Wednesday, November 2, 2011

A Chill in the Air - Part I

Halloween has come and gone, a time change looms (“fall back”) and winter is just around the corner. Early twilight and cool evenings are here and it seems to me that when the weather starts getting nippy and night falls early, nothing satisfies like a crackling fire, something either steaming or iced to drink and a well-chosen book or movie to settle into. What I'm reading and watching as autumn deepens this year are books and the films that were made of them.

The Uninvited, 1944
I’ve been reading Dorothy Macardle’s classic ghost story, The Uninvited, a novel that made its way to film by way of Paramount Pictures in 1944. I’d seen The Uninvited again recently and became curious about its original source material.  I’ve also picked up Daphne du Maurier’s romantic thriller Rebecca once more and have happily revisited the 1940 Hitchcock-directed Selznick production.

Rebecca, 1940
I don’t know how old I was when I first read the words, “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again,” but do know I was young because, when I came upon du Maurier’s description of 50-foot rhododendrons I didn’t know what they were or how to pronounce the word (...if only I could remember what I called them in my imagination back then...). As I re-read Rebecca, I realized how completely Hitchcock’s Oscar-winning film had supplanted the book, erasing nearly all but the opening line and “rhododendrons” from my memory.

The film is a generally literal adaptation, barring Production Code-dictated changes (most notably, Rebecca's death is accidental in the film rather than outright murder as in the book) and a few other alterations. This is largely thanks to producer David O. Selznick, who was wary when it came to tinkering with literature.

Selznick, Fontaine & Hitchcock at Academy Awards dinner
Hitchcock and Selznick weathered a famously rocky collaboration on Rebecca, Hitchcock’s first American film and his first under contract to Selznick International Pictures. The director counted himself lucky that Selznick was still involved with Gone with the Wind - which lessened his interference on Rebecca to some extent. For his part, Selznick was flabbergasted by the director’s stubborn habit of shooting very little ‘coverage’ – or extra footage, effectively “editing in camera” (filming only what he wanted for the final cut). Once Hitchcock completed the shoot, the producer did what he could to more explicitly stamp the production as his own. In particular he supervised the film’s score, having music added to almost every scene – which accounts for intermittent intrusions of musical bombast. Selznick biographer David Thomson writes that the producer learned that no matter how involved he was, “there were secrets of craft, nuance and meaning that only a director controlled.” According to Thomson, Rebecca had been a battle between director and producer that left Selznick feeling defeated.

He should not have been so glum. Rebecca is plainly a Selznick project, a glossy and rich first rate production. The film was an unqualified success and brought the producer his second Best Picture Oscar in a row, one of the two Oscars Rebecca won out of the eleven total nominations it received. But Selznick was accustomed to dominating his directors and Hitchcock had outfoxed him…

Despite the fact that Rebecca has been called the least ‘Hitchcockian’ of the director's films and that Hitchcock later virtually disowned it, it bears unmistakable signature touches. The character interpretations of Florence Bates (Mrs. Van Hopper) and George Sanders (Jack Favell) are darkly witty comic turns - entirely in the Hitchcock tradition. And from relatively inexperienced Joan Fontaine in the central role, the director determinedly mined the performance of her young life. Judith Anderson’s iconic Mrs. Danvers, a brilliantly shaded tour de force, evolved out of a collaboration between actress and director about which she remarked, “I knew I was in the presence of a master; I had utter trust and faith in him.”

Judith Anderson and Joan Fontain in Rebecca

Rebecca's visual style also bears the recognizable imprint of its director. Hitchcock and cinematographer George Barnes concocted a persistently foreboding atmosphere that permeates the film from its first frames.  In fact, the film's opening images - of Manderley's ornate iron-gated entrance, its misty landscape and the mansion's ghostly silhouette - are often cited as an influence on Citizen Kane. Hitchcock and Barnes also notably and inventively contrived to create a character, or the presence of a character, who never once appears onscreen - the titular Rebecca. The scene above beautifully illustrates...

Daphne du Maurier and her children at Menabilly
Daphne du Maurier once described Rebecca, her most well-known and popular novel,  as a study in jealousy. Many have offered opinions on what inspired the plot - was it du Maurier's relationship with her mother and father? Was it based on the writer's insecurities about her husband's beautiful, glamorous, dark-haired former fiancee? It is known that du Maurier spent time during childhood at two grand country mansions, Milton Hall in Cambridgeshire and Menabilly (which she later owned) in Cornwall, and that the two estates were both likely models for Manderley and its grounds. Regardless of conjecture about du Maurier's inspirations, few have questioned that Rebecca is a triumph of its genre - it has been continuously in print over the eight decades since its original publication.

Daphne du Maurier
Du Maurier's Rebecca is a shrewd, seductive 20th century update on the gothic mystery/romance. Its persistent lure is dream-like imagery and a vulnerable narrator's voice throbbing with melancholy and hinting at dark secrets and heartbreak. Soon enough the reader is trapped, like the second Mrs. de Winter, in the world of psychological torment that is Manderley.

For me, du Maurier's novel and the Hitchcock/Selznick film are, taken together, an unbeatable way to greet the season's chill...


  1. Eve, a lovely post on a film that I think just about every classic movie enthusiast views with fondness. This was the first Hitchcock movie I recall seeing, on afternoon TV as a youngster, watching it with my mother. (It was her favorite movie.) In those days, movies were often edited for TV, and the version I saw eliminated the entire first section, where Fontaine and Olivier meet, which establishes Fontaine's introverted temperament and her hopeless situation, and began with Fontaine's first view of Manderly. What a delight to see the full version many years later and discover there was even more of this wonderful movie than I was aware of. It may not be a typical Hitchcock movie, but it's one of his best and most enjoyable.

    I saw the much maligned "Under Capricorn" recently (it wasn't great, but not as weak as some have claimed--Thomson ranks it among Hitch's best), and saw some resemblances to "Rebecca"--more in the way the story was presented than in the plot. Margaret Leighton bore a definite resemblance to Mrs. D, although it was her master she was in love with and not her mistress. Ingrid Bergman made me think of what Rebecca might have become if things hadn't been worked out. There's a scene where she comes down the staircase in a ball gown that upsets her husband (although for a different reason than in "Rebecca") that made it impossible for me not to think of "Rebecca."

    You also mention "The Uninvited." I rewatched it just a few days ago and saw clear resemblance to "Rebecca," which I'm sure you caught too. It's a very good movie in its own right and entirely appropriate to the autumn state of mind you describe so nicely at the beginning.

  2. Really interesting article. I have always loved Rebecca -- I just wish Ronald Colman had played Max. I enjoyed the background on Daphne DuMaurier very much. By the way, have you seen the Masterpiece Thaeter version of Rebecca with Diana Rigg as Mrs. Danvers? It's good interpretation.

  3. Ah, time to snuggle under the covers and watch a good pre-winter mystery. Yum yum!

  4. I re-read the novel recently, but you made me realize that it has been decades (decades!) since I last saw the movie. You are so right that this is the perfect to of year to correct that flaw in my viewing.

  5. R.D. - I wonder if Mr. Hitchcock ever happened to see a truncated version of "Rebecca" on television as you did as a child. I can an only imagine his horrified reaction. A nice memory, though, of a time and a movie shared with your mother. My mother also loved "Rebecca." It must have been an especially fascinating combination of mystery and fairytale to the young ladies of the generation who first saw/read it. "Rebecca" is actually one of my Hitchcock favorites, atypical as it is.

    I've never seen "Under Capricorn," but you remind me that I must soon. In Part II of "A Chill in the Air," I plan to look at "The Uninvited" (beyond "Stella by Starlight").

    Gilby - Ronald Colman and Wm. Powell were also considered for the role of Maxim de Winter, but I do like Olivier in the role. It's said that his displeasure with Fontaine as the second wife instead of his own choice, Vivien Leigh, actually enhanced the relationship Hitchcock sought for the pair in the film rather than detracted from it...

    FlickChick - Great time of year for gothic mysteries and an interesting line-up might be "Jane Eyre," "Rebecca," and "The Uninvited"...

    CW - I hope you do have a chance to watch "Rebecca" again soon - on a chilly night in a warm, cozy room...

  6. A beautiful, and chilling, review of this wonderfully dark movie. It was one of the two movies that endeared me to Joan Fontaine. Her defenselessness shown here worked to great effect in her next film with Hitchcock - Suspicion. Though she won an Oscar for that film it was partly a sympathy vote for not having received it for Rebecca. I'm feeling cold already.

  7. Christian - "Rebecca" certainly can give one the chills. Thinking about the film's atmosphere and visual style, I should mention that cinematographer George Barnes won the other Oscar "Rebecca" received that year. I've never been a very big fan of "Suspicion" because of its ending - a real letdown. Would so much have preferred it had the studio/Hitchcock allowed Cary Grant's character to be a killer.

    And a note to Gilby - I did see the Masterpiece Theatre version of "Rebecca" with Diana Rigg and Charles Dance and enjoyed it, thought it well done, well acted. But the '40 film is, for me, the gold standard.

  8. Love the movie, but have never read the book. I really need to. Based on the movie, though, I always felt that "Rebecca" was the one of the greatest non-supernatural ghost stories of all time.

  9. Kevin - When you read the book you may feel as though you are watching the film - they are very close, though not word for word identical - the mood is the same, and the tone, the perspective. And you are right, "Rebecca" is not a literal ghost story - yet it feels like one...

  10. Eve,
    Just seeing the first photo and recognizing Mandalay I knew I would enjoy this post! Rebecca is my favorite film. With that aside I truly enjoyed your look back at Rebecca and especially choosing it as a fitting 'Ghost Story'. It was spooky with the over sized rooms, dark corridors and the crashing waves, cob web ridden cottage on the rocky beach.

    Really enjoyable.

  11. Wonderful evocative essay. A perfect film for this time of year as is THE UNINVITED which I just watched again a few days ago. Hitchcock always managed to leave his imprint on whatever film he made. He was just too much of a master storyteller not to do it. Looking forward to part two.


  12. Page - Yes, the great halls, rooms and even staircase of Manderley, though beautiful, give the sense of an ice-cold mausoleum; the abandoned cottage, the wild surf - all of it haunted by the spirit of Rebecca.

    John - I agree that Hitchcock's imprint could never be invisible. I have to think that even though it was a battle, both he and Selznick learned a lot working with each other. I suspect the only reason Hitchcock ever 'rejected' "Rebecca" was because it may not have seemed 'purely' his own work to him. I hope he came around in the end, because it is a fine, fine film. By the way, according to one of the director's granddaughters, he and Selznick were friends and remained so 'til the end of Selznick's life.

  13. Great post! Did you know that Daphne's eldest sister was the writer Angela du Maurier and her dad was the actor Gerald du Maurier. Her grandfather was the writer George du Maurier. Very talented family. Keep blogging!

  14. Hi, SPEEDbit...Thank you. I didn't know Daphne's older sister was a writer, but did know her father, Gerald du Maurier, was an actor as well as a close friend of J.M. Barrie, author of PETER PAN - and that GdM appeared in the original stage production of the play in the dual role of Capt. Hook AND Mr. Darling.

  15. I really hate to admit this, but I have not read Rebecca. It is now added to my list.

    As far as the film is concerned I am not interested in Olivier or's all about Judith Anderson, George Sanders, and Nigel Bruce (although his role is very small, he steals every moment he is on camera). This might be the one Hitchcock film that, for me, is more about the supporting cast.

    Excellent post as always.

  16. You bring up a good point, Jill. I'd mentioned the great Florence Bates (Mrs. Van Hopper) and George Sanders (Jack Favell) in my post - and, of course, Judith Anderson as Mrs. Danvers - but the supporting cast also included Bruce, wonderful Gladys Cooper as his wife, plus C. Aubrey Smith, Leo G. Carroll and other masterful character players, every one of them delivering a superb performance no matter the size of their role...

  17. Loved reading this. A terrific book and a terrific film. What more could you want? I read somewhere that Laurence Olivier gave Joan Fontaine a hard time because he'd wanted Vivien Leigh in the part instead.

    Joan Fontaine is so perfect as the unnamed narrator that I can't imagiine anyone else in the part.

  18. Eve, I’m simply enchanted by your evocative retelling of Rebecca, the story in book form and on film. You have captured the appeal of the film as a suspenseful treat on a cool autumn evening. I haven’t read the Du Maurier romance since I was in my twenties, and I never knew a novel inspired The Univited’s tale of ghostly activity on the Cornwall coast. Thank you for your lovely insight into both the book and the film, your observation “Its persistent lure is dream-like imagery and a vulnerable narrator's voice throbbing with melancholy and hinting at dark secrets and heartbreak” is particular touching. It is often easy to forget, with the specter of Rebecca and Mrs. Danvers jealously protecting her mistress’s memory, that the young narrator is relating her story. I’m checking my library for both the books and the films, and I look forward to your second installment.

  19. How could I forget Gladys Cooper! I love her.

  20. Yvette - "Rebecca" is one instance (of very few) in which the book and movie are equally well done. I love both and don't prefer one over the other - at all. It is apparently true that Olivier gave Joan Fontaine a hard time during filming - but Hitchcock felt it served the situation: he needed Fontaine to be intimidated and unsure of herself as the second Mrs. de Winter. She is excellent...

    'Gypsy - I hadn't read "Rebecca" for a long time either. It holds up and is a wonderful companion to the film. For me, "The Uninvited" (book and film) isn't on a par with "Rebecca" (what of the genre is?) but still very entertaining and enjoyable on an autumn night.

    Jill - Ahhh, Gladys Cooper. What a talent. I remember watching the old Dick Cavett interviews of the early '70s on TCM a while ago. Bette Davis was the guest and she talked about Gladys Cooper who had died the night before. Davis had so much respect for the older actress. Cooper worked until very late in life and I doubt ever gave less than a stellar performance.