Watching ‘Rebecca’ again

I didn’t just dream I went to Manderley again last night, I watched the Hitchcock film for the umpteenth time on TV – part of a BBC4 Hitchcock mini-fest, for no good reason in particular, unless 110th anniversaries are in vogue. It followed a documentary of sorts from Paul Merton, which ran out of time somewhere in the late 1940s, thus omitting almost all reference to Hitchcock’s later films, but offering some good illustrations of how German cinema influenced Hitchcock (Merton has an abiding interest in early film, and I saw him presenting some very good silent films in Edinburgh last August, but he can’t resist cornball tricks like editing himself in yellowing footage into old interviews). Another thing that propelled me towards the film was reading a strangely ambivalent article by Salman Rushdie about adaptation – in which he might have mentioned that the film Rebecca is about as good an adaptation as you’re likely to find. And yet another thing that might have attracted extra viewers is the whopping reduction Amazon offered on a boxed set of fifteen Hitchcock DVDs just before Christmas.

It’s amazing to think that Daphne du Maurier’s original novel was only published in 1938, and that the film was made the following year, and released in 1940 (when it won Best Film, Hitchcock’s only success in this respect, surprisingly). Things moved rather more quickly in them there days. It’s also – although I’m not ever fussed by deviations – perhaps the most faithful adaptation ever made. There are only two, pretty minor changes, one being that Joan Fontaine (as the second and nameless Mrs. de Winter) is predictably a bit more glamorous – yet all the same, not very Hollywood – and the other being that Max de Winter doesn’t actually shoot his first wife, the film codes being tough on the idea of a murderer getting away with it (there is a new film in production, starring Ralph Fiennes. It will be interesting to see if they restore the shooting).

Rebecca is of course borrowed lock, stock and blazing mansion from Jane Eyre, but that too seems okay by me (have you read Jane Eyre recently? Did you skip that interminable section when she goes away to hole up with her cousin (starts Chapter 27)? I expect it’s heresy to say it, but it’s never struck me as a great novel, merely a collection of good scenes interspersed with acres of tedium). But Hitchcock’s film is astonishingly good, with Laurence Olivier, fresh from murdering Wuthering Heights, the one really good Bronte novel (and getting an Oscar for it), at the height of his powers. It’s the one performance of Olivier’s that I believe in: tetchy and English. The pace at which the film moves, and the crafty use of shadow and light, make the twists in the novel seem almost leisurely. There are some obligatory silly-arse ‘typically English’ figures, but the acting is impeccable – George Sanders, Judith Anderson – the latter an Australian classical actress of great fame, who (bizarrely) appeared in her eighties in Star Trek III as a Vulcan Queen. As Mrs. Danvers, she is memorably poisonous.

There are some films I can watch over and over again, and the best thing about ones like Rebecca is that each jolt of the plot is just as exciting as it was originally – I find that I have ‘forgotten’ each step of the story, which is a lot to do with the tension caused by the telling. I don’t think I could manage the original novel any more. It also seems to be the case that Hitchcock is one of those British artists that we just take for granted, whereas he has a good claim to be considered one of the most intelligent producers of popular films in the last century. Quite why Citizen Kane is thought to be better than Rebecca, I couldn’t tell you, any more than I could suggest any reason why Olivier was thought to be a great Richard III or Hamlet. He’s useless in both cases.

But as Max de Winter? Perfect.

Here’s Joan Fontaine and Judith Anderson meeting for the first time:

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