Tuesday, April 26, 2011

At the Cinema: Hitch's REBECCA

My latest foray to the AFI was for Hitchcock's 1940 film REBECCA, his first film upon coming to Hollywood and also the only one of his films to win a Best Picture Oscar. Hitch was nominated, but didn't win.

This flick is great fun. It's really a Gothic romance (which would later inspire a storyline on "Dark Shadows") but the moodiness and exceptional visuals make it stand out. It's also interesting to note that at the time it was considered a huge leap forward technically, with exceptional editing, cinematography, and special effects. (Kind of like AVATAR today, except for, you know, a story that doesn't have you rolling your eyes at every cliche. Yes, I thought AVATAR was technically stunning but a total loss in the story department.)

There's neat touches; while Joan Fontaine is too beautiful for the role of the spinster narrator, she does manage to sell the character's sense of being lost in an alien world, and of her chronic low self-esteem. She's easily intimidated and is always comparing herself to Max de Winter's first wife and tries hard to be like her...of course, a good deal of this is Max's fault. With all his brooding, it's easy to believe that he's still in love with Rebecca, and doesn't sufficiently communicate to his wife that he loves her the way she is and doesn't want another Rebecca.

The script has Max making a big deal about his new wife's youth, and all through the movie, when she's moving through his huge house Manderley, doorknobs and latches are constantly at a very high level, almost with her chin, as if giving the illusion of a child in a grown-up world.

Now, one HAS to address the issue of Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), who is one of the great all-time screen villains. As the housekeeper who is fanatically devoted to the memory of Rebecca de Winter, it's often speculated that she was a lesbian and in love with Rebecca. However, through all her sabotage of the narrator and even urging her to kill herself, it never comes across as the product of sexual passion. Instead, I get the feeling that Mrs. Danvers either had a parental obsession with Rebecca, and viewed her as some sort of daughter, or viewed Rebecca as sort of a wish-fulfillment figure, wanting to be Rebecca herself (or someone very like her). Her increasing madness and eventual conflagration don't strike me as someone who's in love, but someone so devoted that she'd do anything to protect her idol's place in the house, even in Mr. de Winter's memory. (If you want lesbian subtext, check out THE UNINVITED.)

It's still a great film, and worth watching. There was also a BBC miniseries in the 70s with Jeremy Brett and Joanna David that was remarkably faithful to the novel and was my first introduction to the story when it aired on PBS' MYSTERY! And the novel, by Daphne du Maurier, was a huge bestseller and is still in print, and easily found in libraries and used book stores. But the movie works not only as a Gothic chiller but as a study of low self-confidence and self-esteem, and a great example of Hitch's genius.

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