Review: Rebecca (1940)

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“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again…” ~ Joanne Fontaine in Rebecca 

In normal circumstances, voice-over introductions rarely resonate but for some reason, the ethereal tones of Joan Fontaine opening Rebecca leave a lasting impact and that’s after well nigh 80 years.

This was Alfred Hitchcock’s first film in Hollywood and it truly is a stunning debut but if you take a step back and see who was working behind the scenes, it soon because fairly plain that this was as much of a David O. Selznick film as it was a Hitchcock one, if not more so. Because Selznick had Hitch under contract and he was following up the grandeur of Gone with the Wind (1939) with another costume drama positioned to be a smash hit.

Though Rebecca was slightly less ornate and preoccupied with its more gothic sensibilities, Daphne du Maurier’s novel was nevertheless ripe for a Selznick treatment with a sturdily constructed story and quality production values all across. And of course, you have the acting talent which while not necessarily head and shoulders above all of Hitch’s previous works was nevertheless top of the line.

First, of course, is Laurence Olivier providing a great deal of import to the part of one of our protagonists, George Fortescue Maximilian De Winter, the tortured man of breeding whose life is stricken with past tragedies. But equally crucial is Joan Fontaine’s role as the unnamed woman who subsequently becomes the second Mrs. De Winter after a whirlwind courtship in Monte Carlo. She began as the meek lady in waiting for a boorish socialite Mrs. Edythe Van Hopper only to fall in love with the older man.

Fontaine inhabits the role with a breathless wide-eyed timidity that’s immediately attractive and makes her the object of our sympathies. She always gives off the appearance of a frazzled little deer in the headlights like she doesn’t quite know what to say or what to do in the presence of others whom she deems more important than herself.

It’s that very quality that drew me to Fontaine from the outset the first time I saw Rebecca and no doubt a similar quality that draws Maxim de Winter to her character. There’s an undeniable innocence there full of an angelic beauty that exerts itself each time she interacts with others, eyes wide with mouth agape. That in itself is an immaculate illusion given Fontaine’s own life full of estrangement. Here she is faultless and demure.

And that comes into focus even more clearly because Maxim can often be an unfeeling man, swarmed with past demons though he might be. Put them together and he’s certainly the dominant figure. The same goes for their arrival at his stately home Manderley. The current Mrs. De Winters is totally overwhelmed by this grand estate and the staff that frequent its halls.

The shining example is the apparition of a housekeeper Ms. Danvers (Judith Anderson) and it’s a career-defining role for a character actress who always could be imperious and a little unscrupulous. But she was never as harrowing as the fiercely loyal woman who starts playing mind games with her new employer.

You also have the incomparable George Sanders playing his English gentleman with biting wit and a touch of blackmail. He becomes pivotal to the story for the very sake that he speaks up on the deceased Rebecca’s behalf as much as Mrs. Danvers does. They adored this woman that Maxim loathed so deeply by the end of their relationship. And it’s in this chafing that the ultimate conflict is uncovered — the type of conflict that threatens to rip Maxim away from his new love and splatter his reputation in the courtroom drama that ensues.

Much like Laura (1944) in her eponymous film, Rebecca lingers over the entire narrative and haunts its frames from start to finish. Yet in the latter work of Otto Preminger, the lady actually makes an appearance on screen incarnated by the entrancing Gene Tierney.

Here Rebecca is a specter who never tries to show herself. There is no physical semblance of her, only signs and references of her being — most memorably the scripted letter “R.” Because, truthfully, she doesn’t need to show her face. She almost wields more power without being seen. It’s that rather unnerving feeling of impending dread that’s hanging over the audience as much as it does Mrs. De Winter.

In the end, Hitchcock didn’t exactly get the murder that he would have liked but in any case, it does not fully take away from the impact of Rebecca. Instead of being a film of overt actions it starts to work on our psyches as a sterling psychological exercise matched by its deliciously dark atmosphere. The mental distress is heightened by the eerie interiors marked by layers of shadow and the shrouded impressionistic seaside that envelops the De Winter compound. Fittingly, Manderley is razed to the ground once and for all.

Ironically enough, though the production is very much on the Hollywood scale, it’s probably the most “British” film that Hitchcock ever made in America based on not only the subject matter but the majority of the acting talent because on top of Olivier and Sanders you have such esteemed character actors as C. Aubrey Smith, Nigel Bruce, Melville Cooper, and Leo G. Carroll (a Hitchcock favorite).

Still, he was blessed with the best talent he had at his disposal since the infancy of his career, in part because of his move across the Atlantic. Joan Harrison who would become one of the most prominent and only female producers in Hollywood turned in work on the script along with Robert E. Sherwood with the score being composed by Hollywood icon Franz Waxman. Even if the players at work are not necessarily evocative of the many trademarks we usually attribute to the director, that hardly makes Rebecca any less of a delight.

Furthermore, there is something inherently honest about the lead portrayals throughout the film. Not necessarily because they’re realistic but they are full of fear and hatred and emotion and you see it in the words and on the faces of the characters. This is hardly a playful film. It’s not trying to subvert drama with humor or dry tonal reversals. But it’s candid in its despair as much as in its joy.

For all their intrigues and complexities in technical feats, storytelling, and psychology, sincerity is not always something you look for in a Hitchcock picture. Here it works. Casting this devasting love story up against the backdrop of gothic horror makes it all the more affecting. The marriage of the talents of David O Selznick and Alfred Hitchcock turns out to be a surprisingly bountiful proposition. Even if it wasn’t made to last.

5/5 Stars

Jane Eyre (1943)

Jane-Eyre-1943-1Are you always drawn to the loveless and unfriended? ~ Edward Rochester

When it’s deserved. ~ Jane Eyre

I can still recall visiting the Bronte Parsonage, marveling at the fact that these sisters were able to have such a lasting impact on the world of literature — a world so often dominated by men at that time — and I simultaneously rued the fact that I had yet to crack open any of their works. Now several years down the road, I still have not opened up Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre by Emily and Charlotte Bronte and so I can only come into this 20th-century adaptation with certain expectations.

I realize that no film can wholly represent every page of a novel — especially of great length — because in a practical sense it’s simply not theatrically possible. But my hope is that at the very least this version of Jane Eyre maintains the essence of the source material and if nothing else I can revel in the fact that it is a thoroughly engrossing film from director Robert Stevenson.

It feels like some sort of intriguing marriage between Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre and the recent craze of gothic fiction adaptations — the most noted of course being Hitchcock’s Rebecca only a few years prior — that by some strange happenstance had input from Aldous Huxley. Here we have the ever timid beauty Joan Fontaine starring once more, this time opposite Welles. But the story starts at a much earlier point in the life of Jane Eyre.

Her life is a desolate and horrible affair as we soon find out, due in part to a caustic culture that uses their religion to ostracize others instead of bringing them into the fold of society.

In fact, most of those who hold a Christian belief system are puritanical and more problematic still, hard-hearted. Ironically, there’s no room for grace in the Christian faith that they practice. Foremost among this crowd is Mr. Brocklehurst (Henry Daniel) who runs the Lowood Institution for Girls.

It’s in this very issue revealed early on where the film finds much of its substance. Because thematically all throughout the narrative the audience is forced to grapple with various characters who are subjugated to the fringes of society and for various reasons are labeled as outcasts.

This is how Jane is seen first by her unfeeling aunt (Agnes Moorehead), then by the narrow-minded reverend. They seem absolutely incapable of compassion sitting atop their high horses of proclaimed humility and charity. In reality, they have very little of either to offer. A few do show her kindness including Dr. Rivers (John Sutton) and the cook Bessie (Sarah Allgood) but such behavior is the exception and not the norm.

Still, Jane the very person who has been relegated to a wretched and lesser state is for that very reason ready and willing to reach out to those around her who are treated likewise. The very fact that she has been marginalized allows her to see it in others and be compelled to move toward them when others move away.  She cares deeply for the outsider.

The most galvanizing experience involves her closest friend as a young girl (played by a child who still is very unmistakably Elizabeth Taylor). Then as she grows up and chooses to move away from the oppression of her surrogate home, it is the role of a governess in a gothic manor that once more allows her the opportunity to extend her graces to others. First in the form of the precocious ballerina extraordinaire (Margaret O’Brien) and then the brusque but obviously tortured man of the house (Orson Welles).

She sees in him something that runs deeper than the surface. He’s far from a bad man. In fact, she grows to love and cherish him because she sees the good that dwells in his conflicted soul. Burdened as he is with guilt and a past that still haunts him to the present moment. The film exhibits a bit of a love triangle as Rochester invites many guests to his estate among them the well-to-do Blanche Ingram (Hillary Brooke).

But the film pulling from its source material goes a step further still.  It digs into the dark recesses, involving itself with the less than pleasant realities, namely an unseen person who hangs over the storyline like a specter. In those very designs, whether they are simply employing the rhythms of Bronte’s book or not, there’s another evident parallel there with the 1940 adaptation of du Maurier’s Rebecca.

Gothic tones matched with an impending sense of foreboding with the demure Fontaine similarly relating the action through voiceover even reading verbatim off the page as if from a diary. And once again it works. While there is no Mrs. Danvers, Welles has the same Shakespearian gravitas of an Olivier that accentuates the very modesty of many of Fontaine’s performances. Their exchanges reflect the sensibilities of the time but furthermore help draw up the very differences of their characters. However, as much as that juxtaposition would seem to draw them apart it even more passionately brings them together.

Some might find this rendition of Jane Eyre too stark, too much of a studio production, even too abrupt, but with Welles and Fontaine opposite each other, it’s a frequently enjoyable gothic romance. As much as gothic romances can possibly be enjoyable.

4/5 Stars

The Bigamist (1953)

the-bigamist-1I despise you and I pity you. ~ Edmund Gwenn as Mr. Jordan

The Bigamist is at first a delightful noir — in one aspect unassuming and yet groundbreaking when put in a broader context. Ida Lupino is not simply a good female director. She is a good director, period.   She left a body of work both behind and in front of the camera that speaks for itself. Even the small ones like The Hitchhiker and The Bigamist have a certain strength about them.

In this case, the film’s title flashes with the superficial tinges of a sordid drama but when you actually get into the thick of it all, there’s a great deal of tenderness and certain heartbreak there.

In some ways, Edmund Gwenn becomes our main character’s father confessor as the protagonist explains how it all began through flashback: The plotting is simple. Harry Graham (Edmond O’Brien) found himself living a double life. But it’s not just that. He loves his wife Eve (Joan Fontaine). They genuinely care for each other deeply and now they share together in business but he spends a great deal of his time on the road. They’re even planning to adopt a child together since Eve cannot have a child of her own. Obviously, during his frequent bouts on the road, Harry gets lonely and we’ve undoubtedly heard that excuse countless times and it’s been the calling card for a great deal of infidelity.

the-bigamist-2Except at first what Harry does, does not seem like infidelity. In one integral scene Harry takes one of those bus tours to see the stars because, after all, Beverly Hills is that land of movie stars and their extravagant lifestyles. Jimmy Stewart, Jack Benny, Oscar Levant, Barbara Stanwyck, and Jane Wyman are all given a nod. There are even a few playful in-jokes to the always genial Edmund Gwenn who turns up as the adoption agent. All of this is essentially fluff but it’s on that same ride where he meets someone — a woman named Phyllis Martin (Ida Lupino).

It’s true that they’re both looking for a friend and they gravitate towards each other. It’s nothing more than that and Phyllis invites her newfound friend to a restaurant made in the popular mode of Early American Chinese. It’s where she works. But he hardly cares. He sees her more and the most astounding thing is that he tells his wife about it almost in jest saying he met a brunette in California. The reason he cites: she wasn’t beautiful but she was nice.

And right in that moment, you can see what’s particularly striking about The Bigamist. It’s a frank, open, and honest film in an often prim and proper era of certain sensibilities. The Bigamist looks to be a film to trod all over those social mores and yet extraordinarily enough it doesn’t. Yes, in certain ways it dissects them but it does it with great care and a tenderness for all parties involved.

It’s not so much a dark brooding noir but a film of interpersonal tragedy rather like earlier such examples as Pitfall or They Live by Night where bits of darkness pervades the home and relationships which are admittedly fragile because of the humans involved. Topics of divorce, infidelity, and pregnancy further complicate matters.  But not in some lurid exploitive way to sell tickets.

It’s oddly ironic on multiple levels. Of course, we know as an audience that he is seeing another woman but that’s only the beginning. In a major fit of situational irony, it works exactly contrary to what we might expect. Edmund O’Brien’s lead is a good and decent man. His wife is not a holy terror but played by one of the sympathetic heroines of the 40s and 50s, Joan Fontaine. Furthermore, Ida Lupino is not some sleazy femme fatale. In fact, she’s the one who initially rejects his advances and shows reluctance to marry him.

the-bigamist-3It strikes me how it’s often the small, tiny, unassuming pictures that impact me the most and this film did wrench my heart over the course of only a very few minutes. The final court sequence sums up the reasons quite well because it ends the film on a moral note setting up a rather convicting paradigm.

We see both women there. We see the accused sitting in front of the judge and jury willingly admitting his guilt. His is a society that winks an eye at a married fellow with a mistress and yet he, a man who genuinely loved two women, is found at fault under the law. The defense attorney on his behalf calls for punishment tempered by mercy.

When those two women walk out of the courtroom as the proceedings end, it does not mean that any of it can ever go back to normal. Will either of them even take him back? We can make an educated assumption but that’s not really for us to know. However, on a universal level, the words of the attorney reverberate in my ears. Each one of us has aspects of our character that are undoubtedly despicable but also elicit pity. It only makes sense that each of us deserves a certain amount of punishment but also a measure of mercy. It’s up to us to extend that to others. Because the reality is that we might not be that much better than the eponymous bigamist. Judging by his character we might actually be far worse.

3.5/5 Stars

The Women (1939)

 6d603-womenHere is a film full of personalities. In fact there is so much personality that it nearly bowls you over with its impact and frenetic force.

In the center of it all is Norma Shearer who is the respectable socialite who is losing her husband to another woman. Joan Crawford is the gold digging woman who is as detestable as ever. Rounding it out is the equally repulsive gossip played to a tee by Rosalind Russell. There is the ever innocent Joan Fontaine and a spunky divorcee played by Paulette Goddard. Throw in numerous other memorable women and you have a cast that completely overwhelms, but in a good way.

Husbands and lovers seem to being switching hands so easily and the whole film is focused on the women who are swapping them. It begins with Mary Haines’ husband only to continually get more complicated as more gossip is divulged and mud is thrown. Not to mention a few angry fists and slaps to go with the caustic words.

There is a lot to admire about this film, because it does what it set out to do very well. It creates some empathy, some laughs, and yes, a whole lot of loathing.

However, as I contemplated the film I realized although the Women is from 1939 and the clothes often seem laughable, the people and issues in the film often seem all too real. Divorce hits close to many homes literally and gossip certainly has not gone instinct. Thus, despite the passage of time, in many ways this film still feels fresh and relevant today.

4/5 Stars

A Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948)

8cc43-letter_from_an_unknown_woman_posterThe place is Austria. The time around 1900. This tearful romance is framed by a lovely plot device in the form of a circular narrative. As the title suggests a woman writes a letter to the man who she has always loved. As she relates their story, he slowly pieces it all together.
Lisa was a shy and timid girl. She becomes acquainted with dashing piano prodigy Stefan Brand (Louis Jourdan) from afar as he has moved in next door to her mother’s home. She is a quiet observer of all he does, sharing in each one of his musical triumphs and seeing his friends (mostly women). Lisa even goes so far as to attend dancing school, so that she might learn good manners to impress him someday. Most of all his playing enchants her each and every evening as she silently listens to his gifted hands.
Thursdays were rug beating day and on one such day, she got her chance. She met Stefan’s kindly mute servant and secretly enters the shrine of her love for one blissful moment. However, things quickly change as Lisa’s widowed mother has a beau who wants them to come and live in Linz. So they move away from the oblivious Brand, but the wistful Lisa takes one last visit to her old home.
Soon she is introduced to the stately Liet. Leopold and as time passes he graciously asks for her hand. Taken aback, Lisa balks and mentions another in Vienna who her parents do not know of (and who does not know her). No one understands the reason why, only she does, and she is not one to tell. Lisa, however, moves forward and begins to model dresses for rich clientele. Finally, as a grown woman she has her first true face-to-face encounter with the man whom she worships.

Thus, begins their enchanted time together. He does not quite understand the gravity of the situation, but she is content in just being with him. That is enough. No explanations need to be made. Their evenings are spent eating lobster, walking through the streets, taking a train ride all over the world, and munching on caramel apples. Top it off with a passionate embrace followed by a kiss and the fairy tale ending seems to be imminent. But as we already suspected, it is not that easy, and a train rapidly takes him out of her life.

As time passes, she has a son who is Stefan’s boy, but she resolves not to tell him and raise him by herself. For a while, it is a struggle, but she gets remarried and she seems happy enough with a comfortable lifestyle, a gentlemanly husband, and a cute son. Stefan Brand is now a washed up has-been who used to have a wealth of talent 10 years ago. At the opera, he happens to cross paths with Lisa, a strangely familiar figure, and she realizes that she must go to him. She is absolutely ecstatic to be reunited with her first love, but all too soon it becomes evident he cannot remember her. He is fascinated by her the same way he was 10 years ago, but he has forgotten. Unrequited love hurts too much and a broken marriage is already upon her. As her son before her, Lisa’s life is taken by Typhus and all that is left of her is this letter for Stefan.
 
All that’s left for him to do is hit his head in despair. He let her slip through his fingers, if only he had known. If only his servant had not been mute, because he knew who the girl was. Brand has new resolve, however, and instead of running away he faces an unpleasant fate with honor. 
Joan Fontaine is as sweetly demure as ever, and she fits this role so beautifully with her narration being a wonderful guiding hand to the film’s story. Her character slowly grows and matures in front of us, and yet one thing remains unchanged, her love of Stefan Brand. In some ways, the label of a “woman’s picture” has a negative connotation, but really all it refers to is a film that takes the point of view of a woman, or it focuses specifically on women. These stories crafted by men during the 40s and 50s were meant to be weepy tales for women audiences. Looking back now, however, they can resonant with all audiences and in this case some of that is due to the direction of Max Ophuls. 
Ophuls camera is hardly ever stagnant, following Joan Fontaine as she moves, with gracefully smooth sweeps and tracking shots. Give him a staircase and it becomes almost a playground for him to move about as he sees fit. What we are left with is an elegant look, because the movement does not take away from the elegance but actually accentuates it. No one could accuse the camera of being hurky-jerky, and it makes the impact of the stationary camera that more potent.
At an approximately 86 minute running time, A Letter from an Unknown Woman is a marvel because it is laced with character development, romance, and drama that builds steadily and reaches a teary crescendo.
 
4.5/5 Stars

The Women (1939)

6cabb-poster_-_women_the_01Starring a cast including Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Paulette Goddard, and Joan Fontaine, this film is all about the lives of these women. Mary is a member of New York high society who is happy with her marriage. However, when her gossipy friends begin to talk about her husband with another women she is hurt. She eventually  files for divorce and while waiting for the conformation in Reno she meets some new friends and is finally able to find a way to get her husband back. Needless to say the ending is happy and a few women get what they deserve. This film had an enjoyable introduction, a sequence in Technicolor, and an all female cast. Most of all it characterizes the various women in this walk of life. Some are kindly, others foolish, and still others are treacherous.

4/5 Stars

Suspicion (1941) – Alfred Hitchcock

Starring Cary Grant and Joan Fontaine with director Alfred Hitchcock, the film follows a young English woman who marries a charming man. However, he has gained notoriety for gambling and he also has a mysterious side. After telling his wife he is done gambling, he goes to find a job. Through a series of conversations however Fontaine’s character discovers her husband has been keeping things from her. Because of the tragic death of her husband’s good friend and other suspicious events, Fontaine begins to grow paranoid. She fears for her life as she is alone with her husband. In the final dramatic scene her situation takes a great twist. Although not Hitchcock’s best, in this film he does play with our minds as we too are constantly suspicious. Grant and Fontaine both give very commendable performances.

4/5 Stars

Rebecca (1940) – Alfred Hitchcock

This film directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring Laurence Olivier with Joan Fontaine, was adapted from the Daphne du Maurier novel of the same name. The story begins in Monte Carlo where Max De Winter (Olivier) and a young woman (Fontaine) have a chance meeting as she is working for an older lady. Soon she learns that his previous wife died the year before. Fairly soon the two of them are attracted to each other and Max has plans of marriage and returning to his Manderley. However, back home the fairy tale is over and the new Mrs. De Winter is constantly tormented by the housekeeper Mrs. Danvers. Pretty soon Max himself seems to have changed. Confused Mrs. De Winter must learn what happened to Rebecca, the lady who was so enchanting. When she actually finds out the truth it is almost too much to bear. Like many Hitchcock films this one is certainly worth watching and it was actually his first American film. Olivier, Fontaine, George Sanders, and Judith Anderson all have very good performances.

4.5/5 Stars