Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Better In Your Head?--REBECCA

Daphne Du Maurier

"We all of us have our particular devil who rides us and torments us, and we must give battle in the end."

SPOILER ALERT, she had it coming. Probably.

Our narrator is a young English woman without a name. Well, no, she has a name. Several, I'd imagine, given the standard. She's making the possible beginnings of a living as the "companion" of a wealthy American broad whose name is not hidden from our eyes. The pair are ensconced in a Monte Carlo hotel, where the older woman makes sport of pouncing on other, more renowned guests to force familiarity upon them.  One happens to be Maxim de Winter, an Englishman in his early 40s, celebrated not for how he lives but rather where he lives: Manderlay, an ancestral country estate on the Cornish coast. Mrs. Van Hopper is especially excited; Mr. de Winter has been a widower for not quite a year (wife's boat sunk, body not found for weeks, so sad) so he'll be especially receptive to her overtures.

Except he isn't; he's rather a dick, really, and Mrs. Van Hopper has barely any time to stew in her own offended (and offensive) juices before influenza forces her into bed. Her young friend, free to spend her afternoons as she pleases, retreats to the hotel restaurant for a nice lunch. Only one other guest had a similar idea: Maxim de Winter. He invites her to his table. She talks, he listens. He asks, she answers. For the next two weeks, a whirlwind acquaintance ensues. When Max tells the young lady she should drop that big fat zero and get with the lean hero, she seizes the opportunity. Sure, he's old enough to be her father, given to abrupt silences and gazes gone inexplicably distant, and there's the matter of those three unheard words, but life in Manderlay is basically the realization of a girlhood dream.

The new Mrs. de Winter should therefore be overjoyed, glowing with confidence, brimming with inner strength. Because that would make for a great story. No, she's still so young, lacking the reinforcements that defend her from raps and slaps of internal and external assailants. None proves harsher, more unrelenting, than Mrs. Danvers, a housekeeper who'd once worked for Rebecca's parents, who watched the little girl grow into the mistress of Manderlay.

From day one, Danvers attempts to undermine the "new" Mrs. de Winter psychologically, and indeed the sequel wife proves herself a walking faux pas from virtually the second she passes through the front doors. Not everyone on the staff is so distant and judgmental, at least not outwardly. She develops a surprising friendship with Frank Crawley, the man who acts as Maxim's agent and helps keep the estate running. Frank's a great guy, ready with a genuine smile and an honest sentence. Two things she's not really getting from the main man in her life, who's become tetchy and distant seemingly overnight. What happened to the lively, adventurous man she frolicked 'round Italy with just mere weeks ago?

The problem, she decides, is her. Or, perhaps, her.

She cannot help but worry how she appears to others. In this new milieu, perception equals reality. The annual costume ball at Manderlay beckons, the ideal event for the second Mrs. de Winter to show the haters and/or doubters that she possesses the grace and poise required of an illustrious hostess. Mrs. Danvers suggests she take a sartorial cue from a portrait of Caroline de Winter so beloved by Max. Perfect! Her frippery will wow the throng, reverberating for days after in all the important social circles, and her thoughtfulness will touch the heart of her distant spouse.

The night of the ball, Mrs. de Winter makes quite the splash indeed--right into a tub of dog blood and cat snot. Turns out, Rebecca wore the same thing at the last costume ball.

The poor girl is literally fretting herself ill. Mrs. Van Hopper--that wise, tactless hippopotamus!--tried to warn her. She is in over her head. Her lungs are filling. She is utterly fraudulent, a pretender to a throne unwillingly vacated.

Mrs. Danvers is there, once again, ready to follow up her mendacity with what she hopes will be the killing blow. Every negative thought that's muddied up the young woman's mind since her arrival is given sharp, cruel voice by the imperious housekeeper. How dare this uncultured mess of a little girl try to replace Rebecca! She will never be as beautiful, as urbane, as charming! The only proper next step--end her unjustly-inherited life.

The knife goes in, the guts come out, and that's what being the new wife is all about!

Before she can make that jump, the sky explodes. Sort of. Apparently 'round those parts, whenever a shipwreck has been discovered in the nearby waters, it's customary to send up some fireworks. Before long, it's revealed that not only a ship, but a body have been discovered. Both once belonging to Rebecca de Winter.

Even in death, the old wife is making the new one feel inept. She tells Maxim that she understands the truth: he is not truly in love with her, his heart belongs forever to Rebecca, he married her for the companionship, she will accept the role dutifully.

Maxim is bewildered. His heart? Rebecca? He despised that bitch! He walks over to his wife and kisses her, really kisses her, for the first time since their arrival at Manderlay, and the confessions leave his mouth like blood from a hemorrhaging wound: first, she is the woman he loves, madly/deeply; and second, Rebecca (who he most assuredly didn't like, much less love) didn't drown. She was murdered. By Maxim. With more malice than forethought. While all of their friends celebrated Rebecca as a beguiling marvel of the feminine form, Maxim and Maxim alone knew that she was in actuality a cruel, selfish whore.

It's as if a transformative thunderclap rang out across the night sky. Mrs. de Winter is at last emboldened. The truth has set her free. Mrs. Danvers has played her last mind game. The subsequent inquest determines that Rebecca de Winter died at her own hand (despite some controversy). The matter over, life at Manderlay can proceed. Nothing invigorates a stagnating marriage like murder!

Not everyone is so ready to swallow the verdict of suicide. Specifically, Jack Favell, Rebecca's first and "favorite" cousin, who comes to the estate reeking of top-shelf and bearing so-called "evidence" that proves Rebecca was murdered. Along the way, he lets slip they were lovers.

(Given that the narrator does not describe a sudden race to the nearest bathroom, I guess "cousin lovin'" wasn't uncommon behavior in that era.)

Maxim calls Favell's bluff, and summons the law, setting into motion an amazing series of revelations and developments that lead to the door of Dr. Baker, who reveals that he saw Rebecca de Winter shortly before she died, and diagnosed her with terminal cancer.

At last, the ghost of Manderlay has been busted! At least, that's how our narrator sees things. Her husband isn't so sure, and insists they begin the hours-long journey home immediately, rather than stay at a hotel overnight.

The man's gut proves peerless. Their car arrives just in time to see--Mrs. Danvers has had her revenge on Manderlay.

Rebecca is celebrated as a Gothic romance, a categorization that Daphne Du Maurier herself was puzzled by. To her, Rebecca was a study in toxic envy. It's not a love story, it's a hell of a ghost story just a level below heaven. Imagine Wuthering Heights had it been written by someone whose abilities had fully matured, an author savvy enough to recognize and avoid the pitfalls of grandiloquent prose, a woman who knew how to handle obvious symbolism with skill.

How many books have you read where the narrator is possibly the fourth most important character? Behind a building? For the best, turns out; the majority of Rebecca features the unnamed Mrs. de Winter hemmed up by her own infuriating passivity, barely dealing directly with a husband who's infantilized her from practically their first meeting, and shrinks under the harsh appraisals of a mere servant. ("Get some backbone, goddamn," I muttered before putting the book down to retrieve a cup of coffee. I drink a lot of coffee.) Of course, that timidity--that cowardice, really--is all the more flustering for its believability. She acknowledges the silliness of her obsession with a dead woman, but is unable to clear her mental fog until her husband clears his own.

Barren patches aside, character flaws notwithstanding, Rebecca is a classic. Do not listen to anyone that attempts to deride its accomplishment by brushing it off as "literature for women." I would further advise you not to listen to such a person on general principle.

Director-Alfred Hitchcock
Writers-Philip MacDonald & Michael Hogan (adaptation)
             Joan Harrison & Robert E. Sherwood (screenplay)

"Selznick International Presents Its Picturization of Daphne du Maurier's Celebrated Novel."

After helming twenty-six films in his native Britain, Alfred Hitchcock made the jump to Hollywood, signing a seven-year contract with super-producer David O. Selznick. Their first project was an adaptation of a recent best-seller. Not surprising; Selznick found much green and gold down that particular path.

Selznick also preferred his films-from-books to remain as faithful as possible to the source material, anxious that audiences would react poorly to significant diversions in story. Rebecca is thus more or less the same on screen as on page. The onus was on not just Hitchcock but the actors to justify the film as something more than a cash-grab.

Our introduction to the two leads is taken from a bit later in the book, a change that jarred me at first, but I appreciate how effective it is in establishing the tension, much how a tightrope walker hesitates before step one. A man on the precipice of a cliff, staring not down but out. Is he about to jump?

He doesn't, of course; "he" being Maxim de Winter, portrayed by Laurence Olivier, one of the most actorly bastards ever to hit a mark. Fresh off a star-making turn in Wuthering Heights, Olivier's dashing looks, impeccable diction and overall expressive marvelousness makes him a far more daunting character than the man I envisioned whilst reading (Vincent van Gogh, non-ginger version). His Maxim is not only more handsome, but flirtier and less scatter-brained.

Joan Fontaine would not have been my first choice for Mrs. de Winter the II. I would have cast a more glamorous actress. Now, she is the proper choice, if you're concerned about story and verisimilitude. I don't consider her a classic beauty at her peak; I'd say she possessed a unique prettiness. So why would I have gone for a classic beauty? Merely to sell tickets. I mean, in this fantasy scenario I have the power to cast films, so "artistic integrity" is not a paramount concern of mine. What's funny, Joan Fontaine was considered to be quite the stunner back then, so if I tried explaining my decision to the studio in the same way I just explained it here, I'd find myself sorting mail with the quickness.

Mrs. de Winter does not so much "transform" as she "grows up a bit," and the journey from shrinking violet to humble daffodil is made more believable with the presence of an actress who is merely attractive rather than drop-jaw sexy. This Mrs. de Winter is supposed to lack the mien befitting a mistress of such a grand household. Fontaine fits the bill. At least to me.

Mrs. Danvers is somewhat de-clawed onscreen, but that's barely a stricture. She reigns still as a  Godless mantis of a woman whose body temperature and resting heart rate both measure the same number (33). Hell, all the main actors are great. I expected that. What I didn't anticipate, what really disappointed me, were the changes made to the plot. From the moment Rebecca's boat is found, the plot is smashed together like the bananas, peanut butter and jelly in my favorite sandwich.

Too bad it tastes like the bologna in my least favorite sandwich.

Manderlay's fate is the same, but we're treated to the oddly-satisfying sight of Mrs. Danvers still inside (did light it, ain't trying to fight it). Further, Max is driving up with his friend Frank--not his wife. She's already there, helplessly watching the estate burn. The couple share a very early 20th-century embrace and some subtle symbolism sees us out.

I mentioned in the book review that the woman telling the story is arguably not even a top three character in that story. For the film, knock her down to five. This is a Alfred Hitchcock movie, meaning that the camera is also one of the lead actors. It's fine accomplishment here is in capturing the distances: between husband and wife, past and present, living and deceased.

Some of my readers might be stunned to learn that the producer of the film bristled at the director's vision and execution. In the end, both men compromised, and the end result was a film a half-million bucks over budget that made the money back five times over. It also nabbed two Oscars out of eleven nominations (Best Picture and Best Cinematography, Black and White.) Rebecca is the only film since 1936 to grab the biggest "O" without also picking up another one from either the acting, directing or writing categories. It's also the only Hitchcock film to receive the Academy's highest honor. Many if not most of those ubiquitous "Every Best Picture Winner Ever, Ranked" lists put Rebecca in the upper half. It's worth a watch.

But is it even a "Hitchcock film"?

Lest you call out that question for living under the bridge, consider what the man himself said to Francois Truffaut about Rebecca:

"It is not a Hitchcock film."

Hitch elaborated, thankfully, pointing out the script's lack of humor (gallows or otherwise), which definitely distinguishes it in his filmography. There's also the school of thought--Reactionary University, I believe it's called--that posits Rebecca as lesser-than since it was Hitchcock's debut American production and he was handcuffed by the studio. Creepy moments don't lack, but the fears are muted. Yes, implied violence and terror is a hallmark of Hitch, but with the shadow of Selznick looming, the paranoid joys of the story were smothered by a cloying soundtrack and the greater fear of alienating book readers with strict expectations.

It's possible the director felt some resentment re: the film's reception. Only one Hitchcock film ever won Hollywood's greatest prize, and it was Rebecca. Not North By Northwest, Psycho, Rear Window or Vertigo. None of those four films were even nominated for Best Picture. Hard to believe such egregious snubs wouldn't bruise a filmmaker's ego.

 Both novel and film begin with the same line, one of the most famous in all literature. (Rebecca was one of the first films to utilize voice-over, although it thankfully does not appear throughout.) Very wise--this establishes Manderlay, and by extension life at Manderlay, as something that once was. It piques audience curiosity. The book goes one better; the narrator is talking from a contented future, so readers realize that whatever unfolds, the ending is ultimately a happy one in spite of incredible odds.

One obstacle facing the film is that of the narrator's imagination, so fond of running amok--I'm talking 600 mg of caffeine chased with a quick snort style running, which simply cannot be mimicked in any flick that fancies itself comprehensible. Hitchcock trusts the camera to do the dirty work, and it goes overtime to show us that what we see is secondary to what we do not see. Would that the script were up to snuff!

David Selznick's States-wide search for a suitable shooting location came up empty, necessitating the creation of a miniature model. The main detriment of not shooting at an actual estate is also the main detriment of Rebecca in black-and-white. The floral metaphors in the novel are so plentiful my nose began twitching fifty pages in. Malevolent rhododendrons, pallid azaleas, restrictive ivy...Du Maurier does a wonderful job of engaging the senses. Not to mention that nature does not judge, making the out of doors ideal for when Mrs. de Winter yearns to escape the limits of her new life.

The film falters at those crucial moments where the novel shines: the revelation of Rebecca's fate, the subsequent inquest into her death, and the appearance of cousin-porker Jack Favell. (They really messed him up, from a glassy-eyed lout given to community theater-level dramatics into a deviously focused man worth taking seriously.) Shame that such sloppy restructuring had to turn an unnerving psych-thriller into a lukewarm murder mystery.  

The most significant change was one that had to be made, or else the film as written could not have been. Hollywood Production Code decreed that criminals in films be caught and punished, so Maxim's story of his final stand-off with Rebecca was altered to make her death accidental. A limp and lame revision that the writers were basically forced into making. All that build-up, climaxing with, "Wifey bad, wifey fall down go boom."

If you still hold onto hope that the book revolves around a touching love story, the film should dissuade you of that absurd notion. The relationship of Maxim and Friendless, Nameless has all the depth of a Cool Whip container. The only truly tender moment between them in the novel is the shared embrace after Maxim unburdens himself, and that didn't even make the film.

But the worst element of Rebecca is that damned soundtrack. Audiences will forever allow themselves to be emotionally manipulated by sound, even when they know better. The action on screen establishes tension just fine without the abrupt appearance of swelling strings to coat everything in a sickly syrup. "I didn't even realize the housekeeper had less than benevolent intentions until the violins pointed it out!"

Although the book is the clear winner, I would be remiss if I didn't mention that two of my favorite shots in any Hitchwork work can be seen in Rebecca: the silhouette of Mrs. Danvers against the transparent curtains, and the flaming, falling ceiling beams. Even average Hitchcock has moments that make me go, "Please trip-hammer heart, don't hurt me."

Hitchcock told his lead actress--already on edge, knowing that Olivier had pushed for his own girlfriend in the role--that the cast and crew uniformly disliked her. Which they proved, by snubbing her whenever possible and reasonable--at the director's orders.

"I'm asking you to marry me, you little fool!" Marriage proposals before breakfast are the most trustworthy ones.

David O. Selznick purchased the film rights for $50,000. Adjusted for inflation, over $875,000.

In addition to some unconventionally amusing moments, Hitchcock's original script featured dialogue that implied a less-than wholesome relationship between Rebecca and Mrs. Danvers. Or, as the Production Code Administration so wonderfully put it, "quite inescapable inferences of sex perversion." Hitch, bless him, still managed to fit in the scene of Danvers lovingly stroking Rebecca's lingerie.

All for bringing back "starting an infant" as a euphemism for pregnancy.

What is the right sort of knowledge?

"Rebecca's favorite cousin." Not a bold assumption, considering he was bruising her beef curtains at a distasteful rate.

How quickly, and profoundly, a life can change. From gangrenous to glamorous in the tip of a vase.

"Her shadow has been between us" the seated man tells the kneeling woman, the space between them just sufficient to see the lamp in the background.

Mrs. Danvers and Maxim's sister are the worst type of women--they pit us against one another. At least with the sister it seems ingenuous. Still doesn't mean she's exempt from catching hands.

The idea of personally entertaining other people with anything other than the written word is so foreign to me. Party-goer forever, party-thrower never.

The narrator frequently refers to her honeymoon in Italy, usually to lament at how different her husband was. At Manderlay, he's straining against invisible reins. On honeymoon, he was "youthful and ardent in a hundred happy ways." In other words, he was a beast in bed.

"We are none of us," "They don't any of them," I talk that way and it's the 21st century. It's stupendous, and recommended. I can actually see the blood pressure of the other person drop.

Wonder what I left behind after my three-week stretch at the Days Inn on Dual Highway. Shallow desperation? Gut-manipulating disgust? Spiritual desolation?

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