Monday, April 12, 2010
A Ghost Story Without a Ghost
By Ali Arikan
In Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and The Whale, Jeff Daniels’ character glibly — and, dare I say, wrongly — dismisses A Tale of Two Cities as minor Dickens. Similarly, Rebecca, Alfred Hitchcock’s Academy Award-winning 1940 film of the Daphne Du Maurier novel, has a reputation amongst informed acolytes of the director as not being emblematic of his best work. Without fully disowning it, Hitchcock also eventually came to regard the film with slight unease. Talking to François Truffaut in 1967, he famously remarked,
“It's not a Hitchcock picture; it's a novelette, really. The story is old-fashioned; there was a whole school of feminine literature at the period; and though I’m not against it, the fact is that the story is lacking in humour.”
While it’s certainly true that Rebecca is not vintage Hitchcock (Robin Wood flat out dismissed it in his 1989 classic Hitchcock’s Films Revisited), it’s impossible not to be drawn into the spectral presence of the past in the movie’s subtext, as well as the romantic melodrama. On the surface, the film is a ghost story without a ghost. The Elizabethan façade of Manderley, the centerpiece of the de Winter country estate, harbours within it a gothic interior, where the triumphs and tragedies of the past linger behind every nook and cranny as characters find themselves haunted by menacing memories. The interiors, photographed in a wonderful black and white chiaroscuro by George Barnes (for which he won an Oscar), take a life of their own, and Hitchcock hints — with his first Hollywood budget — at the sort of technical wizardry that would come to define him in the zenith of his career.
Released 70 years ago today, Rebecca’s story is familiar to most. After a particularly bizarre whirlwind romance in Monte Carlo, a young lower-middle class girl (Joan Fontaine) marries Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier), a recently widowed English aristocrat, and goes back with him to his magnificent Cornish mansion, managed by the domineering Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), a taciturn authoritarian of a housekeeper, who revels in tormenting the new lady of the house. The young bride soon starts to suspect that something, as they say, is rotten in the estate of Manderley, as she gets enveloped in the mystery of the house, and of what happened to the former Mrs. de Winter.
Seeing it for the first time in 15 years, and aware of just what it was that happened to Rebecca that fateful night, I noticed a few personal touches that Hitchcock weaved through the narrative. The obsession with a dead woman (and her “doppelganger”), for example, would be a motif that Hitchcock would revisit in his masterwork, Vertigo (1958). Similarly, the psycho-sexual tension between the characters would be a running theme in many of the directors’ best films (though never quite as overtly sapphic or pedophilic as here). In his 1986 book, The Films of Alfred Hitchcock, Neil Sinyard compares the relationship between the unnamed heroine and the sinister housekeeper Mrs. Danvers to that of the heroine and the housekeeper in Under Capricorn (1949), the tennis-star and the psychopath in Strangers on a Train (1951), or the thief and the traffic cop in Psycho (1960). In fact, the way Hitchcock fashions a character from Manderley itself anticipates the similar approach he would employ for the Bates Motel 20 years later (both buildings are “haunted” by the presence of a woman long gone).
Hitchcock had apparently read the original novel when it was still in galleys, and tried to buy the rights, which proved too costly for the director. They were eventually purchased by David O. Selznick, who saw in the story yet another opportunity to turn an international best seller into a major hit (in fact, the film’s release was delayed by a year to clear the way for Gone With the Wind at the 1939 Oscars — or, rather, vice versa). Soon after, Hitchcock moved to the United States, and signed a seven year contract with Selznick, under which he made three films, including Rebecca (1946's Notorious began as a Selznick project, but he sold it midway through production, and was never involved in the film creatively).
Like the marriage of the central couple in the film, the relationship between the star-producer and hot-shot director was no bed of roses. Selznick wanted to stick as closely to the novel as he possibly could (there are entire paragraphs directly lifted from the novel), interfered when flourishes of Hitchcock’s style became too overt, and eventually edited the film himself. While the eventual film does contain a few nice allusions to the director’s pre-war work (the skewed close-ups of Olivier and his interrogator during the inquest are particularly delightful), it is, nonetheless, a tightly controlled Selznick picture.
Still, though, there was one thing that neither David Selznick nor Maxim de Winter could get away with in the film: murder. In the novel, Maxim admits to his bride to having murdered Rebecca, but the inquest brings a verdict of suicide, reinforced, as in the film, by the later revelation that Rebecca was suffering from cancer and would have been dead in a few months. Hollywood Production Code at the time stipulated that a murderer must be punished at the end of a film, which caused Selznick and his writers, Joan Harrison and Robert E. Sherwood, to turn Rebecca’s death into an accident. A necessity of the time, this change, nonetheless, makes the final 20 of the film following Maxim’s confession in the cottage rather anticlimactic and undramatic.
The actors also did not get along. Olivier thought Fontaine was inexperienced and wrong for the part, a feeling Hitchcock refused to alleviate. In fact, Fontaine once said that Hitchcock deliberately created strife on the set, not least to keep the novice ill at ease:
“To be honest, Hitchcock was divisive with us. He wanted total control over me, and he seemed to relish the cast not liking one another, actor for actor, by the end of the film. Now of course this helped my performance, since I was supposed to be terrified of everyone and it gave a lot of tension to my scenes. It kept him in command and it was upheaval he wanted.”
However questionable his methods were, Hitchcock, nonetheless, managed to get the best out of his actors. Fontaine is the true revelation of the film, playing with precocious gusto a flibbertigibbet with daddy issues. Olivier is a delight to watch throughout the couple’s coquetry in Monaco, especially during the breakfast scene at the hotel where Maxim is more paternal and patronising than flirtatious, which adds to the general creepiness of the couple’s relationship. I also love that particularly symbolic earlier scene at the hotel lobby with Maxim, the embonpoint Mrs. Van Hopper (Florence Bates), and Maxim’s future wife — old money, new money, and no money. If Maxim seems uncharacteristically distant and boorish during the later scenes in Manderley, surely that’s a conscious decision on Olivier’s part. Most memorable of all, though, is Judith Anderson, who, through her stern presence and economical movements, dominates every scene she is in.
Also gripping are the weird psycho-sexual themes Hitchcock hints at, to which the censors at the time seem to have turned a blind eye. Hitchcock strongly implies a lesbian relationship between Mrs. Danvers and Rebecca: look at the way Mrs. Danvers recounts how Rebecca used to undress for bed, as she shows off the draw with her knickers, and caresses Rebecca’s diaphanous silk negligee. Later, she rubs Rebecca’s fur coat on the new Mrs. de Winter’s face, a not-so-subtle allusion to cunnilingus. As we find out more about Rebecca’s penchant for playing the field, we even sympathise with Mrs. Danvers, who seems to have been nothing but a sexual plaything for Rebecca.
In fact, as in many of Hitchcock’s later works, the women in Rebecca are treated as either gauche simpletons or manipulative harpies. The men don’t come off any better; the three male leads are a distant boor, a lackey and a blackmailer. Rebecca began production just as the Second World War broke out, and maybe this unsympathetic look at the human race was a conscious creative choice by Hitchcock. We’ll never know.
Equally captivating, if bloody weird, is the relationship between Maxim and his new wife. The former proposes to her in the shower of his hotel room; “I’m asking you to marry me you little fool,” he says, charmingly. He treats her like a child, asking her to promise him never to be 36. She takes this in her stride, with Maxim as a proxy replacement for her father. As Germaine Greer observed in a 2006 article to coincide with the film’s re-release, “She has nothing else going for her. Maxim wants to marry her - not despite the fact that she is, in his phrase, a "little fool", but because of it. When she snivels, which is often, he provides the handkerchief. He orders her about unmercifully. When she knocks over a glass of port and fusses to clean it up, he orders her to leave it, as if she were a dog sniffing excrement. Every now and then, he kisses her on the top of the head, just as she does Jasper the dog. By way of endearment, he calls her ‘you sweet child’ or ‘my good child’.” This is not a relationship between two equal partners — this is two people projecting their freakish fantasies at each other (asking his wife to wear a wrap because it’s chilly, Maxim intones, “you can’t be too careful with children”). Now I am the last person on earth to talk about relationships and such, but I’ll go out on a limb and characterise this as being really rather unhealthy.
But there is one theme that Hitchcock visits in Rebecca that he would generally shy away from in his Hollywood career (except, perhaps, in 1964's Marnie), and that is, of course, issues of class. Opening Rebecca’s monogrammed address book, the new bride is terrified to see a list of honorifics. She is suppressed both by the memory of the titular ex-Mrs. de Winter and what she considers to be her social ineptitude: her fear of inadequacy, of being unable to live up to the standards set by Rebecca the person, and Rebecca the institution. The film is as much about class struggle as it is about being haunted by the past, and the ambiguous ending makes this even more blatant. And if Rebecca is, finally, not quite the perfect marriage of form and technique, it’s most certainly not for any lack of trying.