Thought of the Day

I don't believe in morality, but I believe in ethical conduct as set out by His Holiness the Dalai Lama: "Ethical conduct = a way of behaving that respects others’ right to be happy".

Tuesday, 15 November 2005

Rebecca by Alfred Hitchcock

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Written by:
Daphne Du Maurier (novel) and Philip MacDonald (adaptation)

Laurence Olivier as George Fortescu Maximillian 'Maxim' de Winter; Joan Fontaine as The Second Mrs. de Winter; George Sanders as Jack Favell; Judith Anderson Mrs Danvers.

Year: 1940
Runtime: 130 min



Black and White

Rebecca is an engaging romance, a psychological drama and a mystery story, with Hitchcock's distinctive touch of ambiguous suspense, all successfully mixed in one little jewel. It is definitely in my top ten of favourite classics.

An unnamed woman (Joan Fontaine), sweet and graceful as well as clumsy and shy, meets a handsome and wealthy widower (Laurence Olivier), whose manners are obscurely caring and, at times, quite abrupt. He is attractive, mysterious and endowed with a witty irony which enchants the heroine. Unsurprisingly, she immediately falls in love with him, and he falls in love with her spontaneity and freshness. When he proposes (in amusing circumstances), she accepts instantly. From now on I start feeling bit apprehensive for her reckless choice of marrying an unknown man who has choosen for wife an average woman, beautiful and refined with no doubts, but not particularly talented and from a lower social class. The service takes place intimately in the local council of Montecarlo (France) where, for his choice, no other guest has been invited.

From the fashionable south of France where they meet, the married couple moves to the gothic estate of Manderley in Cornwall. At her new home (a luxurious castle overlooking the sea), the second Mrs De Winter gradually realises that the aura of his previous wife, Rebecca, is still very present in the house. The new spouse starts timidly enquiring about Rebecca's life and persona, and finds out that she tragically died in the sea and that her husband has been deeply affected by this loss. Rebecca’s bedroom, the most beautiful in the palace, is the only room enjoying a glorious view over the sea and has been left vacant ever since her death. Rebecca is described by the household as the most beautiful creature in the planet, stylish, high educated, with fine tastes and deeply loved by her governess and husband. The heroine is surprised and chilled to acknowledge how different Rebecca is from her, and she wonders why Mr De Winter chose to marry a humble and inexperienced woman. In an attempt of imitating what has become an obsessive shadow and in order to please her lover, Mrs De Winter starts ordering expensive dresses from London (digression--her black long dress with white roses on the front is lush to my eyes!) and decides to organise a fancy party to bring the villa back to its former glory. Everything is according to plans, until she has a frightening revelation.

I can’t add anything more to this descriptive summary without spoiling the plot. So I will stop here.

The most captivating aspect of this story is that, although the house is impressed with Rebecca’s personal possessions as if she is still alive, no pictures or photos of her are shown in the mansion. Yet, from the servants' descriptions and accounts, by looking at her clothes and personal items, it is easy and rather intriguing to picture Rebecca as a demonic femme fatale. Her depiction clearly reminds me of Carmilla's. Another parallel to this latter is the morbid attitude the devilish governess shows towards the dead woman, which recalls again very much the lesbian attitude Carmilla has towards her victims. And the sinister figure of the housekeeper respects all the typical literary canons, with an astonishing accomplishment.

The following two passages, respectively from Carmilla and from Rebecca, echo each others notably:

Laura: "... to this hour the image of Carmilla returns to memory with ambiguous alternations--sometimes the playful, languid, beautiful girl; sometimes the writhing fiend I saw in the ruined church; and often from a reverie I have started, fancying I heard the light step of Carmilla at the drawing-room door."

Mrs Danvers: "You wouldn't think she'd been gone so long, would you? Sometimes, when I walk along the corridor, I fancy I hear her just behind me. That quick light step, I couldn't mistake it anywhere. It's not only in this room, it's in all the rooms in the house. I can almost hear it now."

But unlike Carmilla, Rebecca's nature remains human.
What I generally appreciate of Hitchcock’s films* is exactly this. Apart from the impressive photography, the elegant characters and daunting portraits, what I truly enjoy is the fact that, although there is a climax, terror is ably built up throughout the film: the viewer is always on the verge of expecting a supernatural phenomenon, which never happens, because Hitchcock reminds us to
'always fear the living and not the dead'.

"Mrs Danvers: Do you think the dead come back and watch the living?
The Second Mrs. de Winter: N-no, I don't believe it."

This technique
of ambiguously mingling real with metaphisical terror stimulates an active imagination in the audience, and chilling emotions are certainly ensured. On the other hand, the denouement is always quick, rather painless and always relieving—a reassuring facet for those who are not thriller aficionados but adamant of sophisticated thrilling classics.

* This is the third Hotchcock film I have enjoyed, the first being Rear Window (1954) and the second Notorious (1946). And no, I haven't watched Psycho as yet, but it is in my waiting list and I have already seen all the clips at the Saul Bass exhibition last year.

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