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Film Review II - Rebecca (1940)

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Rebecca Review
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   Ash Smith Film and Writing  Rebecca : A Study in Mental, Physical, and Emotional Loss It ‟ s a gray day, the kind where the road, sky, and trees seem to mix together in some sort of ambivalent palette. So begin the opening visuals of Hitchcock  ‟ s  Rebecca , which is similarly nuanced, both physically and figuratively. The film does not assume a black-and-white  perspective on love and loss, either a blistering passion or a soul-crushing tragedy  –     but instead occupies a middle ground, a gray, a reality, with startling authenticity. The sophistication of Hitchcock  ‟ s direction extends the film beyond the physical depiction of loss, and weaves a complex psychological portrait of not only loss of innocence, but of agency, and ultimately, mind. Situated in the oppressively large residence of Manderley,  Rebecca  revolves around an insecure and unnamed female protagonist (Joan Fontaine) who is swept away by the brooding Mr. de Winters (Laurence Olivier) but is left alone to navigate marriage and Manderley under the constant shadow of his first wife Rebecca. Though slightly verbose, the film relies on the physical skill of its actors to conjure a range of complexity that highlights the themes of the film, the end of innocence being one. Fontaine, possibly the most naturally emotive actress in the film, plays the role of a displaced women to a “ T ” , giving her character the perfect amount fragility and childlike purity, through her consistently sloped spine and overly-fidgety hands. However, the passivity and innocence of Fontaine ‟ s character is threatened by her interactions with Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson). For her part, Anderson retains a placid, nearly indifferent façade, under which lies a great expressivity that emerges in conversation with Fontaine ‟ s character - psychosis .  The actions which reflect her devotion to Rebecca, such as laying out her clothes and keeping her items   organized, create a palpable tension that seeps into every frame, escalating throughout the film in synchrony with Mrs. de Winter  ‟ s increasing paranoia - to the point where Fontaine ‟ s character is nearly convinced to commit suicide. In those moments, their on-screen chemistry really reveals itself as genuine and compelling. Fontaine ‟ s tensed shoulders, upon Danvers ‟   entry, feel natural and powerful, and when Mrs. Danvers strokes her cheek gently with Rebecca ‟ s coat, Fontaine ‟ s character vibrates with physical discomfort. It ‟ s through those small interactions that the film reaffirms its motif of the corruption of purity and becomes utterly believable, as Danvers and the second Mrs. de Winter finally seem to establish an unwavering connection  –    not through language, but via a deeply felt connection to another (deceased) human being. That connection is the most disturbing aspect for both Fontaine ‟ s character and the audience, as the second Mrs. de Winter is perpetually haunted by the past, to the point of  physical consumption.   This theme of the loss of agency and of self is developed through the simultaneously general and highly detailed nature of Hitchcock  ‟ s direction. In his long shots, he establishes Manderley as totally imposing, and Fontaine ‟ s character as a dwarf in comparison to its oversized doorways and halls. And through liberal use of shadows and demarcated lines, the second Mrs. de Winter appears as a prisoner within her own home. Hitchcock further alludes to the loss of identity within the forbidden bedroom sequence when Ms. Danvers holds up Rebecca ‟ s sheer nightgown. In a beautifully framed medium long shot, Mrs. de Winter stands in the foreground, clothes veiled by mottled shadows as though she too were wearing Rebecca ‟ s lacy gown.   It is this meticulous attention to detail with a careful exploration of domestic interiors and mobile camera work that characterize the film and emphasize its major themes. Despite Rebecca ‟ s carefully orchestrated visuals, the film ‟ s narrative arc falls short within the last 30 minutes as the focus shifts from the second Mrs. de Winter to Maxim and his   declaration of innocence. The sudden need to resolve who (or rather what) killed Rebecca, feels out of place and detracts from the narrative of Mrs. de Winter, turning the film from  psychological thriller to a dull whodunit murder mystery - complete with soporific pacing and a verbose and contrived monologue. Here Hitchcock is absolved from some blame, as the events leading up to the ending were clearly subject to the strict censorship laws ensuring that the murderer had to be prosecuted; it seems as if the only way to keep the film in general alignment with the novel, as Selznick desired, was to absolve Maxim of the crime, which does nothing to enhance the ideas or quality of the film. But despite its structural flaws,  Rebecca ‟ s initial greatness exists virtually untarnished; aided by Hitchcock  ‟ s outstanding technical control over the camera, the film teems with extraordinary life, suspense, and terror. That being said, I hesitate to call  Rebecca  a „ horror  ‟   film, considering how many films delight in cheap emotional manipulation and pointed direction, but  Rebecca truly is the most „ horrific ‟   film I ‟ ve seen in recent years  –    not because it relies on contrived circumstances, but  because it is utterly believable. The film ‟ s refusal to become a cliché   of perfect love or tragedy, while exploring the gray in-between of hesitation, expectation, and insanity, creates a realism that pervades until the final frame. Both an exercise in psychological manipulation and an exhibition of psychological deterioration,  Rebecca  remains one of the most chilling and unsettling films in Hitchcock and film history ‟ s repertoire.  
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