Alfred Hitchcock Visits Manderley in “Rebecca”

21 07 2010

“It’s not a Hitchcock picture; it’s a novelette, really. The story is old-fashioned. It’s almost a period piece.” — Alfred Hitchcock

Mr. Hitchcock may not have considered “Rebecca” a true Hitchcock movie, but in many ways it seemed like one to me. Released in 1940 and starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine, “Rebecca” is Hitch’s first Hollywood production and his first film made with producer David O. Selznick, who brought the director to the U.S. from England.

A gothic romance that drips foreboding and suspense, “Rebecca” begins with one of the most famous lines of dialogue in Hitchcock’s oeuvre: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again…” The line is uttered by Joan Fontaine as we see her dream of an estate in ruins, overgrown with foliage. Fontaine’s nameless heroine is at the center of the story, which begins in Monte Carlo, where she is working as a traveling companion to the demanding Mrs. Van Hopper. Their trip takes a turn for the brighter when Maxim de Winter, played by Olivier, arrives on the scene. Van Hopper quickly fills in de Winter’s backstory: He’s a wealthy, grieving widower whose wife drowned in a boating accident a year ago. When Van Hopper catches cold, her companion starts keeping company with de Winter, and before their stay at “Monte” comes to an end, he has asked her to marry him.

The newlywed couple arrive at Manderley only to be greeted by de Winter’s extensive staff, led by Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), a severe looking middle-aged woman. The new Mrs. de Winter struggles with her new role as mistress of the manor; her background is working class, and she has no idea how to run a household or a staff. Her discomfort and submissive nature don’t help, as Mrs. Danvers constantly talks about Rebecca, the late Mrs. de Winter: how she ran Manderley, where and when she did daily activities like correspondence. Whatever confidence the new Mrs. de Winter has is constantly undermined by Mrs. Danvers, and we see the fear Mrs. Danvers has instilled in her new mistress when she hides a broken cupid figurine rather than saying anything about it.

De Winter himself, meanwhile, has no idea that his new wife is having trouble, even as Mrs. Danvers shows her the west wing and the late Mrs. de Winter’s room, replete with monograms everywhere. Mrs. Danvers speaks of the deceased in reverent terms, saying in no uncertain terms that the new Mrs. de Winter will never be able to fill her predecessor’s shoes. There’s a disconnect between the older, serving staff and young Mrs. de Winter: They expect her to act like a member of the upper class and have a commanding personality like their late mistress. Mrs. Danvers’ contempt for the guileless new Mrs. de Winter is plain to see.

Of course, Mrs. Danvers isn’t the only force contributing to the new Mrs. de Winter’s problems. Her new sister-in-law is equally belittling, though in a less cruel way.

It's hard to see in this shot, but Mrs. Danvers is smiling here.

It comes to light that de Winter and his first wife hated each other, and that he accidentally killed her. He is soon cleared of that, after a few scenes that are very reminiscent of Hitchcoch’s earlier film “Blackmail,” and when it’s clear that de Winter and his new wife are going to be able to live happily ever after, Mrs. Danvers sets fire to Manderley, allowing herself to die in her former mistress’s bedroom as it is engulfed in flames.

Manderley itself is an important character in the movie; we learn more about its history as the movie progresses, and discover its secrets. Visually, it opens and closes “Rebecca,” and at least three-quarters of the film takes place there.

This was the second film Hitchcock made from a novel by Daphne du Maurier, after “Jamaica Inn,” and Selznick insisted that Hitch stick to the plot of the book, which was a bestseller. The only major change is Mrs. Danvers is younger in the movie. Her obsession with her late mistress has been described as having lesbian overtones, although I read it as much as a testament to the power of the first Mrs. de Winter’s personality, which seemed to hold Mrs. Danvers in thrall. There’s also a neat bit of symmetry in the fact that Mrs. de Winter died by drowning while Mrs. Danvers dies in fire.

The movie was made in 1939 but held for release in 1940, as Selznick did not want anything to compete with his 1939 epic, “Gone with The Wind.” Vivien Leigh, star of GWTW and wife of Laurence Olivier, auditioned for “Rebecca,” as did Margaret Sullavan. Leigh’s schedule on GWTW kept her from working on “Rebecca,” but Joan Fontaine captures the young Mrs. de Winter’s innocence and lack of confidence beautifully. Olivier, meanwhile, shows off his moody nature here just as he did a year earlier in “Wuthering Heights.”

Even in this first outing together, Hitchcock and Selznick clashed. Hitchcock was used to running his own show, from shaping his source material to fit his purposes to writing articles in the press that subtly touted his movies. Selznick, though, was a classic micromanager who wanted things his way. He constantly called the director with suggestions or sent lengthy memos, which Hitch did his best to ignore. It must have been frustrating for Hitchcock to have been brought from England to make movies for Selznick, only to learn that despite his successes and reputation, he had been hired to make movies the way Selznick wanted them made. “Rebecca” was a hit, though, and won the Academy Award for “Best Picture,” the only award in this category ever won by Hitchcock, as well as “Best Cinematography” and nominations in seven other categories.

Hitchcock’s next movie would be “Foreign Correspondent,” a fast-paced, witty return to intrigue and spies.


Alfred Hitchcock Visits “Jamaica Inn”

13 07 2010

“Jamaica Inn was an absurd thing to undertake . . . I made the picture, and although it became a box-office hit, I’m still unhappy over it.” — Alfred Hitchcock

“Jamaica Inn,” released in 1939, was Alfred Hitchcock’s last British production, and this portion of his career could hardly have ended on an odder note. In years, it roughly marks off the first third of his career as a director; in number of pictures directed, it’s almost at the halfway point on the way to 52 extant films.

The film is set in 1815, and begins with a sailing ship that’s been lured to the rocky coast, where a band of cutthroats murder the entire crew and plunder the ship. That’s more or less a prologue, though – the story really begins with a young woman, Mary (Maureen O’Hara), who is on her way to see her aunt following the deaths of her parents. On telling her coach driver that the aunt is a resident at Jamaica Inn, the frightened driver insists on proceeding well past her destination; she ends up instead at the home of Sir Humphrey Pengallan, played by Charles Laughton.

Pengallan is the squire of the township, a smirking dandy of a lady’s man, and he delivers Mary to Jamaica Inn, where we meet her aunt and also her uncle, Joss, who happens to be the leader of the band of murderers. It is Pengallan who plans Joss’s crimes, but we also soon learn that one of the band is a lieutenant in the Royal Navy, undercover with the criminals and gathering evidence to hang them all. When he’s discovered, Mary rescues him from hanging, and together they uncover Pengallan’s true role.

The action rarely slows down in this film; there are wild horse chases, fights
with guns, knives and fists; people are cornered in flooding caves, tied up and held at gunpoint, kidnapped and blackmailed. It’s a rousing story in the style of “Treasure Island,” and while it bears few of Hitchcock’s typical tricks of the trade, it is engaging and fun.

Separated at birth: Charles Laughton in "Jamaica Inn" and the coachman from "Pinocchio"

The one thing that drags the movie down – or sideways, perhaps – is the performance by Charles Laughton, who seems to be in a different movie than anyone else. He minces across the screen, his lips pursed, head cocked, holding his pistol like a parasol, tossing off one-liners or bellowing for his servants and utterly dominating the screen until he melodramatically leaps to his death to avoid capture. Everyone else underplays their roles; he hams it up, overacting ridiculously. And let’s not get started on his fake nose and eyebrows!

Laughton was co-producer on the film, which explains why Hitchcock could not get him to tone down his performance; Laughton even insisted that Hitch shoot only closeups of him until he could figure out how his character would walk. (In waltz time, of all things!)

Yet Laughton did some good as well on the picture, insisting that Maureen O’Hara be cast as Mary; she would soon star with Laughton in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and go on to stardom. The film also features Robert Newton, later known for his role in “Treasure Island,” as the young Naval lieutenant.

The critics did not like the movie, although it was a success. The Times of London wrote, “the director, Mr. Alfred Hitchcock, seems for the moment to have given up his method of slow and deliberate tension; it is a film of downright and in no way subtle action,” while The New York Times called it “merely journeyman melodrama, good enough of its kind, but almost entirely devoid of those felicitous turns of camera phrasing, the sudden gleams of wicked humor, the diabolically casual accumulation of suspense which characterize [Hitchcock’s] best pictures.”

This film marked the debut of Joan Harrison as one of the screenwriters. She would go on to become one of Hitchcock’s most trusted associates, co-writing several screenplays and producing both of Hitch’s TV series.

There is a real Jamaica Inn in Cornwall, by the way, which was where Daphne Du Maurier wrote the novel upon which the film is based. Hitchcock’s 1940 release, “Rebecca,” was also based on a Du Maurier novel, and we’ll look at it next.

Alfred Hitchcock’s Collaborators: Michael Balcon

9 07 2010

Michael Balcon, the producer who gave Alfred Hitchcock his start

Michael Balcon may not be as familiar a name to fans of Alfred Hitchcock’s films as our previous collaborator, Alma Reville, but he had a vital role in Hitch’s career and an even greater one in the history of British cinema. As the man who first suggested that Hitch try directing, he put the Master of Suspense’s career into motion; later, as a producer at England’s Ealing Studios, he had a hand in a series of movies that reflected the nation’s spirit and pride in the post World War II era.

Born in 1896, Balcon was the son of Jewish immigrants, and was raised in poverty in Birmingham. He won a scholarship to a grammar school but had to leave in 1913 due to his family’s financial needs. His poor eyesight kept him out of World War I, and in 1915 he went to work for the Dunlop Rubber Company. His friend, Victor Saville, suggested that they go into partnership in the film industry with a small distribution formed in 1919. In 1921, Balcon and director Graham Cutts formed Gainsborough Pictures, which in 1923 released “Woman to Woman,” directed by Cutts and written by Alfred Hitchcock.

Seeing the multitalented Hitchcock at work as a title designer, writer, set dresser and assistant director, Balcon suggested Hitchcock try his hand at directing. Hitchcock later said that he had not really considered directing, and that he had been perfectly happy with his work up till that time. The earliest of Hitchcock’s directorial efforts were not particularly promising, starting with the unfinished “Number 13” and “The Pleasure Garden.” But Balcon had faith in his young director, and his film “The Lodger” was a sensation (once it had been re-edited by Ivor Montagu; it was released before “The Pleasure Garden”), while “The Ring” showed Hitch’s growing talent at storytelling.

Balcon continued on Hitch’s movies through his British period, usually uncredited, producing the aforementioned films as well as “The Mountain Eagle,” “Downhill,” “Easy Virtue,” “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” “The 39 Steps,” “Secret Agent” and “Sabotage.”

In the late 1920s, Gainsborough was absorbed by Gaumont Pictures; Balcon continued producing, and in the 1930s helped individuals including the actor Conrad Veidt escape Nazi Germany. Balcon returned from a trip to the United States in 1936 to find Gaumont in financial ruin; he briefly worked for MGM, then joined Ealing Studios in 1938. He would remain a fixture at Ealing through the 1950s, working on dozens of well-regarded films that captured the British post-war spirit — its can-do attitude, a spirit of good-natured rebellion, and, visually, the nation’s slow recovery from the war. It was Balcon’s belief that before a movie could achieve international success, it had to possess a strong, identifiable national character. The best known of these films include the Alec Guinness comedies “Kind Hearts and Coronets,” “The Lavender Hill Mob,” “The Man in the White Suit” and “The Ladykillers,” as well as the adventure “Scott of the Antarctic” (later parodied on “Monty Python’s Flying Circus”). Balcon was knighted in 1948.

After Ealing closed its doors in 1957, Balcon formed Brynston Films, an independent production company. The last film he worked on as Executive Producer was 1963’s “Tom Jones.” Although officially retired after this, Balcon continued to encourage young directors and served as chairman of the British Film Institute. Balcon died in 1977. In 1989, his grandson, Daniel Day-Lewis, won an Academy Award for “My Left Foot” which he accepted “in honour of my grandfather, Michael Balcon.”

Interestingly, in the late 1930s Alfred Hitchcock was determined to leave England for Hollywood in part because he wanted to work with actors who were more natural on screen, playing ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. That’s just what Balcon championed at Ealing Studios. It’s easy to imagine how different Hitchcock’s career might have been had he stayed in England, while in some ways, how similar to his Hollywood path.

Alfred Hitchcock Reveals “The Lady Vanishes”

4 07 2010

“It’s fantasy, sheer fantasy!” — Alfred Hitchcock

Fantasy it may be, Mr. Hitchcock, but “The Lady Vanishes” is an extremely engaging movie with characters so relatable that we don’t really question the plausibility of the plot – and if you watch it, you may find plenty to question. Released in 1938, the movie stars Margaret Lockwood as Iris Henderson, Michael Redgrave as Gilbert and Dame May Whitty as Mrs. Froy, the vanished lady.

The story begins in the storybook nation of Bandrika, a stand-in for Switzerland, in a small town where a train has been delayed due to an avalanche. The passengers are stranded in a hotel, and we meet them in this stressful situation: Iris, on holiday with two girlfriends and on her way home to London to marry a penniless but titled young man; Gilbert, a musicologist studying folk dancing; Mrs. Froy, a governess who is returning home after years in Bandrika; a pair of middle-aged gentlemen who are both inseparable and obsessed with cricket; and a couple having an affair behind the backs of their spouses.

The characters reveal themselves as they try to secure rooms: Gilbert recruits the hotel’s staff to demonstrate some folk dancing, Iris and her friends discuss the impending nuptials, and the adulterous couple trade barbs as the moment approaches in which they will have to either give up their affair or begin divorce proceedings. It’s a situation with many opportunities for humor and drama.

Danger is afoot, too: The guitar player serenading Mrs. Froy is quietly strangled, although she can’t see it happening. The next morning, someone tries to drop a flower box on her head, striking her new friend, Iris, instead. With the train ready to go, Iris is hustled on board, along with all the others. Seeing that Iris is still stunned from the flower box, Mrs. Froy takes her to the dining car for a cup of tea. Over introductions, Hitch plays a favorite trick with sound: Mrs. Froy can’t make her name heard over the train whistle. Instead, she resorts to writing her name in the grime on the window.

After a nap, Iris awakens to find Mrs. Froy gone – and none of the passengers remember seeing her. A doctor tries to tell Iris that her injury may be causing her some confusion, but she insists that Mrs. Froy is real, and must be found. She enlists Gilbert’s help, because, despite the fact that they clashed at the hotel, he believes her story.

Iris and Gilbert search for clues to Mrs. Froy’s whereabouts while the other characters throw up roadblocks: Neither the adulterers nor the cricket fanciers will cooperate, even though they did see Mrs. Froy, because of their own agendas, while others, including a countess and a stage magician, seem to not understand enough English to understand what’s going on.

The plot grows more complex as the train reaches its first stop, where a patient of the doctor’s is brought on board on a stretcher, his face concealed by bandages, accompanied by a nun. And now, Mrs. Froy is reported to have turned up – but instead, it’s another woman, younger than Mrs. Froy if similarly dressed. Everyone insists that this is the women Iris was with, but Iris and Gilbert refuse to believe it. They sneak into the patient’s room, spot that the nun is a fake (high heeled shoes!) and unwrap the patient’s face to find – Mrs. Froy!

Believing that the doctor is on their side, Gilbert and Iris try to explain things to him over a drink, but of course he has had their glasses drugged. He marches them back to their cabin before they can conk out, then locks them in, but somehow they do not lose consciousness. They do find the real Mrs. Froy at last, bound in and hidden in the cabin’s tiny bathroom.

As we learn, the doctor had ordered the nun to drug the drinks, but she could not do it, as she, like them, is British. Meanwhile, the train reaches its next stop, in hostile territory, where Mrs. Froy is to be removed. She, though, had been replaced again on the stretcher by her look-alike, and the doctor takes steps to see that the real Mrs. Froy will not escape by uncoupling the front cars of the train from the rest of the coaches. Now, it’s the engine, coal car and dining car, full of British passengers who were there for tea, including the adulterers, the cricket fanciers, Gilbert, Iris and Mrs. Froy, as well as the doctor and the nun. The train is diverted into a forest where foreign forces are prepared to shoot anyone who resists them, but the passengers rally against the common foe. They find arms and fight back while Mrs. Froy at last reveals that she is more than a governess – she’s an agent of the British government, carrying a message encoded in a tune. She teaches the tune to Gilbert, then dashes out of the other side of the train.

Gilbert gets the train moving again, and they soon reach allied land, then head back to London. Iris and Gilbert are about to part ways, but, on spotting her fiance, Iris jumps into Gilbert’s cab to accompany him to the Foreign Office and also to show us that they are in love. At the Foreign Office, Gilbert realizes that he can’t remember the tune – all he can think of is the wedding march. Fortunately, as they are ushered in to an office, they see Mrs. Froy playing the  tune on a piano. She has survived her own journey and welcomes the young couple with open arms.

Hitchcock said later that “The Lady Vanishes” was filmed on a small stage due to budget limitations, but he and his team use every trick in the book to create their illusions, including miniatures, multiple exposures, dissolving shots, distorted perspective, rear projection and more. The town in Bandrika was a model, and was meant to look like something you’d see in a department store window, and every window on the train showed projected footage to create the illusion of movement.

This was Michael Redgrave’s first leading role in a movie, and while he reportedly preferred stage work, he took to film easily, looking much more at ease than his fellow thespians John Gielgud (“Secret Agent”) or Laurence Olivier (“Rebecca”). The chemistry between Redgrave and Margaret Lockwood is believable in a classic 1930s way – indeed, this follows the pattern set in “The 39 Steps” and “Young and Innocent,” in which an irritating but charming young man and a headstrong young woman find romance together. In one of the film’s most enchanting scenes, Iris and Gilbert explore a storage compartment full of the magician’s belongings, only to find pigeons, rabbits and a calf. But when the magician turns up with a switchblade, the humor of the moment turns deadly.

Dame May Whitty is a delight, too, as she transforms from a doddering old woman to a clever, if elderly, spy, steps ahead of the others. Of course, her ability to leap off a train and run off into the forest, dodging bullets all the way, stretches believability a bit.

Hitchcock also comments on the coming war in Europe without getting too specific – although the efforts of the male adulterer to avoid conflict by appeasing their attackers certainly reflects the futility of Neville Chamberlain’s negotiations with Adolph Hitler.

Hitchcock makes an appearance here, on the train platform in London at the end of the movie, fumbling with a cigarette and carrying what looks like a lunch pail.

“The Lady Vanishes” became the most successful British film to date when it was first released, winning Hitchcock the New York Film Critics Award for 1939 and was named Best Film of 1938 by The New York Times. After the slump of “Secret Agent,” “Sabotage” and “Young and Innocent,” “The Lady Vanishes” showed Hitchcock at the peak of his abilities, with a story worthy of his talents and a cast that held audience’s interest. The film allowed Hitch to finalize his plan to move to Hollywood, which he would do in 1940, after his final British film, “Jamaica Inn.”

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