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Monday, July 7, 2008

Gothic Romance (Rebecca)

Rebecca returns to Manderley

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  “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again,” begins the narrator at the opening of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca. The woman speaking, the heroine of the emotionally harrowing classic, is never named. And that is only one of many intriguing twists in a movie that has lost none of its fascination over time. The title character of the 1940 film is never seen but always present. The woman called Rebecca died before the story begins.

  Rebecca was relatively faithful to its source, the novel by Daphne du Maurier, a British author Hitchcock returned to decades later when he made The Birds from one of her stories. Rebecca is like a Bronte sisters Gothic romance transposed to the 20th century, featuring an innocent heroine who marries a strange brooding man, who brings her to his castle by the roiling sea. The servants, especially the housekeeper, are holding secrets.

  As with all the great films from the period, Rebecca is a masterful combination of a smart script spoken by superb actors playing memorable characters in an unforgettable setting. Joan Fontaine, an unknown actress when chosen as the unnamed protagonist, brought a fresh and natural presence to the screen. Much like her contemporary, Ingrid Bergman, Fontaine was the antithesis of the artificial Hollywood glamour gal. Her character is fumbling and shy, breathless with the joy and fear of an inexperienced girl who knows little of the world.

  Maxim de Winter, the man who rescues her from the drudgery of serving as paid companion to an American snob, corresponds to the fairytale prince in love with the servant girl but also to the haunted men with dark pasts of Gothic fiction. He is played by the great Laurence Olivier as moody and mysterious, barely keeping his demons in their bottles. The cork keeps popping whenever a stray word or reference triggers an angry sulk or an explosive outburst.

  The menacing housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, is a grim and unsmiling killjoy fanatically devoted to Rebecca, “the first Mrs. de Winter,” as she calls her. Danvers maintains Rebecca’s bedroom suite as a shrine and covertly undermines the dead woman’s replacement in Maxim’s marriage bed. At first one imagines the master of Manderley also worshipping at the altar of Rebecca’s memory. In fact he despises her as a personification of evil. Like a malevolent ghost, her shade seems to walk the medieval hallways of Manderley, working her will through the hold she retains over the imagination of the living.

  Rebecca stands apart from most of Hitchcock’s films. There is relatively little suspense and less humor than usual. Encouraged by the film’s hands-on producer, David O. Selznick, Hitchcock suffused Rebecca with a lush atmosphere of obsession and dread, often visualized in scenes where the second Mrs. de Winter appears bound in cages of shadow as she explores the twilight chambers of Manderley.

  7:30 p.m. July 9, CharlesAllisArt Museum

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