Sunday, 1 January 2012

A part of this view­ing list: Criterion Collection Spine #135: Alfred Hitchcocks’s Rebecca.

Mrs. Danvers

There are, specif­i­cal­ly, two things I want to write about in re­gard to this film. The first one is the act­ing of Joan Fontaine. It was no sur­prise to me that she was nom­i­nat­ed for an Academy Award for her per­for­mance, as this was an ex­treme­ly dif­fi­cult part to play. She’s a name­less pro­tag­o­nist (se­ri­ous­ly, she is nev­er ad­dressed by name in the film), a shrink­ing vi­o­let weight­ed down by the shad­ow cast by the film’s ab­sent-due-to-death main char­ac­ter, Rebecca. The pres­sures on her char­ac­ter are man­i­fold, and all that she is not is re­flect­ed in what oth­ers tell her Rebecca was. Fontaine does an amaz­ing job mold­ing her pos­ture, fa­cial re­ac­tions and be­hav­ior to em­pha­size this dra­mat­ic ten­sion. At heart though, her char­ac­ter is hap­py and ea­ger to please, and each blow to her self-es­teem so ob­vi­ous­ly wears down this ba­sic good­ness that the film be­comes emo­tion­al­ly tor­tur­ous in the style of the goth­ic nov­el. She walks to the very precipice of mad­ness.

Secondly, I want to talk about the ways that Hitchcock thwarts the Hays Code; some­thing he was ap­par­ent­ly very fond of do­ing. The Hays Code (or Production Code) were ba­si­cal­ly a set of cen­sor­ship rules about things you were al­lowed or not al­lowed to de­pict when mak­ing a movie. If you do show some­thing like a mur­der, the mur­der­ers must be pun­ished by the end of the film. Hitchcock man­ages to use the nar­ra­tive struc­ture of the mys­tery to hint at things that he can’t ac­tu­al­ly show. It’s an amaz­ing use of psy­chol­o­gy; view­ers will try to fig­ure out how the pieces fit to­geth­er and reach con­clu­sions based on the cues Hitchcock pro­vides that are both in­cor­rect and in vi­o­la­tion of the Hays Code. If you read be­tween the lines, there are im­pli­ca­tions of mar­i­tal in­fi­deli­ty, sui­cide, homi­cide, ho­mo­sex­u­al­i­ty and in­cest. They most­ly all evap­o­rate by the dé­noue­ment.

This, the first of Hitchcock’s American-made films, is a very good movie, It’s no sur­prise that it was nom­i­nat­ed for 11 Academy Awards and picked up two of ‘em, in­clud­ing Best Picture. Like most Hitchcock films, there are a lot of balls in the air, but he’s a mas­ter­ful jug­gler and en­sure that each ball comes down at the right time, and in the right or­der.