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The Times (08/Aug/1980) - The Arts: On the road to Manderley

(c) The Times (08/Aug/1980)

The Arts: On the road to Manderley

It is an unfortunate British trait that we cannot acknowledge our achievements. In the arts it has become a tradition recently for the honours system to bestow its favours on those who are about to die, as if reluctantly recognizing their greatness.

So it was with Sir Alfred Hitchcock. During his lifetime there was too often scant regard in Britain for his work. His many excellent films, from those made in Britain to his most celebrated American thrillers, were allowed to fall out of distribution and unavailable for view on a cinema screen. By contrast, in Paris there have been at least two houses running permanent Hitchcock seasons for years.

Much gratitude, then, to the Electric Cinema Club for reviving four Hitchcock classics. For about 20 years Rebecca, Notorious, Spellbound and The Paradine Case have not been seen in cinemas. If you have seen them since it will have been on the television, at a rare out-of-copyright screening at the National Film Theatre, or abroad.

This week I saw Rebecca on a large screen for the first time. The return to its proper scale reinvests this picture and the others with their true sensation. The plot and dialogue, so important on a small screen, become of less value. The mood and story-telling by cinematic means comes into its own. Strangely, the very unreality of the sets and effects makes the story more vivid.

Rebecca was Hitchcock's first American film and, in many ways, also his last British picture. He made it in America for an American producer, David O. Selznick, but the cast and crew were largely British, as was the source of the story. It was Hitchcock's second of three films from Daphne du Maurier books. He had, in 1939, just completed Jamaica Inn and was later to make The Birds.

When watching Simon Langton's television version of Rebecca on the BBC last year. I was worried lest my memories of the Hitchcock should spoil the excitement. In the event the production was first-class, with Anna Massey making a suitably spiteful Mrs Danvers, the housekeeper, the frail Joanna David nervously taking Rebecca's place and Jeremy Brett making Max De Winter more stony than we were used to.

Looking again at the Hitchcock, I was worried in case the television version should hamper my ability to submerge in the original. As soon as the gates to Manderley open and the camera tracks up the overgrown drive, Hitchcock takes charge and grips the attention. The scale model which was built in the Selznick studio adds to the house's remoteness and insularity.

Selznick was preoccupied with making the mammoth Gone with the Wind, when shooting took place and so Hitchcock was saved from too much front office interference. Yet there was one stunt which Selznick had used on that troubled epic which he wanted to repeat for Rebecca. For publicity reasons there was to be doubt about who should play the new Mrs De Winter. Hitchcock had to go through the charade of screen testing Vivien Leigh, who was soon to marry Laurence Olivier, Margaret Sullavan, Anita Louise, Loretta Young and Anne Baxter before he was allowed to begin with Joan Fontaine in the role.

It is difficult to imagine anyone else bringing to the Christian-nameless Mrs De Winter the same embarrassed, round-shouldered social discomfort which Joan Fontaine showed. She slopes around the house, hiding in the shadows of pillars, a prisoner, in her own home with servants as jailers. Leading them is Judith Anderson as Mrs Danvers, sporting a menacing pimple on her chin. Laurence Olivier is at his eye-rolling best and so perfectly abstracted that it is as if his attention is already on Pride and Prejudice, his next picture.

Lyle Wheeler's haunting sets introduce Manderley as a further principal player, conjuring up the dead Rebecca as another. And the supporting players each add to the general pool of evil, most notably George Sanders as the caddish car salesman and Florence Bates as the disgustingly vulgar American rich woman, stubbing her cigarettes out in the cold cream.

Hitchcock's hand is everywhere. With cool confidence he had transferred his talents to Hollywood and persisted in his habit of shooting only those scenes which are necessary to the plot, thus depriving a tampering producer of the stock shots with which to re-edit. It was his first concerted effort at producing a psychological thriller and his techniques of suspense and humour were totally appropriate. As usual he signed the picture, appearing shortly before the end, waiting for George Sanders to come out of a telephone box.