Saturday, 25 May 2013

Rebecca (1940)

May 22nd was Sir Laurence Olivier's (or rather, what would have been his) 106th birthday. To commemorate it in my own way, I decided to watch his 1940 film, Rebecca. Adapted from Daphne du Maurier's 1938 novel, Rebecca was Alfred Hitchcock's first movie after he migrated to the United States, and it was made under David O. Selznick's contract. Yes, technically this film would be out of the scope of this blog. But when the director is British, the main actors of the film are British, and the screenplay is based on a British author's book, why not tag it along with British cinema?



Laurence Olivier is Maxim de Winter, the husband of Rebecca, and the owner of Manderley. The film begins with the eponymous first lines from the book: "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again", juxtaposed with splendid images of rickety wrought iron gates, massive grounds, and a ruined mansion. It is often agreed that no one makes psychological thrillers better than Hitchcock, and Rebecca is his ideal playground -- the memories of the gracious, beautiful, and popular former wife wrecks havoc on the clumsy new wife, the astute husband, the servants, and the house. Joan Fontaine is of course brilliant as the new Mrs. de Winter. Coming from an extremely humble background, and always aware that she doesn't deserve the splendid new changes into her life, the new Mrs. de Winter suffers from extreme insecurity. The lingering presence of the former wife and mistress of Manderley, symbolised by the letter 'R' in every available piece of cloth, paper, or negligee, coupled with the extremely cold reception of her by the house-keeper Mrs. Danvers, makes it even more difficult for her to believe that she is truly the new mistress. Joan Fontaine perfectly articulates the lost look about her eyes; and being considerably younger to Maxim, she has a look of innocence, which is much appreciated by her husband. She believes that Maxim is still distraught by the death of his former wife, and she tries her best to match up to the former's standards. However, she often fails. Her attempt to parade in an expensive dress is unappreciated by Maxim, and she is hoodwinked by Mrs. Danvers into wearing the same dress for the costume ball as worn by Rebecca the previous year. Naturally this doesn't go down well with Maxim. In the end, when she learns of Maxim's loathing for Rebecca, and the truth of the latter's death, she gains clarity. This, however -- as mourned by Maxim -- also extinguishes the lost look and innocence about her eyes.



George Sanders, of course, keeps up his panache for playing the cad (case in point: The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, 1947). As is his wont, he marches into the screen halfway through the film; he is suave and subtly villainous in his portrayal of Rebecca's lover, Jack Favell, and with equal flamboyance hints at resorting to blackmail to achieve his ends. Hitchcock deviates significantly from the book in his depiction of Mrs. Danvers. Judith Anderson is younger than the supposed age of Mrs. Danvers in the book, and in suppressing her previous history, Hitchcock deliberately adds a sense of mystery to the character. Her attachment to the former mistress nearly verges on the obsessive-romantic, and is especially evident in the scene when she nearly makes Mrs. de Winter jump to her death from Rebecca's window. For the entire film she is cold, ruthless, confident, and calculating. One can only have praises for such a chilling performance. 


Laurence Olivier answers to every reader's imagination of Maxim de Winter. He is often cold, but one cannot miss his unmistakable affection for the new Mrs. de Winter. In Monte Carlo he plays the role of a rich widower almost to perfection: rude and lingering alone. He doesn't resort to long conversations with Joan Fontaine's character, although he takes her for drives every day, and proposes marriage to her in an off-hand way. His slight for parades is very pronounced, and in his love for the new Mrs. de Winter, he is extremely anxious not to make any references to incidents that would remind him of Rebecca. He is almost as mysterious as Manderley and Rebecca, and the viewer draws any number of conclusions from his off-hand demeanor. The final revelation does come as a surprise, and so does the change that comes over Maxim. Finally able to confide in his wife the biggest secret and the heaviest of burdens from his past, Laurence Olivier now puts on an almost carefree attitude, overtly attentive to his new wife, losing his temper during the inquest, and engaging in a violent battle of words with Favell. His anxiety in the final shots of the film are almost palpable.

Despite having read the book many times, the film Rebecca is worth visiting over and over again, both for the performances of the actors, and for the deftness of the director, who perfectly conveys the fears and anxieties of a clumsy, young working girl who suddenly finds herself the mistress of a sprawling country house, inhabited in every nook and corner by the memories of the perfect former mistress.

At the very end, I cannot help but drop a line on the extreme versatility of Sir Laurence Olivier. The last time I saw him on screen before Rebecca, was as Lord Marchmain in the 1981 adaptation of Brideshead Revisited. He was in his seventies by then, but had portrayed the proud Marquis with elan, moving from vanity of an atheist English Lord living in Venice with his mistress in the first episodes, to that of resignation in the final episodes of a spent man returning home to reconcile with his past and to die in peace. I guess this is the stuff great actors are made of.

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