Thursday, July 18, 2013

Rebecca


"Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again." The famous opening of Daphne du Maurier's novel Rebecca (Doubleday, 1938) evokes dreams, or perhaps nightmares, and nostalgia for what is irrevocably lost, encapsulating (though we don't know it yet) the journey its heroine will undertake over the course of the novel.

The heroine—whose name we never learn—is a young, shy and naïve girl who has been hired as a ladies' companion. While staying with her overbearing employer in Monte Carlo, she encounters the brooding widower Maximilian de Winter, and they begin to spend time together. When de Winter learns that she is about to leave for America with her employer, he abruptly proposes marriage, and she accepts, although her first prescient response is "I don't belong to your sort of world." And no sooner does she return with de Winter to Manderley, his family estate on the southwestern coast of England, than she begins to discover how right she was.

At Manderley the couple's honeymoon idyll is shattered, as the new Mrs. de Winter everywhere encounters the indelible traces of de Winter's first wife, Rebecca. Rebecca was seemingly perfect: beautiful, graceful, tasteful, at ease in every situation, a gracious hostess and a beloved mistress of the household. In contrast the new Mrs. de Winter is uncertain, clumsy, and feels at every turn her inferiority to the worldly Rebecca. Anyone who has ever felt the awkwardness of entering a social situation governed by unstated rules that everyone else seems to know instinctively—and that's pretty much all of us—can't help but empathize with her.

Our heroine's feelings of inadequacy are made infinitely worse by the malevolent housekeeper Mrs. Danvers, who preys on her insecurities and has an identification with Rebecca that is unhealthily close.


Looming over everything is the mystery of Rebecca's fate: she apparently drowned in a boating accident, and Maxim de Winter identified the battered body that washed up on shore. But then her sunken boat is discovered, and inside is a woman's corpse...

The film rights to Rebecca were bought by producer David O. Selznick (who also produced Gone With the Wind (1939)), and it became the first movie Alfred Hitchcock directed in Hollywood. The two men clashed over the script of the film, to which Hitchcock ill-advisedly tried to add scenes not in Du Maurier's book that appealed to his earthy sense of humor. One of Selznick's notorious memos to Hitchcock read in part:
"[Every] little thing that the girl does in the book, her reactions of running away from guests, and the tiny things that indicate her nervousness and her self-consciousness and her gaucherie are all so brilliant in the book that every woman who has read it has adored the girl and has understood her psychology, has cringed with embarrassment for her, yet has understood exactly what was going through her mind....[Your changes in the script] have removed all the subtleties and substituted big broad strokes which in outline form betray...just how bad a picture it would make without the little feminine things which are so recognizable and which make every woman say, 'I know just how she feels...I know just what she is going through...'" [1]
Despite the many brilliant Hitchcockian touches in the film, the director claimed in his famous interviews with François Truffaut that "it's not a Hitchcock picture" [2]. In fact, as Truffaut points out, with its emphasis on the heroine's state of mind and its theme of over-identification, the film is a template for several of Hitchcock's later masterpieces such as Notorious (1946) and Vertigo (1957). Franz Waxman's haunting, evocative soundtrack for Rebecca also seems to have been a model (in emotional, if not musical terms) for Bernard Herrmann's great score for Vertigo.

Although the solution to the mystery had to be changed to satisfy the Production Code, the film is remarkably faithful to the atmosphere of the book. And the touches added by Hitchcock, including the slightly altered dénouement, are highly effective. In one example, as Maxim and his bride drive up to Manderley for the first time a sudden rainstorm breaks. (In the novel, it's sunny.) The new Mrs. de Winter is quickly soaked to the skin, and so as she meets the impeccable Mrs. Danvers and the household staff who have been assembled to greet her, she looks bedraggled, lost and forlorn—an outward representation of her inner anxieties.


The casting is perfect, from Joan Fontaine's tremulous heroine, to Laurence Olivier's dark, enigmatic Maxim, to Dame Judith Anderson's creepily effective Mrs. Danvers. Rebecca went on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, the only Hitchcock film to be so honored (although the award was actually given to Selznick, the film's producer). George Bruce also received the Academy Award for Best Cinematography, but Hitchcock was bypassed for Best Director (as he would be throughout his career).

Rebecca was also adapted into an Indian movie, Kohraa (Fog, 1964), directed by Guru Dutt's former art director Biren Nag and starring Waheeda Rehman. For an excellent review with many tantalizing stills, please see MemsaabStory.

Update 20 July 2013: Thanks to Rajshri Films, Kohraa is available for viewing on YouTube with English captions, for free.

Update 21 July 2013: M. Lapin has alerted me that there are a number of people who profess to love du Maurier's novel, but hate the Hitchcock film. In her post "Hitchcock Got 'Rebecca' Dead Wrong: Sucking the Soul out of a Classic Novel," Elizabeth Langosy complains about Joan Fontaine's "flirty smile and curled hair...[and] too-sophisticated voice" and Judith Anderson's physiognomy, which "looks nothing like the skeletal housekeeper described in the book." She also dislikes the screenplay's differences from the novel, in particular a scene where Olivier's Maxim de Winter is standing on a cliff in Monte Carlo, staring mesmerized at the crashing waves below and evidently on the verge of throwing himself over the edge.

To take her objections one at a time, I guess a "flirty smile" is in the eye of the beholder; I thought Fontaine embodied the heroine's shyness, uncertainty and desire to please painfully well. As for her hairstyle, the heroine is described by du Maurier as having "straight, bobbed hair," and indeed Fontaine's hair is shoulder-length. But it is often pulled back, flattened down, and otherwise deglamorized or made to look schoolgirlish. It's not a literal interpretation of du Maurier's description, but it captures its plain, unstylish essence:


As for her too-sophisticated voice in the opening scene of the film, the narration is in flashback, after the events of the film have taken place. As Maxim tells her in both book and movie after the revelation of Rebecca's fate, "It's gone forever, that funny, young, lost look that I loved. It won't come back again...You are so much older...." (p. 299 of my Avon paperback edition). I think the contrast between the halting, naïve girl who marries Maxim, and the more sophisticated woman recounting her dream at the opening of the film, is deliberate. Whether the effect is overdone is matter of taste, but I don't find it out of keeping with the character.

As for Judith Anderson not looking skeletal, I disagree. She is often lit by cinematographer George Bruce in a way that emphasizes her eyes, forehead and cheekbones, leaving the lower part of her face in shadow. With her severe, pulled-back hair, it indeed makes her face look skull-like:


And as for the scene where Maxim is apparently contemplating suicide, it is a substitute for one in the book where he drives the heroine to a Monte Carlo clifftop and stands looking over the edge, lost in thought. As we and the heroine discover later, he isn't thinking about suicide, but revisiting a place where he contemplated murder. This is another case where I think Hitchcock's change works very well on its own terms, making the aloof, enigmatic Maxim a more sympathetic figure than he might otherwise have appeared.

None of the differences between the novel and Hitchcock's film version "suck the soul out of the novel," in my view. As I wrote above, despite these differences, "the film is remarkably faithful to the atmosphere of the book." So I have to think that the objections of Langosy and others are rooted in something else; perhaps they simply can't tolerate any deviation from the letter of the book. But representing this novel, or any novel, that faithfully would require hours and hours of screentime. To bring in a version that is merely feature-length necessarily requires compressions, elisions and changes to the source. In Hitchcock's Rebecca, those differences from du Maurier's novel seem to me to be thoughtfully considered and effective.

Longosy praises the 1979 BBC adaptation written by Hugh Whitemore; she writes, "Although this adaptation takes four hours to tell the story, it replicates as closely as possible du Maurier’s depiction of the characters and events." That "although," I think, is curious; shouldn't it instead be "because"? While sheer length is not sufficient to guarantee scene-by-scene faithfulness to a literary source—see The Pallisers—I think it is a necessary precondition. The BBC miniseries features Joanna David (later Elizabeth Bennet's Aunt Gardiner in the great 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride & Prejudice) as the heroine, Jeremy Brett (later Granada TV's Sherlock Holmes) as Maxim, and Anna Massey (later Miss Stanbury in the BBC's 2004 adaptation of He Knew He Was Right) as Mrs. Danvers. The cast is certainly promising; if I have a chance to see it (it has never been issued on video, to my knowledge) I'll make a further report.

Update 31 July 2013: A (micro-)mini review of Kohraa is included in the comments below.

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1. Tania Modleski, The Women Who Knew Too Much: Hitchcock and Feminist Theory, Routledge, 1988, p. 43.
2. François Truffaut, Hitchcock, Simon and Schuster, 1984, p. 127.

10 comments:

  1. Wonderful post! Hitchcock’s Rebecca is an indelible, haunting memory from my childhood, riveted in front our our black and white 14-inch TV, fixated on Mrs. Danvers’ crazed eyes as the flames grow higher... My mother even had a hardback copy of Du Maurier’s book lying around the house, although I remember it as green (no longer had the dust jacket?). I'll keep an eye out for a copy. I’ve seen Hitchcock’s film several times as an adult as well, although now my favorite actor is George Saunders, who plays the part of Jack Favell, Rebecca’s ne’er-do-well cousin and the second Mrs. De Winter’s confidant. Not entirely sure what that says about my tastes...

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    1. M. Lapin, it only says good things about your taste that you've focussed on Saunders' excellent performance. I didn't mention Saunders' portrayal of Jack Favell in my post because I felt I'd already gone on too long, so many thanks for pointing out how good Saunders is as Rebecca's all-too-insistent cousin. His portrayal of Favell, who is supremely unconcerned about social niceties and decorum, and forces his way in where he's most unwanted and disliked, is so good that I began to feel as anxious as the new Mrs. de Winter whenever I saw him appear.

      As Hitchcock (and du Maurier) intended; it's an example of how brilliantly they manipulate our feelings and twist our sympathies. After all, Favell—though he initially tries blackmail—is investigating what he suspects is Rebecca's murder. It's possible to imagine an alternate Rebecca in which Favell is the intrepid hero who stops at nothing to expose the secrets surrounding her death; thankfully, du Maurier (and Hitchcock) were after something darker, more complicated, and more interesting.

      Thanks again for your comment!

      P.

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  2. Dear Rebecca. Brief Fan-girl caveat...there's pretty much nothing not to love in this movie for me. It easily makes my top 15 or 20 favorite movies of all time. Since I probably can't speak to it without bias, so I probably shouldn't try. Similarly, the book is a masterpiece, and is still wonderful after multiple readings.

    About your post:
    (A) I love that there's a actually a Jeremy Brett version of this floating around (or rusting away, gods forbid)somewhere. I have to find this somehow.

    (B) Have you seen the Masterpiece Theatre "Rebecca" (1998)? I don't really care for it, although they did make an effort to do something newish with the story.

    (C)Selznick's note to Hitchcock, priceless. I wonder if that was as influential as it seems. Speaking as a female fan, who should have had her feminist hackles raised by the tone, I can't deny that I agree with everything Selznick said about the small anxiety-driven moments in the story, and shudder to think what the film would have been like without his influence. Not that I don't love Notorious or Spellbound or other films in a similar psychological/visual vein, but they DO lack the subtlety of Rebecca.

    (D) Kohraa is now next in line in my filmi-youtube queue. Thanks for the link.

    I ran into Rebecca again, recently, and in a totally unexpected place. I was at the Musee D'Orsay, and had the good fortune to see their current multimedia exhibit showcasing dark romanticism . . . from 1700s sketches, to Fuesli and John Martin and Caspar David Friedrich in the 1800s, to the late romantics, to their descendants in Hollywood and modern brethren (apparently Max Ernst and his contemporaries fit the bill according to MD curators).

    Anyway, I was looking at a Friedrich, and suddenly heard some music I knew by heart. Shivers crept down my spine, and I was drawn around the corner to see my favorite scene from Rebecca playing to a huddled crowd of French folks who probably had never heard of it before (See 9:35 for the clip). It was paired with a scene from Dracula and two other silent films. It's a link that is definitely worth more research. I would love to see A LOT more written on the relationship between gothic literature/art and gothic film.

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    1. Filmi-Contrast, no fan-girl caveats are necessary with me; I certainly don't pretend to objectivity.

      (a) The 1979 BBC adaptation of Rebecca is posted on YouTube. I won't give the link here, since I don't want to call unwelcome attention to it, but a brief search should turn up all four episodes. Watch it while you can.

      (b) The 1997 Masterpiece Theater/ITV production: I was unaware of this until I read Elizabeth Langosy's post. It features Diana Rigg as Mrs. Danvers, but your comments and EL's don't make it sound too promising.

      (c) Selznick and Hitchcock's relationship has been the subject of at least one book, Leonard Leff's Hitchcock and Selznick: The Rich and Strange Collaboration of Alfred Hitchcock and David O. Selznick in Hollywood (University of California Press, 1999). Selznick's comments on the "little feminine things" that make the heroine so sympathetic are patronizing, but I too am grateful for his focus on our sympathy for the heroine as the key to the novel and film.

      Hitchcock's feelings about Selznick were expressed in two later movies. In Rear Window (1954), the wife-murderer Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr) is made to look uncannily like Selznick, from his hairstyle and hair color to his round glasses and facial resemblance. And in Vertigo (1957), the wife-murderer Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) is often shot towering over the seated Scotty Ferguson (James Stewart)—an echo of the cover photograph of Leff's book, which shows a standing Selznick lecturing a seated, unhappy-looking Hitchcock.

      Your mention of Selznick's memo gives me a welcome opportunity to plug Tania Modleski's The Women Who Knew Too Much, from which I took the quote. It's simply one of the best books on Hitchcock I've ever read; you'll never look at the films she discusses in the same way.

      (d) Kohraa is the next Indian film I plan to watch as well.

      (e?) The Gothic and film: Most treatments of the Romantic-Gothic focus on 18th- and 19th-century art, architecture, and literature, although there are some (such as Richard Davenport-Hines' The Gothic: Four Hundred Years of Excess, Horror, Evil and Ruin (North Point Press, 1999) that include film and contemporary popular culture as well). As you (and the curators of the Musee d'Orsay -- lucky you!) point out, the connections to film are potentially a very rich subject. Of course, there is also a filmi-Gothic, a category that in addition to Kohraa might include Mahal (1949) and Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam (1962), among others. Perhaps we'll read more about it soon on the excellent Filmi-Contrast.

      Best,

      P.

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  3. Thank you, P. for the further research possibilities :) A feminist tome on Hitchcock sounds like something I've needed to read for a long time but didn't realize it! For example, it seems to me that his films often simultaneously place women at the center of suffering for either their own or someone else's crimes . . . and I often get this sense that he feels that women need to be purified through trials (Notorious, the Birds, Marnie, and Rebecca just being a few in this category). I suppose a lot of crime thrillers arguably follow the same lines, but Hitchcock seems to fixate on the suffering in a different way. This makes me a bit uncomfortable, but I can't deny it makes for a fascinating ride story-wise. Also, if (but probably when) I end up doing a series tracing Gothic strains in the filmi/Hollywood realm (sounds like a fun romp to me!), said book should be a good place to start. Now that I think of it, women or men suffering unduly for theirs/others crimes sounds like Gothic-Strains 101...hmm.

    As to "Kohraa," I just finished it, and have quite a few things to say say about it. (I won't go over them all here, as I don't want to spoil the experience if you haven't gotten around to it yet.) I will say that the film felt stronger as it went along, but definitely suffers from weak characterization and dialogue throughout. In my opinion, it breaks a lot of its own rules by the end as well, which is hard to put up with in any story that grasps at the label of psychological thriller. The highlight of the film for me was the highly interesting cinematography--a must-see set of visuals in an otherwise mediocre story. I'm glad I saw it, but it wasn't what I wanted it to be.

    I saw several chunks of "Mahal" back a ways, was moderately intrigued, and still mean to see it in full. After the less than stellar performance of Biswajit in "Kohraa," I am hoping to see a more rounded Gothic performance from Ashok Kumar. My plan WAS to wait to watch it on a dark and stormy night, but just haven't found such weather as prevalent recently in real life as it is in Hindi cinema . . . lol.

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    1. Miranda, Hitchcock has often been accused of misogyny and/or sadism because of the perils, physical and psychological, that the women in his movies are forced to undergo. Modleski complicates this picture by pointing out ways that Hitchcock "privileges the woman's consciousness...so that all spectators...identify with her in her plight" (from her discussion of Notorious).

      Something more than sadism is involved—our sympathies and identification are engaged on the side of the heroine, and we repeatedly see events through her eyes. Rebecca is a perfect example, as is Suspicion (from the following year, also starring Joan Fontaine). But Modleski shows that this mechanism is also at work even in films that are apparently told from a male character's point of view, such as Vertigo.

      Incidentally, Modleski opens her discussion of Notorious by pointing out that Hitchcock's work throughout the 1940s involved reworking "the genre of the 'female Gothic,' which features women who fall in love with or marry men they subsequently begin to fear; the plots typically involve women's investigation of their victimization by the men they love." She mentions not only Rebecca, Suspicion and Notorious, but Spellbound and Shadow of a Doubt. So much for the idea (promoted by Hitchcock himself in the interview with François Truffaut quoted above) that Rebecca somehow isn't a "Hitchcock picture."

      There are also examples in Hitchcock's films where men have to undergo their own trials to prove their worthiness (for example, in North by Northwest), but that's another discussion entirely.

      Re: Kohraa, I agree with you both about the striking cinematography and the disappointing narrative. Sometimes the apparitions of Rebecca/Poonam that the new wife Rajshri encounters in her husband's haveli seem to be dreams or fantasies, and at other times we are apparently intended to see them as external to her. Also, I found Kohraa's ending—which is different from both the novel and the Hitchcock film version—to be unconvincing. And speaking of unconvincing, Biswajeet and his distracting hair were not my image of Maxim/Amit Singh. Waheeda Rehman was very sympathetic as Rajshri, however, and despite its flaws Kohraa was definitely worth seeing.

      I'm looking forward to hearing your thoughts on Mahal. It's been quite some time since I've seen it, but I do remember that the music is excellent. And Ashok Kumar is definitely a better Gothic hero...

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    2. Hi P

      Tried posting the following on Miranda's blog but could not do so. Hence posting here in the hope that she may visit your blog and read - hope you don't ind.

      First time visitor via exotic and irrational blog. Interesting post. Best Rakhee - Amitabh movies are - Trishul, Jurmana, Bemisaal, Kasme Vadey, mukadar ka sikandar - in that order. Do give these movies a go - looking forward to your posts on these movies

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    3. Glad you were interested in the Rakhee post. Still trying to figure out why I find her so fascinating, so I've seen a few more of her movies since that post, including Muqaddar Ka Sikandar. It was alright, but I think the shining role in that belonged to Vinod Khanna, and the best jodi not to Rakheetabh but to the Amitabh/Vinod bromance) and Trishul and Kasme Vaade are soon to be seen hopefully. :) As far as commenting goes, I'm still getting a few technicalities worked out on the blog, and hopefully next time you visit you won't have a problem.

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    4. Thanks P for allowing my comment. Miranda, please see the ones i have listed above. MKS was the last in order. MKR was more known for the songs and Amitabh and VK's roles.

      Jurmana, Bemisaal and Trishul are worth seeing. I will check out your blog after I return to Oz. Right now I am in Canada and will be visiting New York next week before I head back.- cheers

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  4. I haven't seen "Suspicion," (I probably should) but I agree in the case of "Spellbound" and "Shadow of a Doubt" that women are at the center of the Hitchcock's action in a way that pushes female conventions (of which I approve) but also boundaries of ethical comfort (which becomes disturbing when I think about it too much).

    I liked Waheeda in "Kohraa" as well. I think the only thing I had seen her in before was "Kabhi Khabie," in a role I didn't really appreciate. But Biswajeet, goshdarnit. He was irritating-ingly simplistic at best, and just completely out of sync with the story at worst. (His hair was double-booked in some dance/beach movie with Annette Funicello, I think, and didn't have time to learn a different part.) He was a cartoon scotch-taped to an Old Master painting.

    And the whole Rebecca/Poonam's ghost showing up? That especially could have been worked into the fabric of the film in some amazing way, but it just turned out to be completely out of sync (yet again) with the culmination of the story because it was NEVER referred to again. It was just assumed in the narrative that ghosts were normal (but not really instrumental in the course of events), which despite my mystic leanings at times, I found frustrating. Call me old-fashioned, but if you introduce a ghost, I want it to have some pull in the climax. (I'm an American raised on proper-horror motifs, what can I say.) As amazing as the foggy rooftop scene was, it was never referred to again. The film would have been far stronger if they had found even a meager way to work that "happening" in again. I have a hard time letting that oversight go. Also, *spoiler* the ending? Very anti-climactic, and too easy, to make the creepy housekeeper the fall-person for the crime. I just didn't believe it. "Rebecca" (1940) changed the resolution somewhat, but the arc was *almost* seamless despite the changes. In "Kohraa," the changes were all glaring missteps that spoiled a film that could have been great in another life.

    "Mahal" is coming up soon in my queue on Netflix, no matter what the coming weather, and I'll see what I can drum up through the library on the Gothic-topic for future posts. I think that a treatment of the Filmi-Gothic would be perfect for October (Gothictober month perhaps?), and luckily enough October is just far enough away for me to do some related reading.

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