Friday 26 November 2021

Noir-vember: Rebecca (1940)

Although it doesn't really hold the notoriety nowadays that the other Alfred Hitchcock and Daphne Du Maurier "collaboration", The Birds, manages to retain, Rebecca is still a fantastic work, showing the director already comfortable in mixing dark subject matter with moments of levity and making the most of a talented cast.

Joan Fontaine plays a young woman who finds herself in the enviable position of becoming Mrs. de Winter, the wife of one 'Maxim' de Winter (Laurence Olivier). And that is when she starts to become more and more aware of Rebecca, the former Mrs. de Winter who passed away some time ago. Whether or not she can thrive under such a shadow becomes the focus of this movie for much of the middle act, with criticism coming from a houskeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), and Rebecca's cousin, Jack Favell (George Sanders). There's more to consider, however, including the exact circumstances of Rebecca's death.

Written for the screen by Robert E. Sherwood and Joan Harrison, the former having a very varied filmography that includes both The Best Years Of Our Lives and The Bishop's Wife as highlights and the latter working with Hitchcock on about five of his features from this era, what you get here is something that often feels like a straightforward drama about a young woman trying to assert herself in a new world that her marriage has forced her to enter. Sure, you get the kind of temperamental husband and brooding nature that implies a trip into Jane Eyre territory, but the situations depicted remain much more grounded and identifiable for anyone who has found themselves the newcomer in any household/family situation. Things are turned around in the third act, and it's interesting to see that when the pressure really starts to mount is when Fontaine's character shows how strong she really is.

Both Fontaine and Olivier are very enjoyable in the lead roles, even if the latter speaks in that wonderfully crisp and clipped "proper English" that stops the dialogue feeling free-flowing and natural (a quality many British actors had during this time). The two feel like an unlikely, but strangely compatible, match. Anderson cuts an intimidating figure, although she always remains as civil as she needs to be when her employer is within earshot. Then you have Sanders. He doesn't appear until close to the halfway mark, but his presence is a breath of fresh air. I maintain that Sanders is arguably the greatest cinematic cad of all time and here's another performance that doesn't do a thing to dissuade me of that notion. 

While easy to see why this one remains a highly-regarded classic from yesteryear, it's also easy to see why it might fail to please some people. It squanders any potential to go full gothic, which is a great shame, it lacks any of the incredibly tense and macabre set-pieces that Hitchcock would become most famous for, and the resolution is just a bit too neat and easy, in a way that makes you forget the main characters were ever in any trouble.

Despite those aspects that could be viewed as failings, I still really enjoyed this. I'd even go so far as to say that is the best Hitchcock adaptation of a Du Maurier tale. It just holds up as a more completely satisfying feature film, and doesn't need the gimmick of feathered friends becoming feathered foes. Yep, I stand by what I just said. And one day I hope to visit Manderley again.


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