Saturday, October 23, 2010

Alfred Hitchcock | Rebecca

Pondering the past

by Douglas Messerli

Based on a novel by Daphne Du Maurier, Philip MacDonald and Michael Hogan (adaptation),
Robert E. Sherwood and Joan Harrison (writers), Alfred Hitchcock (director) Rebecca / 1940
“Rebecky,” sketch on The Carol Burnett Show, September 27, 1972

Whenever I watch Alfred Hitchcock’s great film Rebecca (and I now watch it several times each year) I am reminded of Carol Burnett’s spoof of it, “Rebecky,” presented on her television show on September 27, 1972. In that skit Carol, dressed in oxford shoes, an outrageously thick wool skirt and coat, and heavy-rimmed glasses accentuates the clumsy awkwardness of the original Joan Fontaine character lost in the vaulting corridors of De Winter’s Manderley as she attempts to make her way to the morning room. There is something deliciously loony about the scene, in part because we realize its satire is so close to the source.

Indeed, for many years as a young man I felt that Rebecca was one of the weakest of Hitchcock’s films, an almost embarrassing work rooted as it was in the melodramatically-pitched writing of Daphne Du Maurier. How could any movie beginning with the illusionary romantic statement (“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter for the way was barred to me. There was a padlock and a chain upon the gate.”) be taken seriously?

Over the years, however, I have come to recognize that it is precisely the melodrama that works so well in this film, the overwrought battles between innocence and evil encapsulated in the characters of the second Mrs. De Winter and the head servant Mrs. Danvers, and the various sets of oppositions throughout the work—the past vs. the future, rich vs. poor, knowledge vs. ignorance, and beauty vs. the ordinary—that helps to make this film such a giddy operatic-like work. One could write an essay—and I suspect many have been written—on each of these binaries!

But that would be an academic exercise which would erase, I am afraid, all the fun of witnessing precisely those issues that Burnett was satirizing, the vast distance between what we think we know and what is truth. In a world so confusing that one cannot even find one’s way to the morning room or, worse, not even perceiving that one might be expected to spend the morning in such a room, where does one go from there? A house phone call from a servant reveals that the second Mrs. De Winter does not even understand her own identity (she is given no Christian name in either the novel or the movie) as she reports that Mrs. De Winter has been dead for some time. Certainly marriage to her new husband, George Fortesqieu Maximillian De Winter, is, as the caddish Jack Favell later suggests, “not exactly a bed of roses.” She has not even clearly understood De Winter’s proposal to her (until he chastises her “I’m asking you to marry to me, you little fool.”) and replies with such low self esteem (“I’m not the sort of woman men marry”) that it is indeed a wonder that she is now sitting in that well-lit room. It can hardly be an accident when she clumsily knocks a cupid figurine to the floor, smashing it to pieces; cupid has had no role in her romance.

But then everyone in this film is filled with illusions and misapprehends the world around. The American socialite for whom the second Mrs. De Winter works imagines the great mansion of Manderley to be filled with magnificent nightly parties, and believes Maxim to be a “broken man” because of his sorrow over Rebecca’s death. Indeed the whole of society has been convinced apparently of their great romance.

Maxim’s sister and brother-in-law are stunned to see their new sister-in-law so shabbily dressed (of her appearance Beatrice Lacy declares that she “obviously doesn’t give a hoot” how she looks) and that Maxim has said nothing about her appearance, for Maxim has been known to have chosen many of Rebecca’s lovely gowns.

Max himself is convinced that he has been responsible for his wife’s death, and Favell is threatening blackmail since he believes that Rebecca was going to have a baby, his baby. Even Mrs. Danvers, who knows of her mistress’s lies, imagines Max to be suffering out of his love for Rebecca:

I’ve seen his face—his eyes. They’re the same as those first weeks after she
died. I used to listen to him, walking up and down, up and down, all night
long, night after night, thinking of her, suffering torture because he lost

Behind all these false illusions, of course, are the work’s deluders, particularly Rebecca, who, after revealing her sexual peccadilloes to her new husband, strikes a deal with him:

You’d look rather foolish trying to divorce me now after four days
of marriage. So I’ll play the part of a devoted wife, mistress of your
precious Manderley. I’ll make it the most famous showplace in England
if you like. The people will visit us and envy us, and say we’re the
luckiest, happiest couple in the country. What a grand show it will be!
What a triumph!”

Mrs. Danvers may still have illusions but it is her delusions that dominate her relationship with the second Mrs. De Winter. Believing that Rebecca has returned to haunt the place, she keeps her mistress’s room as a perverse shrine, maintaining everything “just as it was” and attempts to destroy the usurper she sees in Max’s second wife.

In such a world of horrors, wherein no one knows the truth, is it any wonder that the fresh, young woman who has married the man who has put Rebecca to rest at the bottom of the sea, has no idea where or who she is? Knowing no one of Rebecca’s social class, what is she to do at that desk in that beautiful, fire-lit room.

If Mrs. Danvers had not gone mad, destroying the great mansion by fire, perhaps the second Mrs. De Winter might have had set those vaulted corridors aflame simply to find her way home to real identity and a place in which to enact it.

Los Angeles, January 6, 2008
Copyright (c) 2008 by International Cinema Review and Douglas Messerli

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