Friday, September 13, 2013

Rebecca (Best Picture 1940)

Rebecca  is one of those motion pictures that can't decide what it wants to be. It starts out as a comedy, then becomes a love story, then turns into a suspenseful melodrama. I guess because it manages to do all of these things well that it won the Best Picture Oscar. 

The film begins at the ending, with Joan Fontaine saying that she dreamt of her home, now destroyed; she tells us that she can never go back to it....Foreshadowing sufficiently planted, we go back a year or so...
Laurence Olivier is Maxim de Winter, lonesome aristocrat. Joan Fontaine is the paid companion to an egotistical and annoying elderly socialite, Edyth Von Hopper. They meet when she think he is about to throw himself off a cliff in Monte Carlo. He begins to spend time with her and eventually they fall in love. When her employer suddenly decides to leave Monte Carlo, Maxim proposes to her. Her former employer viciously wishes her luck, telling her that there is no way that she could erase the memory of his first wife, Rebecca, from his mind. He takes her home and she becomes the mistress of his castle/mansion known as Mandelay. However, because she is shy, nervous, and timid she is overwhelmed by the house-keeper, Mrs. Danvers (played by Judith Anderson). 

Let's stop here for a moment. Identity and appearances play a huge role in this film. For example, the name of the film is Rebecca, although that character never appears (she dies before the film begins and we never see her, even in flashback). Her monogram and name are everywhere in the mansion and on everyone's lips. Worse, we are never given a name for Joan Fontaine's character! Olivier calls her "darling" and the others all call her "Mrs. de Winter." This helps (?) the illusion that she is interchangeable with Rebecca, and has no real identity of her own. I'll refer to her as "Joan" so I don't have to keep calling her "the second Mrs. de Winter."
Up until Joan arrives at Mandelay things have been pretty straight forward. However, things get a bit confusing for her (and thus, for us, atleast the first time we watch the film). Everywhere she turns she runs up against other words, the first Mrs. de Winter. Everyone tells her that Maxim was devoted to her, and how full of life she was, and what types of things she enjoyed doing, etc etc. Mrs. Danvers is especially creepy in her devotion to the dead woman, and in a dramatic confrontation poor Joan is freaked out something terrible. Finally she cracks; but no, she has actually found her backbone. In a rematch of the dramatic confrontation, Joan puts the house-keeper in her place. "I am Mrs. de Winters now. Do as *I* say." Then she convinces Maxim to have a costume party, but innocently takes a suggestion for a costume from Danvers; it turns out to be a dress that Rebecca wore, and Maxim is furious at her. 
After this things get a bit more suspenseful, and I don't want to spoil this film for you if you have never seen it. Just remember, it *is* a Hitchcock film. The last third of the film involves death, plot-twists, and grand juries. George Sanders shows up, dripping villainy. He ends up as a sympathetic character, but only barely. You really do cheer when Laurence Olivier gives him a knuckle sandwich during one of their scenes. 
The best thing about this film, I think, is that the first time you watch it you are watching it from Joan's point of view; namely, you don't know what is going on or had been happening before you arrived, i.e. before the film starts. For the second or third viewing, though, you can watch it from Maxim's point of view: you know what happened before and now you can see (better than he) that the whole problem could have been solved by a smile here or a hug there or a different choice of words at inoperative moments. That's what makes this such a tragedy. 
I couldn't help thinking, though, that if the heart-to-heart conversation that happens at about the 90 minute mark had happened at the 45 minute mark the movie would have been over. If there was ever a movie that could have been solved by better husband-wife communication, it is this one.
*Academy Award Best Picture 1940*
Produced by David O. Selznick
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay by
Robert E. Sherwood & Joan Harrison
Adaptation by
Philip MacDonald & Michael Hogan
based on the book by Daphne du Maurier

the trailer for the re-release of the film
I like this;
it gives you just enough of a hint of something NOT being said
in the spirit of true suspense

Also Nominated:
(in alphabetical order)
All This And Heaven Too
Foreign Correspondent
The Grapes of Wrath
The Great Dictator
Kitty Foyle
The Letter
The Long Voyage Home
Our Town
The Philadelphia Story

In another year with ten nominees for Best Picture, I have only heard of half of these. The Grapes of Wrath won John Ford his second Best Director Oscar, denying Hitchcock what was, in hind-sight, probably his best overall effort (he never won). The Grapes of Wrath also had Henry Fonda, who was nominated for Best Actor but who lost to James Stewart in The Philadelphia Story. TPS is a comedy with real drama, but probably had no real chance of winning. The Great Dictator is Charlie Chaplin's great satire on Adolf Hitler; it was one of the first mainstream Hollywood films to openly criticize the then-current German regime. It is a great film. Foreign Correspondent is in the odd position of being another Alfred Hitchcock film; it lost to its sister, Rebecca. The other films I have never seen. Kitty Foyle is evidently a tour de force for Ginger Rogers, who won the Best Actress Oscar. Likewise, The Letter is a tour de force for Bette Davis, who was also nominated.  

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