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 Manxman (1929)

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Another silent Hitchcock, another love triangle. Once again starring Carl Brisson. Hitchcock later dismissed it as “a very banal picture.” I’m not going to call him wrong about his own movie but…he’s wrong. In my opinion, it’s actually one of his strongest films from the silent era.

Set in a small village on the Isle of Man, Kate (Anny Ondra) promises her love to a chipper fisherman called Pete (Brisson) shortly before he leaves for Africa to make his fortune. While he’s gone he asks his best friend Philip (Malcolm Keen) to take care of her. But a forbidden love starts to blossom and when Pete returns to ask Kate for her hand in marriage, it’s only a matter of time before it all blows up in their faces.

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Until then, she has something else in her face

In many ways, The Manxman feels like a cross between two Hitchcock films: the love triangle story from The Ring mixed with the theme of regretting promises from The Pleasure Garden. But The Manxman is better than both of them.

While, in terms of cinematography, The Ring is still Hitchcock’s greatest ’20s achievement – the characters and story are stronger here. In The Ring the audience were clearly intended to sympathise with ‘One-Round’ Jack; Bob Corby was his obstacle to overcome and Mabel was his prize to be won.

But the lead characters in The Manxman are more nuanced than that. All three of them are likeable and we don’t want anyone to come away hurt, even though it’s almost unavoidable. Ondra is enthralling as Kate, making it impossible not to side with her on any decision she makes. Keen gives an entirely convincing portrayal of a man falling in love despite himself and poor old Pete is so naïve and trusting that he can’t see what’s happening right under his nose.

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Like…RIGHT under his damn nose

The film ends on a beautifully melancholic note and it’s hard to know exactly how we’re meant to feel. As well as these gripping character dynamics we’re also treated to some gorgeous craggy scenery and some niffy love-triangle imagery. My personal favourite is the opening shot of the three-legged Isle of Man flag, setting the location but also introducing the thematic symbolism.

The Manxman is an emotionally engaging film. Compelling, suspenseful and a fitting swansong for Hitchcock’s silent classics.

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Farewell

 

Hitchcock-a-thon: The Pleasure Garden (1925)

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Hitchcock directed his first feature film when he was only 25. Even at this young age, The Pleasure Garden has a lot of what would go on to become Hitchcock tropes: determined women, deception, black comedy, voyeuristic POV shots, mental instability and – of course – MUUUUUURDER.

There are also some classic Hitchcock comic side characters such as a pair of bumbling landlords, a deliciously camp tailor and a grumpy theatre proprietor who couldn’t give less of a fuck.

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Watch out, we got a badass over here

But what of our main characters? We follow two up-and-coming Charleston dancers at The Pleasure Garden Theatre, Patsy (Virginia Valli) and Jill (Carmelita Geraghty) who look so incredibly alike it makes the first half hour pretty confusing. Eventually I could tell them apart because one wore a hat more than the other. Except when the other one also wore a hat. Or the first one wore no hat. Hmm.

Luckily this becomes less of a problem as the film continues since they spend less time on screen together. Jill quickly becomes big in the theatre world, leaving poor Patsy behind in her dust cloud. Jill began the film engaged to the naively charming Hugh (John Stuart) and promised to remain faithful to him while he spends two years abroad working for his company, but as her fame continues to grow and her patience thins she starts to let herself enjoy the company of her “stage-door tomcats”.

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Three seconds away from setting his beard on fire

Patsy, meanwhile, has a whirlwind romance with Levett (Miles Mander), Hugh’s lanky business partner, and they marry a month before he too has to leave for abroad. But once there he falls into some deplorable old habits…

The driving force of the film comes from these promises made in the heat of the moment which our heroines later regret. While the dated pacing means most of the action happens very quickly in the last half hour and feels a bit like it comes out of nowhere, the film still makes for a compelling story that explores mistrust and the limits of fidelity.

If you’re the kind of person put off by the pacing or the tone of silent movies, The Pleasure Garden probably isn’t going to convert you. But if you’re open to 1920s cinema, Hitchcock’s debut has a lot to offer. Like this ridiculously cute dog:

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He’s called Cuddles. Seriously.