Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Ms. Fontaine has No Name

"Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again..." is perhaps one of the most famous opening lines of a novel.  Last night, I too went to Manderley again, submerging myself in the wonder that is Rebecca (1940), Alfred Hitchcock's first American film, and his only film to win a Best Picture Oscar. 

Aired as part of TCM's Summer Under the Stars tribute to Joan Fontaine, Rebecca is a remarkable film.  Starring Joan Fontaine as the nameless second Mrs. deWinter, Laurence Olivier as her husband - and the widower of the unseen, but always felt, Rebecca - Maxim, and Judith Anderson as the always creepy Mrs. Danvers, it faithfully represents the Daphne du Maurier novel, yet creates compelling cinema AND manages to placate the Production Code.  

The story of Rebecca open in Monte Carlo.  Our heroine is wandering the cliff-side, when she sees a man gazing over the edge of the precipice.  Alarmed, she cries out. He reacts violently, telling her loudly to mind her own business.  That evening, as she sits in the lobby of the hotel with her employer, the crude Edyth van Hopper (played by the always wonderful Florence Bates), who should appear but That Man - Maxim de Winter, the wealthy owner of Manderley, and a lion of the social set.  Mrs. van Hopper tries to ingratiate herself to him, to no avail (though she is oblivious to Maxim's disregard of her).  Maxim is much more intrigued by her paid companion, and when Mrs. van Hopper is relegated to her room by a cold,  the girl and Maxim begin to keep company.  She, of course, is immediately smitten by him.  He treats her as a child, needing constant care and correction. But, when Mrs. Van Hopper decides to drag the girl back to America, Maxim proposes marriage. Following a happy honeymoon, the couple returns to Manderley, and the second Mrs. De Winter finds that her life is a constant stream of insecurity and fear. 


Joan Fontaine is really perfect as the second Mrs. De Winter.  Her mannerisms, which can sometimes be annoying, work beautifully here; they highlight her naivety and anxiety.  Laurence Olivier provides the perfect balance of superciliousness and affection as Maxim.  One is never quite sure of his love for his second wife, nor his feelings for Rebecca.  Which is as it should be - Rebecca needs to hover over the proceedings, as her minion, the magnificent Mrs. Danvers attempts to destroy Maxim's marriage, as well as his new wife.  Ms. Anderson was rightfully nominated for an Oscar for her performance (losing to Jane Darwell in The Grapes of Wrath).  Watch her as she shows the second wife Rebecca's room and belongings.  Her obsession with, and passion for, Rebecca oozes from her.  She is frightening and fascinating.

Also notable is George Sanders as Rebecca's "cousin" Jack Favell.  Sanders revels in his "hail fellow well met" persona, as he tries to figure out the best way to wring some money out of Maxim, and intimidate the second Mrs. De Winter.  Just seeing his character, you get a clearer picture of who Rebecca really was (and don't like her much, as a result).

TCM has a wealth of information about this film.  One place to start is this article which discusses the uneasy relationship between director Hitchcock and David Selznick.  Where Hitchcock had intended to use the novel of Rebecca as merely a jumping-off point, Selznick required an exact retelling of the novel.  Though one change did have to be made - Rebecca's death in the book is somewhat different than the circumstances described in the movie.  The Production Code would not have allowed the film to end as it did with the original story line.  So great was Hitchcock's antipathy for Selznick, that he used him as the model for Raymond Burr's character in Rear Window!

A trailer from the film is below.  If you've never seen Rebecca, do yourself a favor and put it at the top of your list.