Saturday, October 07, 2006

31 Days of Horror - Rebecca

Yes, this is a horror movie. This was Hitchcock's Best Picture winner of 1940, and incredibly creepy, especially for its time. And I think it's one that even horror un enthusiasts will enjoy - if they haven't seen it already, that is.

Based on the Daphne DuMaurier novel of the same name, Rebecca centers around a young woman (Joan Fontaine) who meets the rich widower Maxim DeWinter (Laurence Olivier) while working as a paid companion for a woman who is vacationing in Monte Carlo. The young woman's employer, Mrs. Edyth Van Hopper, wants very much to rub elbows with DeWinter, and tells her companion a bit about him and the tragic death of his first wife. Maxim and the young woman cross paths a few times, and there is a clear attraction between them. Maxim asks her to marry him just before she is supposed to leave with Mrs. Van Hopper, and Mrs. Van Hopper makes it clear to her departing employee that she doesn't know what she's getting into and will never be able to be a great lady, suited for the job of being mistress of DeWinter's extravagant house, Manderlay.

Up to this point in the movie, it plays much like a romance, but soon after the wedding, things take a Hitchcockian turn. When Maxim and his new bride arrive at Manderlay, Mrs. DeWinter is duly intimidated by the place and the servants. But nothing intimidates her more than the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, played to chilling perfection by Judith Anderson. At first it seems as if Mrs. DeWinter's fears of the house and the staff are mostly in her head. For example, she breaks something in the house and - fearing that the servants will be upset with her - hides it and pretends not to know where it is when asked about it. She is caught, however, and Maxim chides her for being afraid of the people who are supposed to be working for her.

However ... there is a strange shadow hanging over Manderlay that is not of Mrs. DeWinter's making. Mrs. Danvers loses no time in acquainting her new employer with the former Mrs. DeWinter, Rebecca. How Rebecca did things, how beautiful she was, how she had things arranged in the house, etc. Danvers is frankly obsessed with Rebecca. No one else in the house is quite as preoccupied with remembering her as Danvers is, but it's clear that Rebecca's death has done nothing to remove her presence from Manderlay. To make Rebecca's presence even more commanding - and to make the 2nd Mrs. DeWinter even more of a nobody - we never even know the 2nd Mrs. DeWinter's name. (In the book, she's the narrator and we're in her POV).

This is great, early Hitchcock - his version of the old-school silver screen classics. He would go on, of course, to invent the heart-stopping suspense thriller genre. But Rebecca is a wonderful example of an "Old Hollywood" film as seen through the eyes of an artist of fright.

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