Hitchcock-a-thon: Rebecca (1940)

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“Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderley again…”

So goes the most famous opening line to any Hitchcock film, perhaps the most famous opening line in all cinema. Well, apart from “Rosebud.” After the anti-climatic conclusion to Hitchcock’s British period, his Hollywood debut, Rebecca, was a critical and box office smash and is still held to be one of the All Time Greats. Indeed, it’s the only Hitchcock film ever to win the Academy Award for Best Picture.

Does it deserve such high praise?

Yes.

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We follow a nameless heroine (played by Joan Fontaine) in her whirlwind romance with wealthy widower Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier) who she meets in Monte Carlo. When they return to Manderley, Maxim’s country house in Cornwall, the new Mrs. de Winter feels out of place in the overbearing world of the English aristocracy. Try as she might, she cannot shake the feeling that she inferior  to Max’s first wife, Rebecca. As Max becomes more distant and the ice-cold housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), continues to remind her that she doesn’t belong, it seems that the shadow of Rebecca forever darkens Manderley.

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This was a passion project for Hitchcock. He’d wanted to do the film since Daphne du Maurier’s original novel was published in 1938, but until now he was unable to afford the rights. Mistrust and secrecy within marriage is a popular Hitchcock theme we’ve already seen in The Pleasure Garden, Easy Virtue and Sabotage, but here it’s implemented most successfully.

The unseen presence of the late Mrs. de Winter is so strong it’s almost palpable. Hitchcock’s slow-tracking shots through empty corridors and staircases creates a the foreboding presence that looms over film, adding to its mystery and mounting suspense. Credit must also go Judith Anderson’s superb performance as Mrs. Danvers who’s fanatical devotion to the memory of Rebecca – with subtle homoerotic undertones – makes her one of the more psychologically interesting villains in the Hitchcock canon.

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Fontaine is exceptional as the lead, taking us through the emotional decline of a naive young romantic thrown into an oppressive and unfamiliar world. Olivier as Maxim is brooding and involved, especially compared to the lacklustre performance by his lifelong rival John Gielgud in The Secret Agent.

Overall, Rebecca is a expertly executed drama and a thrilling start to Hitchcock’s Hollywood career.

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Hitchcock-a-thon: The Skin Game (1931)

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The early thirties marked the start of a career decline for Hitchcock, his films were losing hold of the critical of box office success he enjoyed in the silent era. From 1930 to 1934 he took on a variety of projects, some he had no enthusiasm for, in an attempt to re-vitalise his career.

From this context comes The Skin Game. Following on from the completely average whodunit Murder! we now get a completely average dialogue-heavy drama.

The story focuses on the rivalry between two rural families who butt heads over the future of a plot of land. Mr. Hornblower (Edmund Gwenn) wants make way for new factories, while Mr. Hillcrest (C.V. France) wants preserve the tranquillity of the countryside.

What begins as impolite exchanges and sly business manoeuvres soon descends into scandal and mud-flinging. The Hillcrests gain a tactical advantage when they learn a dark secret from the past of Mr. Hornblower’s daughter-in-law, Chloe (Phyllis Konstam).

The Skin Game is a slow-burner. At first, it’s hard to care too much either family in their tussle, but after a pivotal auction scene – filmed in a wild and sweeping POV shot –things start to kick into gear. As future of the land lies in the balance, poor Chloe spots an unwanted figure from her past and has something of a panic attack. The drama takes on a crucial human element when her history is exploited by the Hillchrists and condemned by the Hornblowers. It bears many similarities with Easy Virtue, as we are shown the unsympathetic brutality of society as she’s dragged through hell.

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Though Konstam undoubtedly has the stand-out performance as Chloe, there are strong characters as well. My personal favourite is Jill (Jill Esmond), a witty young Hillchrist who frequently deploys her rapier tongue.

“I’ll answer to God for my actions, not you young lady,” growls Mr. Hornblower. “Poor God,” replies Jill.

The Skin Game is marginally more interesting than Murder! and far more accessible than Juno and the Paycock, but it’s still hard to recommend except to hardcore Hitch fans. Sadly, it would be a while still until the Master of Suspense started to find his feet in the talkie age. For now, there is dud after dud to follow.

Hitchcock-a-thon: Easy Virtue (1928)

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One of Britain’s greatest directors takes on a drama by one of Britain’s greatest playwrights. It should be a recipe for success. How is it the completed film is so…tedious? Let’s back up a bit. Easy Virtue is a loose adaptation of a 1924 Noël Coward play concerned with a classic Hitchcock theme – hypocritical, self-righteous society. We’re in Downhill territory again, folks.

We begin in a courtroom detailing the divorce of our heroine Larita (Isabel Jeans) from her abusive husband and Alan Rickman doppelganger Mr. Filton (Franklin Dyall).

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I can’t be the only one who sees this

Accusations of infidelity are brought against her and the jury buys into it. Once the case is over she flees to the south of France to escape the scandal. There she meets John (played by our old friend Robin Irvine), a rich young man who soon falls for her in a whirlwind romance. They marry, and head back to England to meet John’s dreadfully snobbish family. It’s only a matter of time until her marriage from the past threatens her reputation in the present.

The film has serious pacing issues. After the initial set-up in the courtroom, there’s only a few moments of interest for the next hour or so; such as an inspired transition from France to England represented by cutting from a poodle to a bulldog or an oddly touching scene where we learn about John and Larita’s marriage proposal through the comical gawks of an eavesdropping switchboard operator.

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“Oh no he DIDN’T!”

Things pick in the last twenty minutes as Larita finally snaps and refuses to take anyone else’s shit. Jeans transforms the character into a firecracker, spitting out glorious put-downs to those who cause her offense.

“In our world we do not understand this code of easy virtue,” announces her haughty Mother-in-Law. “In your world you understand very little of anything, Mrs. Whittaker,” Larita responds. Zing!

“Have you had as many lovers as they say?”  “Of course not. Hardly any of them actually loved me.” Zing zing!

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Smack down, mothafucka

This final act houses the Coward-esque witticisms so absent from the rest of the film. It also ends on a sombre note which serves as a sympathetic and thought-provoking commentary on the 1920s equivalent to slut-shaming. But it’s too little too late. We have to sit through sixty minutes of very little happening before we get to anything interesting. The final result is a film that feels much longer than it actually is. Never a good sign.