Sunday, June 7, 2009

Rebecca (1940, Alfred Hitchcock)

Rebecca must have been a great novel. As a film and Hitchcock's first American production there's a glossiness that feels distancing, thanks to producer David O. Selznick, who also kept him at a distance from the stage when winning the Best Picture Oscar. Hitchcock didn't get anything for decades until a lifetime achievement award and remarked in the interim that it was much more a Selznick picture than his own. By cleverly shooting only what he wanted and leaving Selznick without option to re-edit alternate coverage or the order of events, he at least got the film to look and feel like one of his own. Unfortunately, Selznick insisted on strict adherence to the original novel and that's not usually a trademark of Hitchcock's classics. There's a formal stuffiness as a result, instead of formal lyricism. At least it helps that the story is equally claustrophobic and dualistic.

Fans of the novel, especially Americans unfamiliar with Hitchcock, might have been happy at the time. Even without having read the book, the feeling taken away was mostly of seeing a book-to-movie adaptation from a well financed backer with unwavering fidelity to the details of his purchase, rather than a standalone cinematic achievement and a world unto itself. That takes trust in the vision brought to the table by the adaptor, who in this case is not really Hitch but an untrusting Selznick. Rather than unfolding gracefully, the last half hour of the film tacks on the solving of a mystery like there's barely any time left and it's rushed pacing seems foreign to the preceding. This may have been required to squeeze in every last detail where there could have been streamlining in Hitchcock's hands. There's nothing inspiring about a film which almost the best you can say about is that it's well made. The production values aid the mood of the gothic mansion Rebecca centers around through sheer size and detail without leaving a deep impression.

In spite of Hitchcock's infamous quotation about actors place in movies, the cast is what saves the experience from being crushed under the weight of its own David O. Selfnik-importance. Joan Fontaine is a good lead, convincingly naive and scared. She's the only actress to win an Oscar for acting in a Hitchcock film; 1941's Suspicion. She's English and does an American accent well. The story finds her moving to Laurence Olivier's estate in England where the creepy staff has never gotten over the death of his titular former wife, and there's a secret about her death being hidden. This modern telegraphed variation on Jayne Eyre makes the waiting up until those last scenes a bit airier and one wonders what Hitchcock would have done differently for the sake of pacing. Olivier's only got a couple big scenes and comes out of his regal shell for them although his seemingly sudden impulse to sweep Fontaine away into his life is never really explained or expressed by him in any way.

Rebecca shines best in the supporting cast, accomplishing one truly outstanding character in the creepy housekeeper who torments Fontaine, Judith Anderson. She manages to steal the entire movie and is reportedly a mystery of Hitchcock's devising - in the novel she's still a major player, but with a back story. Here she's a ghost, and her doings as a catalyst as more striking for it. George Sanders as Rebecca's sleazeball cousin is great too, and features heavily in the plot-heavy final act.

Entire books have been written about the collaboration of two of cinema's biggest control freaks over this picture, but the short story is that it's just a good movie and not either of their best, thanks to one another.

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