13 April 2009

If You Like Rebecca it's Probably Because You Love Joan

I watched Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca (1940) today. It's a movie that seemingly everyone has seen and most people either like, love or positively worship. It managed to be an excellent romantic melodrama without tipping over into the realm of the soap opera. Principal credit goes to the director. But a superior cast also deserves recognition. Any wooden performances would have doomed it.

Even once its mystery is known, Rebecca is worth repeat viewings. I share now some of my thoughts after enjoying it today. I hope they’ll help illuminate its enduring popularity.

* Joan Fontaine is absolutely gorgeous and perfect as the female lead. It's a quite remarkable performance conveying as it does all the insecurities and self doubts of her character. You keep rooting for her to be tougher and see her efforts but realize that she is overwhelmed. You also see why Maxim (Laurence Olivier) would fall for. She’s utterly without pretense, so obviously intelligent and its worth mentioning again, stunning.

* Speaking of Olivier...It's difficult to imagine anyone else in the role of the uber wealthy British land baron. He was so suave, so self assured yet so wracked by demons and his own temper. His Maxim was such a virtuous sort, benevolent and, in his own way, loving, but still rife with imperfections that nearly do him in. The role seemed to come so naturally to Olivier, but then that was his genius, he never seemed to be trying all that hard.

* Judith Anderson as Mrs. Danvers has one of the great screen entrances of all time. She veritably floats from the left of the screen to being full figure before the camera suggesting all the crazy understated malice that she so personifies. Mrs. Danvers is one scary woman (I positively hate the word "bitch" but one is sorely tempted when describing her, such hate does she engender). There's something about the purity of her love for the late Mrs. de Winter that makes her all the more frightening. An evil borne of love is a powerful force indeed. Much credit to Hitch for the way he shot her. She always seemed to glide and that utterly passive face lit bright within the darkness...(Shiver.)

* Wonderful character actors abound (a strange term that, given that all actors play characters) in Rebecca. There's the always affable Reginald Denny, the perfect best friend or neighbor. Nigel Bruce the quintessential daffy English gentleman. The lovable C Aubrey Smith is Colonel Julyan, the local law enforcement. George Sanders in one of his slimiest roles as the blackmailing car salesman. He positively oozes English manners and sophistication while slithering through the film. Leo G Carroll, a Hitchcock favorite, pops in as a doctor and is, as always, serviceable.

* While Mrs. Danvers gets everyone's attention, especially in their initial viewing of Rebecca, I notice Fontaine more and more. It would not have been nearly so highly regarded a film with any less of a performance or performer playing the second Mrs. de Winter. You see a young woman, obviously quite bright, yet stuck as an old bag's companion. She is seemingly headed to a rather ordinary existence in which reading a particularly good book would represent the high point of any week. Eventually there'd be a marriage, probably to a doctor or professor, and some happiness there, but she’d remain somehow unfulfilled. But in being rescued from that life she's thrust into what for her was a previously unimaginable world. She is the lady of the manor, and not just any manor at that, but the magnificent Manderlay. Not only is she married to the much revered lord and master but she is the second wife and her predecessor has died tragically, loved by all (or so it would seem). This heroine also finds herself up against a powerful rival. This Mrs. Danver is not only the housekeeper but the one who bears the first Mrs. de Winter's torch. Our heroine is supposed to be her superior. Talk about awkward. There is no false bravado in Fontaine's performance. There are attempts to assert herself there is growing confidence and there is survival. She is sustained by love for her husband and a determination to do right by him and in the process herself. Fontaine is utterly convincing in large part because she is not too broad. There are no theatrical hysterics but plenty of frustration, bewilderment and insecurity. The register of her voice and subtle changes in her facial features suffice to bespeak her emotional cauldron. So I’ve come back to where I started, with Ms. Fontaine.

* What a terrific film. A multi layered story that reveals more with each viewing. Hitchcock was amazing. His ability to edit in camera kept it from being a Selznick movie (David O. produced) and left it for the most part in his own hands, that is to say, the hands of a master.


R. D. Finch said...

"Rebecca" was a Selznick production, and as with "Gone With the Wind," dozens of actresses were tested for the lead. Yet it's impossible to think of a better choice for the role than Joan Fontaine, who was nearly unknown at the time. She is convincingly timid, mousy, and insecure at the beginning, exactly the opposite of the way everyone in the move describes Rebecca. She thinks she'll never be able to live up to the reputation of Rebecca, not realizing that the reason Maxim is attracted to her is that she is Rebecca's exact opposite. As you implied, it is in a way a coming-of-age story, with her growing stronger and more confident as she gets her bearings. I love the rest of the cast too. However, I've always had reservations about Laurence Olivier. Something about him doesn't seem quite right for the role. I've read that Hitchcock wanted Robert Donat. I never pictured him in the role either, until I saw him recently in a movie called "Vacation from Marriage" on TCM, and in the last half of that movie I finally was able to conceive of him as Maxim de Winter and see why Hitchcock thought of him for the role. The actor I can easily see as Maxim is Ronald Colman. It's far from a typical Hitchcock movie--it lacks his big set pieces and his bizarre sense of humor--but it's still a total treat.

Alexandra said...

I am one of those people who love Rebecca. To be honest, it is the only Hitchcock movie I like so far. Joan Fontaine is indeed perfect. On youtube you can find a screentest with Vivien Leigh as the 2. Mrs de Winter which shows that Hitchcock made the ideal choice to cast Ms Fontaine. Vivien Leigh is too much Scarlett O'Hara whereas Joan Fontaine manages to portrait all the insecurities and self-doubts perfectly.

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