Saturday, 25 January 2014

January Blind Spot- Rebecca

        “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderlay again.” I had spent years in my school learning up this quote for quiz tryouts. Therefore, I was always somewhat acquainted with the story and like all good children, had wanted to watch the movie instead of reading the actual novel.

        And so for my first ever Blind spot post, I decided to go with something a bit more familiar. Alfred Hitchcock’s first American movie, Rebecca is both an unusual and an obvious entry in the master of suspense’s oeuvre.

         A woman whose name we never find out is vacationing in Monte Carlo as a paid companion to a pompous old lady, Edith Von Hopper when she apparently saves the mysterious and aristocratic Maxim de Winter while he is overlooking a cliff. The two then keep meet again and the woman falls madly in love with Maxim and he too seems fond of her and they get married. They move to his ancestral house in England, the colossal Manderlay. The present Mrs. de Winter hopes to be happy there, but the place, the title the sinister housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, and most of all, the overwhelming presence of Maxim’s deceased ex-wife Rebecca make it impossible for her.

           Rebecca is kind of an odd film. It feels like two, maybe even three movies in one. The tryst between the future Mrs. de Winter and Maxim at the beginning, where they fool the farcical Von Hopper has a bit of a romantic comedy-esque essence to it. After the now-married Mrs. de Winter goes to Manderlay and meets Mrs. Danvers, it is a psychological suspense drama, and the last act where the mystery is solved is just that and very little else. Needless to say, where the film truly shines is the big chunk in the middle, with the strangest of battles between Mrs. de Winters, Mrs. Danvers and the aura of the titular Rebecca.

        I cannot recall if I have ever seen a movie where a person we never see has as pervading a presence as Rebecca de Winter. Not only are half the things in the gigantic Manderlay embossed with her initials, but every person who had ever met her or even otherwise, like Mrs. de Winter, seems to be obsessed with her. I wonder how modern psychologists analyze a character like Rebecca. Is she the perfect embodiment of an ex? Is it as much as a relief to us when *SPOILERS* her true nature is revealed as it is to Mrs. de Winter because we cannot accept someone that perfect? *END SPOILERS* Maybe it was just me who thought such things but I too was completely entranced by Rebecca. Three scenes stood out the most in the movie for me and two of them had to do with her (though an argument can be made for the third one as well). The first was when Mrs. de Winter enters Rebecca’s room for the first time. As Mrs. Danvers had said, it really was the most beautiful room in the whole house. It reminded me of the famous quote, “Beauty is terror. Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it.” The juxtaposition of all the gorgeous things that Rebecca owned with Mrs. Danvers’ fanatical devotion and Mrs. de Winter’s horror was absolutely fantastic. And I read about how this film foreshadowed Hitchcock’s fetishization of clothes, but I don’t think I have ever seen anything symbolize a character so completely like that black negligee. The second scene was when Maxim reveals the truth about Rebecca to Mrs. de Winter and the way empty spaces are used to show what her actions and words had been is just remarkable. 

         The other character who I was fascinated by was Mrs. Danvers, played to terrifying perfection by Judith Anderson. Like the clothes, many believe that she was the first of the monstrous mother figures that populate Hitchcock’s movies. I thought a little differently of her. In my opinion, Mrs. Danvers was an obsessed lover. It would be interesting to contrast her with Mrs. de Winter because throughout most of the movie, I felt the latter was infatuated with her husband more than anything else. I think both Mrs. Danvers and Mrs. de Winter were in love with the idea of Rebecca and Maxim respectively than their real selves. Luckily for the latter, it ends in a happy communion, but for the former, there is only sadness and madness. Anderson plays her with stiff coldness but for that glimmer of crazy in her eyes, which really is quite frightening.

          Finally, the third woman in the triangle- Mrs. de Winter. At first, I thought I had forgotten what her name was but then I realised that we never find it out. It makes you wonder if this film is about her at all? I partly feel like this because of the performance. This was my first Joan Fontaine movie and I am a bit confused about her. She is almost awkward throughout the movie. She looks like someone who would be scared of her own shadow which was something that distanced me from the movie a little bit, in spite of it making sense within the context of the story. I don’t know if I can blame her because apparently Hitchcock totally terrified and bullied her on set (can you imagine all the tweets and blogposts were this movie made today?!). Having said that, once she did come on her own, I really liked her confidence and natural gracefulness.

         Among the rest of the cast, I thought everyone was pretty good. Laurence Olivier was hot, George Sanders was fun and the guy who played Ben was kind of scary looking. The men felt like secondary players to me and so there isn't any point going into greater detail.

           David O. Selznick produced this film and had he not been busy with Gone with the Wind, we would have had a very different end result. His influence can still be felt in the film, and because of this, Hitchcock decided to shoot only scenes he wanted to show in his movies for his future projects. I suppose it was this battle of wits between the two that gives Rebecca its uneven tone. But I will still call it a Hitchcock movie, not only because of the motifs mentioned above, but most importantly because of the suspense the central part of the film has. Those two scenes that I talked about: only someone who knows how to heighten tension and induce dread in the minds of the audience can pull them off so brilliantly and very few ever did like Hitchcock. He was the one who altered Mrs. Danvers character to make the psychological web of the movie more complex.

           The film is very stunning to look at. As I wrote above, I had read about this Manderlay from a very early age and it really looked as magnanimous as all that. Not only its huge exterior, but the lighting and space indoors are very striking. Some of the shots like the way rain gets reflected from the windows onto the rooms, Rebecca’s white room with Mrs. Danvers’ dark figure, and of course the closing scene (the last of the favourite scenes) are incredibly memorable. And while I was never struck by her beauty like I have been with other Hitchcock’s blondes, Fontaine’s profile is really lovely in some of the shots.

            I am glad that I chose Rebecca for my blind spot, and not solely because of cinephile reasons. I found there to be a lot to contemplate about this film. I loved how female-based this film was. The power struggle between Mrs. Danvers, Mrs. de Winters and Rebecca is unique in many ways and I almost wish that the film would have only been about that. I also like how it questions what it is that people fall for. Like for Maxim, it seems he marries Mrs. de Winter only because of how un-Rebecca-like she is. Therefore as superfluous as I feel her infatuation with him is, I think he also is more concerned with outer appearances, in spite of his experience with Rebecca. Why else does he mourn for Mrs. de Winter’s “funny young lost look” towards the end? And obviously, why is it that we never find out Mrs. de Winter’s name? I think it’s because of both the themes I just wrote about- Rebecca’s name has power in it, which Mrs. de Winter largely lacks, and that she’s the anti-Rebecca in Maxim’s life. Again, I would love to know if there is a feminist take on this and what that might be.

         Hence, as you can see, this film has been quite the brain fodder for me. In spite of flaws, there is a lot to love in it, from the look to Mrs. Danvers’ immaculate creepiness to Rebecca’s stifling aura to that perfect last shot. For those who haven’t watched it and are big Hitchcock fans, please do as soon as you can. And the people who have watched Rebecca before, what is your stand on these questions and theories of mine?

Note: This has been quite a meandering sort of review. It is also quite long, but I can’t promise if my future Blind spot entries will be the same. I have some tricky ones to look forward to (Lynch, Herzog) but it’s been nice to write something resembling a review after ages.


  1. And it's nice to read a review from you (really, it's not just resembling one). I rarely read reviews because mostly they're about new films that I haven't seen. That's why I often forget how nice it is to read them - and write them, I guess!

    I just re-read my post on Rebecca (it's been so long since I've seen it), and I'm surprised to find that we kind of talked about the same things and liked the same things about it, but while you sum things up on a positive note, my conclusion was a more negative one. You can read it here if you want to know what I mean:

    I definitely agree that the conflict between the two females was very interesting, and Fontaine's character was a very suppressed one, defined by her 'love' to her husband. Rebecca has a much stronger presence despite her never *being* present, which kind of reminds me of SJo in Her, now that I think about it.

    ... I might re-watch this film some time, it'd be interesting to see what my take on it would be today. But I think I'll read the book first.

    1. Yes, reviews are nice.

      We *do* have a lot of common thoughts on the movie. Rebecca reminded me of ScarJo in Her too.

      Well, the ending improved the whole movie for me. Love a good fire :P

  2. I love Rebecca's presence as well, it's uncanny how we become entranced by her even though we never actually meet her. If this is the embodiment of an ex, than it's a pretty grim one, and one that I hope no new girlfriend experiences! But I suppose it's true that they never really die, and can be a little haunting sometimes, so yes - there's some truth to that.

    Anderson is SO scary - ever since Rebecca, just looking at her face gives me chills. I had seen her only once before, in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof -- but I only learned that later, she was unrecognisable here (or there).

    Your thoughts on the female characters are very interesting, I'd like to read more on that subject. Fontaine's character felt so weak and fragile all the time, and completely overcome with emotion. It's a beautiful portrait, which I liked, despite my "issues" with Fontaine, as you know. Something prevented me from identifying with her completely, so even though I like this movie, it didn't overwhelm me.

    I'm with Mette though, it's been some time since I watched this so I'd like to see it again -- but read the book first!

    1. I think the "ex" thing is more like when people are scared they're being sized up to them all the time, and well. Rebecca is the ultimate ex in that way.

      Anderson was in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof?

      I will really like to watch Fontaine in other movies. She was too meek, it annoyed me.

    2. Yes she was! look:

      Well she's the same in Suspicion, but in a way the character demands it, so it could be that. The movie is worth it though!

    3. I shall watch it. Thanks!

  3. I adore Rebecca. It's one of my favorite films because watched it all the time with my mom when I was younger. I've read the book too and I just find the story very interesting. I love the mood of the film and how haunting the character of Rebecca is. I'm glad that you liked it! It gets a bit of flack because people are annoyed it was Hitchcock's biggest award winner but it's not his best film. It's still pretty great though.

    1. I love the mood of the film too. I didn't even take into consideration the Oscar thing. I think the kind of movies Hitchcock made, they're too amazing to size them up like that.

  4. I love this! I love the fact that you are not stuck in that rut of 'it's a classic so I have to do nothing but praise it!'. You call it like it is and I completely agree with you. I like this movie, but it is seriously flawed and I love that you call it out for that. Hitch pulls it together in the end, but this isn't the masterpiece that so many try to pass it off as. Great review from an honest perspective. Bravo!

    I can't wait to see what you dig into next.

    1. Thank you!
      Well, there are a number of "classics" I have issues with. Until recently, I kind of hated Gone with the Wind. I think since this isn't being written from an academic perspective, I can write about what I thought of the film just like I would do with a new release.

      Thank you so much for the comment!

  5. Odd word association: For the first half of your review, I kept thinking about The Three Musketeers and couldn't figure out why. Then it hit me: in the crummy 1990's version of Musketeers produced by Disney, Rebecca De Mornay plays Countess D'Winter.

    Rebecca De Winter.

    Moving on...

    I got lucky a year or so ago and got to see this film on the big screen. It was brought to Lightbox as part of a series celebrating the work of Merchant & Ivory. Besides their own films, there was a programme of films the influenced and films that influenced them. This obviously fits into the latter category.

    I'm not sure if it's because of the sight of it on a big screen, or because I was sitting especially close, but Manderlay seemed to loom over me at every turn. Seriously, I felt tiny in its very presence. The same way Rebecca's spirit looms large over manderlay, so too was Manderlay looming over me.

    It sort of makes me wonder: What sort of feelings are sparked in people who could - and still can - afford to live in these sorts of places? They're obviously rich and powerful people...but wouldn't such a castle make one feel tiny and insignificant?

    Well done Nik - great start to the series.

    1. That's a totally understandable word association. I do that all the time.

      Ooo I would love to watch it on big screen. It's kind of epic. I think it's the most "theatre-worthy" of the Hitchcock films I have seen, along with North by Northwest.

      I have always thought that living in those big houses would be awful. Those palaces with like 500 rooms or whatever. Doesn't it get lonely and boring? Also, I always think in pragmatic ways and maintaining those houses would be such a pain.

      Thank you, Ryan!

  6. I loved your perspective of the "ex" and how it's always a presence in their life. I feel like Mrs. de Winter though didn't need her name. We saw her power with Maxim. She was with him every step of the way. Rebecca had to be named, part of her power was her name since we never saw her in action. It was her physical presence. Hitchcock understood that Mrs. de Winter would be characterized by her actions if she was left without a real moniker. Love your first blind spot :) Cheers.

    1. Oo that's an interesting perspective. I like that very much.
      Thank you so much! Cheers :)

  7. It's been too long since I watched this. I must give it another look, but I wasn't as enamored as others either.

    1. I'm mostly just enamoured by the look and Rebecca herself. Thanks for stopping by, Josh :)