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The MacGuffin: News and Comment (23/Jun/2012)

(c) Ken Mogg (2012)

June 23

Speaking of 'objectivity' ... here begin some thoughts on Hitchcock's Rebecca (1940). My thanks to AK for referring me to a brief article on it by 'Bidisha' in the 'Sunday Observer' last week (http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2012/jun/17/favourite-hitchcock-film-Rebecca-bidisha?newsfeed=true) and also - once again - to our 'advanced' Hitchcock discussion group for trying to keep me honest about how the film actually works. I'll be criticising Bidisha's article, even though it describes Rebecca as 'a rivetting satire about the toxicity of the gentility', which is pretty much how I initially presented the film to the group. But they persuaded me that, first and foremost, Rebecca works as a straightforward tale, with Gothic trappings, of the love of 'I' (Joan Fontaine) for Maxim (Laurence Olivier), and so it does (work) - palpably and affectingly! No doubt about it. I just re-read Robert Sherwood's magisterial screenplay, and it is full of insight (such as when it describes 'I' as adopting a position of 'armed neutrality' against the designs of the sinister housekeeper Mrs Danvers). Bidisha starts out badly by describing 'I' with would-be humour as 'a twitchy waste of space'. Such phrasing is a distaff equivalent of alleged male arrogance, which is what Bidisha does allege against Maxim and his cronies (e.g., Colonel Julyan, played by C. Aubrey Smith) even though, in both the writing and in the performances, those persons come across as admirable. Actually, too, 'I', for all her initial timidity in the presence of the formidable Mrs Van Hopper (Florence Bates), is clearly both sensitive and intelligent. At the start of the film, when she calls out to Maxim, 'Stop!', as he appears bent on suicide, her intervention is both quick-thinking and courageous - and roughly the narrative equivalent of Scottie's intervention to save the life of 'Madeleine' in Vertigo. ('Once you've saved a person's life, you're responsible for it forever', we hear him say.) Sure, it is very easy to interpret Rebecca in the light of author Daphne du Maurier's admission that she felt a perverse affinity with Rebecca (whom Maxim reviles as 'incapable of love, or tenderness, or decency'). But you have to remember that Du Maurier, of the famous family, was herself an aristocrat and saw well the strengths and virtues of the gentility into which she was born. That is the other side of this alleged 'rivetting satire'. In short, Du Maurier is far more objective than Bidisha. Yes, Du Maurier sensed that patriarchy had become rigid, and needlessly puritannical, and she drew on some literary prototypes to portray Rebecca from a 'threatened' patriarchal point of view: one such 'prototype' for Rebecca is the woman Helen Vaughan in Arthur Machen's horror story "The Great God Pan" (1890/1894). There, Helen's husband recalls how, on the very night of their wedding, the beautiful Helen sat up in bed and 'spoke of things which even now I would not dare whisper in blackest night ...' - a line that Du Maurier gives, little changed, to Maxim to describe Rebecca. (Curiously, Machen's 1917 "The Terror" may well have influenced Du Maurier's 1952 short story "The Birds", filmed by Hitchcock.) Before I describe Rebecca in some detail (next time), here's something that came up in discussion this week. The character 'Barmy' Ben, who frequents a boathouse on the Manderley grounds, appears at the inquest when Rebecca's body is discovered. But he doesn't reveal much, insisting, 'I didn't see nothing. I don't want to go to the asylum! Them're cruel folks there.' (See frame-capture below.) His words of course anticipate imagery from Psycho ('the cruel eyes studying you'). It emerges that Rebecca had used the boathouse for trysts with her lovers, such as Favell, and one night had caught Ben peering through the window, when she had threatened him with the asylum. But at least benign patriarchy like Maxim's manages to accommodate unfortunates such as Ben - whereas Rebecca threatens him with being locked up - and that now seems to me one more indication that Rebecca isn't the sort of 'toxic' satire that Bidisha sees it as being ...

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