Film Reviews

Rebecca Alfred Hitchcock

Rating - 8/10

Adapted from Daphne du Maurier's novel, Rebecca emerges as a collaborative effort between the literary faithful producer David Selznick and visual master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock.  A gothic and opulent lamentation of the past and the inescapably haunting Rebecca is observed in the opening moments by the unnamed Heroine's intriguing narration, which revisits the looming presence of the Manderley estate, a character in itself.  However, the film is more than a re-examination to resolve guilt of the main character Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier), the ubiquitous terror of his unseen deceased wife Rebecca, and his unnerved new bride, the Heroine (a young Joan Fontaine); Rebecca is a psychological trip into the duality of and sordid relations of man, or more relevantly, woman.  Public images of truth become at odds with the secrecies and the fronts of human lives.  Furthermore, an interesting dilemma emerges between the Heroine's fulfillment of the absent, yet spiritually eclipsing former wife while struggling with an obvious weakness and timidity toward her new life in the high culture of Manderley.  Like the Heroine's awkward and uneven transition from her life as a traveling companion to the role of the glamorous wife, the film exerts a similar discrepancy with an extremely rushed first act; an abundance of prefacing scenes dissolve into one another, which are made all the more incongruous by the enchanting, steady tension of the remaining two-thirds that builds toward a remarkably ambiguous finale.

Rooted in a tale of the past and unflinchingly transfixed on it in every sense with a designated yet suppressed narrative course, Hitchcock manages to astonish and elicit certain suspense by employing a daring contrast of camera movements and messages.  Concerning Hitchcock's methods, filmmaker François Truffaut famously indicated, "it was impossible not to see that the love scenes were filmed like murder scenes, and the murder scenes like love scenes"; others have ascertained his technique as a craft of suspense from ordinary objects, and there are numerous examples in Rebecca.  At a close-up, the Heroine's reception of a simple telephone ring off-screen becomes a jolting, harrowing alarm.  In medium shots, Manderley's unusually high doorknobs create the illusion of a funhouse, and the Heroine becomes a mere child inhabiting a world of which she cannot control or unveil.  Even further distanced in long shots, the enclosing low ceilings and claustrophobic passages of the mansion trap the Heroine in her own paranoia and the vastness of an unspoken past.  Utilizing the scope and function of the camera, Hitchcock also pulls away or zooms out from the central image of the Heroine to make her seem isolated and feeble.  Despite the visual entrapment, Selznick and Hitchcock provide the Heroine with counterbalancing messages.  For instance, Maxim's colleague Frank Crawley remarks to the Heroine, "It's up to you to lead us away from the past," while a later scene depicts Maxim de Winter confessing, "It's too late.  Rebecca has won.  Her shadow has been between us this entire time."  It's the kind of attraction/repulsion theme that probes deep into the psyche of not only the Heroine’s uncertainty but the entire film spectacle, both literary and visual.

Perhaps the most intriguing, perplexing and controversial relationship in the film arises not between the Heroine and Mr. de Winter but in regards to a strictly feminine closeness of the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), and Maxim's late wife, Rebecca.  In a telling scene, Danvers revives the lost Rebecca from her own memory to intimidate the Heroine, explaining her beauty routine in luscious and immaculate detail that would suggest an enormous affection and homoeroticism.  To further matters of this supposed companionship, Danvers is even provided with a traditionally masculine signifiers; she dresses drably in black, wears her hair quite short, and is even referred to as "Danny" by a few of her superiors and associates.  Writer Robin Wood further complements ideas of feminine dominance and superiority in Rebecca as a complete role-reversal.  Rebecca's death signifies the defiance of "the patriarchal order, the prohibition of infidelity…"  The Heroine, unlike Rebecca, merely settles for Maxim's loving gaze and acceptance of her more gauche qualities.  "Reading the film from this perspective," Wood adds, "it's possible to see Rebecca as the film's real heroine."  Contrary to the overtly visual and literary flow the narrative, Rebecca concerns female empowerment stifled by masculine identity.  One may argue the most prone example is Maxim de Winter's attempts to contain a woman to orthodox social roles, limit self-expression and consciousness.  Obviously the censorship of the late 1930s prohibited any graphic depictions of promiscuity, same-sex relationships and the yet-to-emerge feminist movement, but in the film, their suggestions are lurking just beneath the surface of tradition.  

Contentious subject matter wasn't the only element of the film that proposed chaos; the turbulent creation of the gothic tale strongly paralleled the atmosphere of the completed work.  Questions over Joan Fontaine's acting abilities, Selznick's fidelity to du Maurier's novel clashing with Hitchcock's creative visual streak both contributed to audio overdubbing, duration debates, and other production delays.  However, ultimately, those involved with the film can be seen to have grown or overcome adversity similar to the Heroine's character arc.  Strangely, though, her growth is received as a sort of hindrance by her own husband.  Before his fateful trial that yet again revives the presence of Rebecca, Maxim confesses that he misses the Heroine's once "funny lost look of love," suggesting that he had wished to perpetually view her as an innocent child.  By revealing the "truth" of Rebecca's death, he views this development as a kind of corruption, a near turn of her into his vision of Rebecca.  Are his words only relative truths, though?  While Rebecca looms large, she cannot refute Maxim's claims and tell her tale of deception and betrayal.  Like this scrutiny, Rebecca is brimming with many loose ends about the exact nature of character relationships, but they add to the film's mysticism and legacy of a work inhabiting the essence of the gothic, or, as scholar Leonard Leff describes, "the heroine in a cold, hostile environment with the brooding hero tormented by a guilty secret."  A clumsy first act ultimately can't restrain the consistent return to Rebecca, both as a character as a film.

Comments for Rebecca review

Rebecca

Really good dissection of the film. It makes me want to watch "Rebecca" again with a more analytical eye. I saw it the first time about a year ago, and was disappointed. There just wasn't enough entertainment value in it for me, partly because the Heroine never really seemed to be in any physical danger.

Just curious -- why the review of "Rebecca" now, in 2010? Has some sort of special edition just been released?

I appreciate your comments,

I appreciate your comments, Chris. I do owe quite a bit to film scholars mentioned in the review, particularly Leonard Leff. I always try to explore a wealth of literature and critical insight, and official Criterion essayists and commentators provide intriguing information that frequently forces me to reexamine my own approaches and ideas.

As I mentioned, Hitchcock crafts suspense from the ordinary (at least in 'Rebecca'), which is inherently psychological. So, your comments about the lack of physical danger, pardon a scene or two, are warranted. The Heroine is instead cast into a harrowing cycle of mental anguish that forces her to live in someone's shadow as a successor. That and the fact Rebecca is never seen lend the film a rare power, especially considering the year it was made.

Actually, even the Criterion DVD is out-of-print, so locating it may prove to be difficult. I simply review whatever I happen to be watching, and No Ripcord is gracious enough to let me revisit all of these classic films even though there is rarely a great reason to present these reviews as "new." Of course I try to be relevant as possible regarding the time of posting, so I generally reserve these types of thrillers to the autumn and winter months. There are other examples of that sort of conscientious attitude: I posted a review of 'Big Fan' at the peak of NFL playoffs this year; Bergman's 'Autumn Sonata' was published in mid-autumn of last year; 'The Trial' is a dark, cold and labyrinthine film suitable for winter, and I wrote a review of it in January. There are also a few films I reviewed during their theatrical runs. In general, I don't have a strong interest in traditional cinema-going, because it's incredibly expensive, and I don't have the opportunity to revisit particular moments unless I pay to see the films again, so I definitely prefer home-viewing whenever possible. Some may call that an impure film experience, but it's how I came to appreciate cinema on such a high level in the first place.

DVD vs. cineplex

I know what you mean about watching movies on DVD. I missed a lot when I watched movies mainly in the theater. I remember watching LA Confidential in the theater 15 years ago and not understanding what the hell was going on. On the downside, I think DVDs have allowed me to get a little slack in paying attention.

I'd love to see my own employer, www.fargotube.com, get some specialty channels like maybe a Hitchcock channel or a Bergman channel. Those would probably be a bit down the road, though, since they're established filmmakers whose copyrights are probably owned by Janus or a larger corporation. We're starting relatively small, with vids by independent musicians and filmmakers, but our site has built like a social network so that the artists and fans can interact with each other. Check us out!

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