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Monday, August 20, 2007


- Hitchcock, Fontaine, Olivier

I was going to write something about the movie, I Confess, but then thought of another Hitchcock film I like better - Rebecca ....

Rebecca is an Academy Award–winning 1940 psychological thriller directed by Alfred Hitchcock as his first American project. It is an adaptation by Joan Harrison and Robert E. Sherwood of British author Daphne du Maurier's 1938 novel of the same name, and was produced by David O. Selznick. It stars Laurence Olivier as Maxim de Winter, Joan Fontaine as his second wife, and Judith Anderson as his late wife's servant, Mrs. Danvers. The film is a gothic tale about the lingering memory of the title character, which still controls her husband, his new bride, and the housekeeper of their estate, Manderley, long after her death ....

I first read the novel Rebecca when I was in high school - the tale of someone so self-doubting and self-effacing that throughout the whole story, she never even merits a name (Rebecca is the name of her husband's first wife).

Weird factoid about the novle - Wikipedia writes that it was actually used as a code book by the Germans during WWII ....

Sentences would be made using single words in the book, referenced by page number, line and position in the line. One copy was kept at Rommel's headquarters, and the other was carried by German Abwehr agents infiltrated in Cairo after crossing Egypt by car, guided by Count László Almásy. This code was never used, however, because the radio section of the HQ was captured in a skirmish and the Germans thought the security was compromised. This is referenced in Ken Follett's novel The Key to Rebecca. This use of the novel was also referenced in Michael Ondaatje's novel The English Patient.

But back to the film. The plot ... a shy and penniless young woman working as a companion to an aristocratic Lady in Monte Carlo, meets a wealthy, handsome, older, and mysterious widower - Maxim de Winter - and though she can't figure out why he's attracted to her, she's swept off her feet and they're married forthwith. He takes her back to his huge family estate in Cornwall, England - Manderlay - where everything, which seemed too good to be true, begins to unravel. One of the unpleasant surprises waiting at Manderlay is the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, who's obsessed with the dead Rebecca (to the point of a same-sex attraction, according to Wikipedia) and even worse, the novel reveals Maxim to have killed his first wife, with good reason of course, but in the film this is changed, as Hollywood censors couldn't have the male lead a murderer. For those familiar with gothic novels, though, this kind of ... um ... hero is de rigueur, and it's not surprising to learn that the story was based in part on Jane Eyre.

Here below is a little of a review of the film from The Guardian ...


The sheer, swooning pleasure that this film affords - its melodrama, its romance, its extravagant menace - makes it a must-see. Quite rightly, it was included in this paper's recent list of the best cinematic adaptations, and it really is a masterclass in craftsmanship. The novel is expertly opened out in visual and dramatic terms, and shows something rare in any film from any period: characters who change, and are satisfyingly seen to do so during the course of the story. And the voiceover is austerely limited to that famous opening sentence: "Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again ..."

Joan Fontaine plays the mousy and maladroit young woman who finds herself unhappily employed as the companion-helpmeet to a cantankerous, snobbish old dame who is whiling away the off-season at a fine hotel in the south of France. By chance, they happen across a fashionable man of leisure: the enigmatic widower Max de Winter, played by the incomparable Laurence Olivier. Melancholy, saturnine, refined, De Winter is cold with this frightful old woman trying to scrape an acquaintance with him (his behaviour is a demonstration of how an English gentleman is never rude unintentionally), but intrigued by the artless and submissive young companion who senses his inner pain .....

De Winter marries the young woman - a pretty little scene at the local mairie - and takes her back to be the terrified, unprepared chatelaine of his stupendous Cornish estate, Manderley. It is here that the spirit of Max's first wife, Rebecca, haunts every cranny, assisted by the malign loyalty of the sinister housekeeper Mrs Danvers, played by Judith Anderson. Hitchcock and Selznick made Manderley look absolutely gigantic. This really is an English country house conceived on Californian lines: it looks as big as Castle Howard, and surely far bigger than anything Du Maurier imagined. And it is here that the unspeakable Mrs Danvers begins her campaign to destabilise the second Mrs de Winter and drive her mad ....


If you like the genre, this is a classic.


Blogger Rachi said...

Mum made me read the book years ago, probably I was around 14...I dont remember much of it, perhaps time for a revisit.
Haven't seen the movie, maybe if I read the book again it can be a follow up!

7:30 PM  
Blogger Susan said...

Oooh, I loved Rebecca! Loved the movie, loved the book. Can Joan Fontaine really be described as "mousy"? I guess so, because it worked. Did she have a name in the movie? I can see Hollywood doing that.

4:55 AM  
Blogger cowboyangel said...

Great movie. Have you ever seen Portrait of Jennie? Don't know why I think of that in relation to Rebecca - maybe because they're both mysterious and romantic films.

That's fascinating about the book being used by spies. I had no idea. Thanks for the info!

11:07 AM  

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