Maxim is very reflexive (large inter-word spacing), reserved (large inter-line spacing) and self-underrated (T bars very low).  Favell is self-overrated, brutal and impulsive (big R, Brutality loophole, short inter-word spacing)".  Hitchcock auditioned three women for the part of Rebecca's handwriting and Helen Amigo was chosen.  Perusing the internet, I saw that someone has painstakingly pieced together the individual letters in Amigo's hand for the film and created their own Rebecca font for typing that you can buy HERE.   The font is assertive and mysterious, and its no wonder that someone would seek to bottle it; you can't help but to be intrigued.  Her name is everywhere in Manderlay, her initials embroidered on pillowcases, emblazoned on stationary, and are etched even deeper in the heart of Mrs. Danvers, the strange, gothic, head maid who hates the new Mrs. D. W with a passion.  In fact, they hint throughout that Mrs. Danvers was the lover of Rebecca in her day... racy stuff for the 1940s.  Of course, this is just a best guess in reading between the lines.  The way Mrs. Danvers caresses the first Mrs. De Winters negligee and undies, talking about their intense and codependent relationship sounds a bit more than strictly employee-employer.

Mrs. Danvers is so creepy and arresting.  Danvers appears to float rather than walk and has the knack for suddenly appearing in full gothic maid attire whenever she is least expected to pop around the corner or tiptoe up from behind.  Hitch shaped a new Mrs. Danvers, distinct from the book, for his film, though the interpretation works perfectly for film to the maximum creepiness effect.  Mrs. Danvers is exactly in her element in the overwhelming Manderlay spread.  It appears almost as a creepy castle in the night shots, and interestingly, wasn't actually exterior shots of a real location, but was a rather convincing miniature mansion shot to look life-sized.  

The main character (sorry, again, she has no name!), is played by the girl-next-door beauty Joan Fontaine, and is a young nobody from a family of nothings, as far as the wealthy society around her is concerned.  She seems completely out of place in the world of Manderlay.  She is sweetly hunched, pigeon-toed, shy, and has a refreshingly youthful naiveté that Maxim (with his dark past constantly haunting his thoughts) so admires.   I related so strongly to all her self-doubts and self-consciousness in a world of egotistical, overly-confident, lofty characters.  She stumbles through her quickie marriage to Maxim feeling the ghostly presence of Rebecca at each and every turn down those labyrinth-like corridors of Manderlay.  Though constant comparisons by friends, the staff, and the townsfolk, she is made to feel she can never live up to Rebecca's perfection, but, there's a twist:  Only a few know the real truth that Rebecca wasn't all she was cracked up to be.  
It  happens so often: You hear tales of someone you never met and through hearsay create an image of perfection for this legendary character that has captivated the hearts of this circle you've stepped into.  Only, you finally learn, the mystery person isn't at all like the image you've created, in fact, he/she has held people in their grasp for other reasons than their charming personality.  And the whole time you've felt inferior to this ghostly creation of your own imagination.   That is the relationship between the first and second Mrs. De Winter.  The new, young Mrs. De Winter finds all her thoughts consumed by this ghost, this invented character that she constantly compares herself to, feels inferior to, emulates, worships... All in the name of pleasing her Maxim.  Then, finally, she comes to realize that this figure she was aspiring to be, doesn't even exist. 

The deep psychological undertones can be felt everywhere, mimicked by the mysterious, foreboding, twisting landscape of Manderlay.  Hitchcock uses lush and creepy studio "nature" settings throughout, like the forest and ocean, to give an eerie sense of Rebecca's presence and reflect the inner turmoil faced by Maxim.   Interior shots are ornate, but overwhelmingly large and empty, giving little Mrs. De Winter #2 an air of loneliness as dines alone at a long table and roams the forbidden wings of the mansion.  Shadow and beams of light alternately obscure and reveal the identities of the figures that twist through the corridors of Manderlay.  

See more Rebecca stills HERE.


A Dandy in Aspic said... Best Blogger Tips[Reply to comment]Best Blogger Templates

This film certainly doesn't get the recognition it deserves. It's one of my favorite Hitchcock's films, I love that bizarre, slightly gothic feel to it. And of course Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine and woman who plays mrs. Danvers are all great.

lise silva said... Best Blogger Tips[Reply to comment]Best Blogger Templates

@A Dandy in Aspic I completely agree!

Sweet Jane said... Best Blogger Tips[Reply to comment]Best Blogger Templates

Fantastic post, the stills look amazing...I absolutely adore this film too! Always have, ever since the first time that I saw it on tv when I was a child. I finally got around to buying myself a copy of it on dvd about 3 years ago, and it's quite possibly some of the best money that I have ever spent!! Because I'm not joking when I say that i've probably watched it at least once a week ever since, it is indeed perfect late night viewing.

It's such a pity that Hitchcock didn't like himself, I just can't find fault with it, brilliantly shot,wonderful dialogue and perfectly cast..i've watched it so many times now that I even grown fond of Edith Van Hopper (played by Florence Bates, actually i've been meaning to check out some of her other films, she made quite a few, so not sure where to start yet )

As for Mrs I can't say that i've grown especially fond of her but what a performance!!! I was watching a show that we have over here on BBC2 a while back called "The Culture Show' ..they interviewed Nick Park the creator of Wallace and Gromit, he's a huge fan of Rebecca/Hitchcock too and apparently he based the animated character of the evil penquin "Feathers McGraw" from his film "The Wrong Trousers" on Mrs Danvers! He said that he also used a scene from Rear Window as inspiration in one of his other films (A Matter of Loaf and Death).

Ps I got a chance to stay in Bodega Bay where "The Birds" was shot when I was on holiday in the states a couple of years ago..very peaceful, not a feathered fiend in sight apart from tourist trinket/ stuffed variety.

lise silva said... Best Blogger Tips[Reply to comment]Best Blogger Templates

@Sweet Jane,

I am with you. Rebecca is among the handfull of films I play obsessively, probably in some kind of subconscious hope to absorb its magic. And I love Nick Park's animation, so I'll have to find those clips online. PS: So jealous you got to stay where The Birds was shot!

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