Archive for June, 2010

Week 25: ‘Mr. and Mrs. Smith’ – 1941

June 26, 2010

‘All I did was to photograph the scenes as written’ – Alfred Hitchcock to Francois Truffaut, 1966

This is a bit of an aberration, not totally bad just a bit of a waste of time – and not in a good way. As Hitchcock had skirted with fairly lightly comedic moments in ‘Foreign Correspondent’ or ‘Secret Agent’, here he leaps with both clomping feet into a fully fledged (attempted) comedy which, for me, proves both clunky and decidedly unfunny.

The essential plot sees the eponymous couple (played by Carole Lombard and Robert Montgomery) who realise their marriage is actually null and void (for various legal reasons) and see it as an opportunity to get shot of each other. Various machinations ensue involving each of them behaving pretty shabbily to the other before the inevitable and predictable reconciliation as they realise their undying love for each other. Yawn. It’s not done well and, although the stars are trying (sometimes very) the whole thing falls on its face somewhat.

What’s to like? The early scenes of  their domestic love-in (they’ve locked themselves in for three days, but have reached a total of eight consecutive days previously) are nicely arranged and put together and establishes the love/hate relationship they enjoy/despise.

They are nicely eccentric – it feels like they’re in a hotel, their maid bringing sustenance at regular intervals to the dishevelled, unshaven, chain smoking Mr.. This is their way of working through a big marital bust-up and it’s quietly amusing. The tone of the film, however, seems a little off – especially when they both independently find out about their non-marriage and start plotting against the other party. They fluctuate between flirtiness (she playing footsie under the breakfast table until he says that if he had the chance again he wouldn’t marry her, her legs dropping swiftly to the floor – good move, Mr. Smith…), and crockery wielding chaos.

I like both of the stars. Montgomery is likeable with a nice naiveté, Lombard sexy and blonde and scheming (especially in her tousled bedroom bound scenes) – all attractive.

The plot is interesting and obviously is a lot more problematic in the 1940’s than it would be today (the idea that they have been living together as husband and wife all that time), she saying that he was going to throw her aside ‘like a squeezed lemon’ after having his (now unmarried) way with her. Their first date as newly unmarried people sees them returning to a restaurant they used to love, only to find it transformed into a male run bar with added on bad food – they gawped at out on their street-bound table by passing by kids, her skirt pinned up due to the passing of time and the inevitable filling out of the waistline due to married relaxation. Bold that Carole Lombard (Mrs. Clark Gable) would let herself be portrayed as a bit overweight (she’s clearly not) in these scenes.

The movie does feel a bit stagebound – you could see how this would work in the theatre and Hitchcock is struggling to break it out in any cinematic ways (as previously seen in such titles as ‘Juno and the Paycock’).  I don’t want to see Hitchcock directing what should be snappy dialogue scenes in a conventional way, struggling to get any kind of experimental camera work/moves in there (there are none), the scenes playing out in a very stolid and uninventive manner.

Even when he manages to move the camera around it feels surprisingly clunky. For example the big crane move at 41 minutes in is pretty wobbly given the access the director would have had to equipment and technicians. The camera gets to fly a bit when Mrs. Smith goes to a fairground with a new suitor who happens to be Mr. Smith’s business partner Jeff Custer (Gene Raymond) and they get stuck up a ferris wheel – Hitchcock using a loose, almost handheld, camera to express the distance from the ground. But the quality of the stock shots used here lets it down, it feels a little like an attempt to get some motion into the whole thing and fairly random that they should go to a fair/go on the big wheel/get stuck up there for ages until it starts to rain etc.

The performances are likeable enough – stars of this calibre are never bad but they’re weighed down by dialogue that hampers them from truly flying. Montgomery gives a pretty funny turn as the beleaguered hubbie trying to outsmart the twisty turny female, and he has a funny face filled with blank disbelieving expressions of frustration. I like his drinking buddy/confidante (Chuck – played by Jack Carson) who seems to live at the gentlemen’s club Mr. Smith seeks refuge in – the guy offering the sort of useless male advice that is guaranteed to land Mr. Smith deeper in the hole of unhappiness. Chuck’s advice seems to revolve around the consumption of gin and the taking of many saunas as cure alls when marital strife gets too much. The fact that he appears to be residing permanently in the club suggest he’s none too successful with the ladies, but at least he’s good company.

I didn’t buy the whole new relationship Mrs. Smith embarks on with Jeff. It’s clearly a mismatch and you never believe for a second that this is a viable alternative to her (non) husband. I do like Mr. Smith’s line in reference to Jeff:

‘I know you’re in love with me – you couldn’t have anything to do with that pile of southern fried chicken’.

Ultimately this kind of movie would work if you think that the original couple may actually not get back together and they drift so far apart you can’t think how it will possibly be resolved. But here it just feels like marking time until an inevitable reconciliation and therefore it just seems to be a succession of vaguely amusing scenes and incidents. Trying to open it up a but more, the new couple go off to a ski resort and Mr. Smith appears frozen and collapsing. There follows a pretty interminable scene where they try to get him indoors, which is too long and not nearly funny enough – I was losing patience with the whole venture by this point.

It goes on and it’s all ok, but it feels like that in another director’s hands it could have been snappier or pacier or funnier or…just better: or maybe it’s just simply not great material to start with. In the hands of a Howard Hawks (see ‘His Girl Friday’ or ‘Bringing Up Baby’), or the peerless Billy Wilder (‘Some Like it Hot’/ ‘The Apartment’) the movie may have sparkled and shone, where with the suspense obsessed cinematic innovator Hitchcock it’s just a bit dull. The final image of the crossed skis as they are reunited offscreen is sweet, evoking a letter sign off kiss, but it’s a small idea in a film that struggles to offer many more of these touches.

It’s an interesting and funny premise turned into a not fantastic script and then directed by rote and as such is nothing more than a mild curiosity in the Hitchcock canon (with some of the usual creaky old rear projection, especially in the ski resort scenes). Plus, it has nowhere near as many guns as the Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie movie of the same name 64 years later (which is also a bit of a shambles). Lesson to be learnt? Stop making movies called ‘Mr. and Mrs. Smith’.

Miscellaneous notes

*Carole Lombard’s life ended tragically in a plane crash the following year – she was dead at 33.

Week 24: ‘Foreign Correspondent’ – 1940

June 19, 2010

Hitchcock hits the ground running, producing this second picture within the same year as ‘Rebecca’. ‘Foreign Correspondent’ is a solid little film, flitting between the kind of light comedy envinced by other newspaper movies such as ‘His Girl Friday’ (although not nearly as frenetic as this Howard Hawks classic) and a much darker tone of kidnapping, murder and international political intrigue.

Joel Macrea plays Johnny Jones (‘J.J.’ to you) who is brought in for a special mission as a foreign correspondent after he has been cooling his heels with some newspaper origami after beating up a cop. He is sent to England to meet and interview a European Minister named Van Meer (Albert Basserman), a man who it is said can divert the inevitability of the Second World War single-handedly through various political machinations. As a disguise, J.J. is renamed Huntley Havistock (his bags restencilled ‘HH’) and there is a quick family goodbye montage which results in his new bowler hat (because we all wear them here) being mislaid – a running gag throughout the picture. As the ocean liner pulls away to the tune of ‘Rule Britannia’, the director ensures we know exactly where we’re going, hammering it home with a shot of Big Ben. Yes, got it – we’re off to England!

He hooks up with a local U.S. reporter, a drinking womanizing old dog called Stebbins (played by Robert Benchley) and sets off for a luncheon accompanying Van Meer himself  whom he has met quite by chance climbing into a taxi (HH walking close to his rotund director who strolls casually by reading, fittingly, a newspaper). They arrive at the luncheon and the film’s tone is rapidly established – witty banter between HH and his new found female ‘friend’ Carol Fisher (Laraine Day) – he clumsily annoying her by insulting her father who is hosting the event (this is Sir Stephen Fisher, played by ‘Murder!’s Herbert Marshall) and the organisation he represents as ‘well-meaning amateurs’. Again, it’s a good instance of marrying the light with a serious subtext, and very well handled it is too. HH is confused when Van Meer is announced as not being able to make the luncheon and then he’s bored by the prospect of listening to Fisher’s daughter speaking – initially not realizing it’s the attractive Carol, a great dolly move to him when he finally twigs it’s her and another smooth move to her as she digs at him and his ‘amateurs’ line. Carol’s speech is derailed by the copious love notes HH has already sent her, he attempting to save her with a puny round of applause.

We are then catapulted to Holland and there follows a quite marvellous sequence: the umbrellas in the rain scene* involving a Van Meer double not recognizing HH and then getting shot by a press ‘photographer’ (his gun held next to his camera – ‘Van Meer’ shot in the face and tumbling backwards down the stone steps).

This is great – Hitchcock pulls out crane moves and fast cutting to sweep you into the action and the ensuing car chase into the country, HH luckily diving into a car wherein Carol is with George Sanders (playing the curiously named Ffolliott). They speed to the country and it’s windmills everywhere (let’s not be shy of stating where we are). HH susses one windmill’s blades going the wrong way and he’s on the hunt(ley). A propeller plane zips around and the ensuing scene presages the classic crop dusting scene from 1959’s ‘North by Northwest’  – an isolated innocent trapped in the open with danger all around (although in this case he has a windmill in which to hide).

There’s a neat little thing as HH creeps about and he looks out of a small window where two more evils are approaching – it looks like either they shot this and positioned the approaching guys perfectly in position or they had a little projector screen outside the window, nicely done all the same.

It’s genuinely suspenseful and again balances the humour with real intrigue. This whole windmill suspense scene is fantastic – really good sense of the geography of the building as HH creeps around and finds the real Van Meer who is off his napper on some administered drug. HH’s coat gets caught in the windmill’s mechanism but he still manages to secrete himself. It’s a wonderfully shot and edited scene with great gentle menace to the music (courtesy of Alfred Newman).

The balance between drama and humour is illustrated once again when two nasties come to get HH in his rooms at the Hotel Europa. He ducks into the bathroom for a fast shave (a neat through the keyhole shot of the two villains), HH then climbing out the window and shuffling his way along to Carol’s room.

She threatens to throw him out but is already succumbing to his charms. HH’s bathwater floods his room – he calls the hotel staff who muddle around and confuse the villains enough to allow a hotel porter time to grab an outfit for HH. It’s a perfect example in the film of a dramatic moment being underscored by humour and romance (HH and Carol peering out of her room in sync in a blatantly comedic moment). This is one of the main charms of the feature and a skill the director hadn’t exhibited to this extent previously (‘Rich and Strange’, for all its simple charm, didn’t really balance this level of mixed tones).

When the falling in love couple return to England, huddled together like two Old Mother Hubbards on a rainy deck, it’s both lovely and romantic. They go straight to her father’s and just – again – as you’re getting comfortable Hitchcock spins it again by having one of the (very suspicious) bad guys enjoying a cosy breakfast with daddy Fisher. HH’s face is a picture as he realizes the implications of this and dreads that his hoped for future father-in-law is in cohoots with kidnappers and murderers – and international war-mongering Johnny foreigners to boot.  HH tips off daddy and Fisher goes to confront Krug (Eduardo Ciannelli) and it is revealed to us that Marshall himself is batting with the black hats. Marshall is superb in this, never letting his guard down for a second.

‘They combine a mad love of country with an equally mad indifference to life…they’re cunning, unscrupulous and…inspired…’ – Marshall delivers a speech in close up that is fantastic when underscored by our knowledge that he’s talking so reverentially about himself as the criminal mastermind – all the better that he be cast as this evil character who believe in his own goodness (and a good case of an actor working against type – something that will occur more and more in Hitchcock’s work). When HH goes off with his new Fisher approved bodyguard Rowley (come on down Edmund Gwenn!) Carol cries and her father realizes he is not only playing with countries and war and politics and murder but with his daughter’s happiness…

Rowley is great and within a minute of meeting his new ward he attempts to shove him under a truck! Fantastic how this story twists on a penny to another tone. Gwenn’s is virtually a cameo part here as he persuades HH to give a mythically tailing taxi the slip by legging it up an enormous church tower. Hitchcock utilizes vertiginous shots downwards as the tension rises – Rowley waiting for everyone else to leave before he gives him the shove – a man falls and we see a newspaper cutting (humorously showing a dotted line arc downwards to show the direction of the falling man). HH is obviously all well to continue his quest. A really marvellous little set piece.

I really like the way that the newspaper editor Stebbins, in the middle of a lengthy dialogue scene between HH and Ffolliett, just picks up the phone, listens for about 3 seconds and then just says ‘no, tell him it’s ridiculous’ before hanging up. He then tries to bet on a race that’s already been run via another phone call. Really quite random but good little side gags going on that work against the simultaneous exposition dialogue.

There’s a nice little love rivalry between HH and Ffolliott for Carol’s affections – the latter gent being big about it and seeing HH has the advantage and dutifully stepping aside. Laraine Day as Carol is very good, and pretty. Ffolliott and HH fake Carol’s kidnapping to try to exert pressure on dad, he torn between his politics and his love for his daughter. Sanders is a good smooth pretend heavy/villain with an air of threat that works really well. The scene between him and Fisher is moodily lit in a noirish way – deep shadows playing across these faces. Dad pretends to write the location of Van Meer but Carol suddenly appears, foiling Ffolliott’s ploy.

The experimental and dramatic lighting really comes to the fore in the sleep deprivation Van Meer scene, the villains (and the sleek Ffolliott who has coolly wandered into the hiding place under gunpoint – he then eats a banana, brilliant) lit in deep shadows with the intense lights in the left foreground to keep the poor old man awake.

It feels genuinely quite evil as they try to prise the secret of the ‘hidden clause’ out of him (this is the movie’s MacGuffin) – he’s a tough old buzzard and won’t cave in. Offscreen, they torture him and eventually he cracks – the camera slow tracking to Ffolliott as he reacts to the inflicted pain. A fight breaks out and action man Ffolliott jumps out of the window, breaking his fall on an awning down below – really great exciting scenes with a dark heart and undercurrent of genuine violence (and staircases galore in these scenes).

Another great set piece/shot is the move to the aeroplane window where Carol and dad are seated. Hitchcock employs a model plane to start his camera move, cleverly intertwining this with the really thing and matching the move as he goes through the window.

Tremendous**. And then the director tops his own ingenuity when the plane – also carrying HH and Ffolliott – starts getting blasted from the sea! It’s brilliant – one stick in the mud, oldish lady refiusing to life jacket up and promptly getting shot dead – merciless and marvellous. Eventually the plane, its engine in tatters, crashes into the sea in a breathtaking sequence – the sea water cascading into the cockpit. Wow! They thrash around in the ocean in a pretty convincing wild sea until Fisher does the honourable thing and slips into the sea to help not weighing down the wing they are using to stay afloat. Yes it’s rear projection and probably shot in a water tank outside London somewhere, but it’s really well done and shows off production values and a technical standard the director seemingly didn’t have the resources for in certain previous pictures.

There’s a frankly silly shot as one of the guys uses his binoculars to spot a ship approaching – its reflection in the lenses. This kind of shot will serve the director well in the later ‘Rear Window’ but seems a little ‘I can do this so I will’ rather than really necessary.

The closing scenes of the film, over-the-top in their patriotism though they are, are strong and moving. HH relays the whole story to his publisher via a hidden telephone from the US ship that rescues them – its captain banning him from doing so, for official secrets reasons, but the press won’t be muzzled, oh no! The closing scene sees HH  giving a rousing and fairly exaggerated radio address to rouse England to war – as the lights flicker and bombs fall, he carries on boldly. The End title appears over an image of a proud and defiant American eagle.

‘Foreign Correspondent’ is a very good watch and highly recommended. It’s not totally typical Hitchcock but he manages to balance action, adventure, comedy, romance and proud patriotism into an engaging and exciting yarn. The performances are uniformly superb and the cinematic techniques fluid and inventive. I prefer this to ‘Rebecca’ – his first American movie – and would urge you watch it.

Miscellaneous notes

* see ‘The Untouchables’ for stolen version – sorry ‘homage’ – of this sequence

**this is the replicated De Palma shot from ‘The Untouchables’.

Week 23: ‘Rebecca’ – 1940

June 13, 2010

And so Alfred goes to Hollywood. This is the first movie he made on a seven year, rather incendiary, contract with David O. Selznick, uber producer of the barnstorming ‘Gone With the Wind’ from the previous year. The Hollywood sheen is instantly recognizable in the look and feel of the picture – the photography luminously lovely and the production values distinctly American.

‘Rebecca’ is amongst the director’s most famous films, and one that breaks out from the norm of his work and attracts an audience wider than even the later 1950’s classics. One reason is that it doesn’t follow many of his obsessive themes (innocence on the run/voyeurism etc) but rather adapts another Daphne Du Maurier tale (see ‘Jamaica Inn’) into a dark picture of suppressed passion, insane devotion and bubbling jealousy. The Rebecca of the title is dead before the film begins and her ghost haunts the action. Her widowed husband Maximilian de Winter (Laurence Olivier) stalks around attempting to raise his spirits and interest in another relationship, eventually settling on the meek and mild ‘Second Mrs. de Winter’ (she doesn’t even get a name in the whole film, which is a really neat trick to denigrate her even further – Joan Fontaine portrays this puppy dog of a woman). Mrs. dWII is unwelcomed into the family estate of Manderley by the cliché evil Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) who makes no secret of her devotion to the deceased MK.I wife and openly undermines the new woman of the house. There follows a tale of soap operish levels of plot twisting and relationship confusion – ultimately a whodunnit containing murder/suicide/adultery/false pregnancy/cancer and a wildly obsessive housekeeper who derangedly torches the family home in a blaze of white heat anger: made it Rebecca, topped myself.

The opening model shots allow Hitchcock to sweep through the Manderlay estate with a fluid camera, cuts disguised under fog. We are then transported to the South of France with a shot of a fairly tumultuous sea crashing against the shoreline, the camera panning up to the figure of Max perched high on the crest of the cliff – the memory and contemplation of suicide. The cut to behind his head, his behatted silhouette framed by the ocean, is a classic Hitchcock composition.

As his future second wife shouts for him to stop lest he fall, he confronts her in the first of a number of grumpy and aggressive deliveries Max directs at her. But the attraction is there and as the younger woman’s boss/guardian/harridan (Edyth Van Hopper played by Florence Bates) is laid low by illness the couple start to get to know each other. It feels pretty organic and natural and, after his initial annoyance at her, he turns out to be somewhat of a charmer – as well as obviously being drenched in cash.

Max is on a knife edge throughout – her mention of possible drowning kicking him off into another huff. The ensuing montage of slow building romance scenes is effective enough but, even with the technology of Hollywood, there are scenes that still scream back projection (I know this is the limitations of the day but it does all look a tad crude).  Max tells her never to wear black velvet or pearls in a kind of anti-‘Vertigo’ way (as in, he doesn’t want to rebuild her as a replica of his past – this blown spectacularly later on when the second Mrs. de Winter appears dressed entirely in the same costume as the dead Rebecca, the evil Mrs. Danvers instigating this disastrous decision).

Later in the picture, when Mrs. de Winter II has a chat with family friend Beatrice Lacy (Gladys Cooper) about Max never noticing what she wears, the older lady comments ‘he must have changed then’, Max clearly not caring about many things he used to.

As Van Hopper suddenly needs to go to New York, the innocent waif rushes around to tell Max – who promptly asks her to marry him (‘I’m asking you to marry me you stupid little fool’ – very smooth, I wish I’d tried that proposal method). ‘Tell me: have you been doing anything you shouldn’t?’ asks the old fast-talking battleaxe – the poor girl is under siege all over the place and continually seems out of her depth. Van Hopper’s parting sneer ‘Hmm – Mrs. de Winter?!’ is openly rude and patronizing and you’re glad to see the back of her, although she’s just a preface for Mrs. Danvers’ vengeful nastiness. The camera pulls back and leaves the soon-to-be Mrs. dWII standing looking lost in Max’s room – her whole world turned upside down within a few minutes.

Their approach by car to Manderlay as Mr. and Mrs. de Winter is really nicely done – the arch made by the windscreen wipers matching the shape of the trees they pass under and the same arch shape replicated a third time by the cut back to her covering her head with his raincoat – clever stuff.

Franz Waxman’s excellent score works a treat here – her open mouthed expression at the beauty of the building themed wonderfully. It’s a great reveal*. Mrs. dWII is understandably agog as the entire house staff are lined up for her arrival and the first appearance of Mrs. Danvers clearly establishes her as an evil force (interesting dissolve to a clock face here from c/u of  Danvers**). Hitchcock takes time to establish the character of the house – all deep shadows and gothic archways. Mrs. Danvers pointing out Rebecca’s bedroom (‘the most beautiful room in the house’) symbolically guarded by a sleepy black dog.

From the small to the large (or vice versa) is a common Hitch technique (as an example, see the stupendous ‘Notorious’ ‘key’ scene from 1946) and he uses it well as the camera starts on a close up of a monogrammed napkin (‘RdW’) and then swoops out to reveal the overlarge dining table with the two of them seated far apart.

Later, as she slowly explores the mansion you get a sense of the scale of this enormous house. Room after room dwarves her as she looks around, the servants directing her to rooms where Rebecca liked to reside. It’s feels very Citizen Kane-y (a year earlier than the Welles’ masterpiece) in its sense of pointless grandeur and pretty useless beauty. Everything is branded with ‘R’s and feels foreboding and forbidding. She breaks an ornament and has to hide it after one rattling visit from Danvers. It comes back to haunt her as one of the servants is accused of the breakage. This is a painful scene as the de Winters start viewing their honeymoon film footage happily, then pause for the Great China Breakage Inquisition and then it all goes off the rails when they try to get back to the bright mood. Mrs. dWII mentions gossip and Max gets uppity yet again, the whole thing starkly lit by just the projector’s light, only their strobing faces visible – really nicely done***.

The slight lightening of atmosphere supplied by the ever dependable Nigel Bruce as Major Giles Lacy is good and a welcome relief – he describing Mrs. Danvers as ‘not exactly an oil painting’ before blustering off to find Max.  The Major’s wife then lets the new Mrs. de Winter know that Mrs. Danvers ‘simply adored Rebecca’ (oh, really…) and Hitchcock pulls out a stark profile shot of Joan Fontaine as the lighting engulfs her in blackness. The whole dinner evening with the couples (and the estate’s foreman, Frank Crawley played by Reginald Denny) is pretty highly strung, the bumbling Major putting his hoof in it with a reference to sailing in a don’t-mention-the-war kind of way.

The film and her life spirals into darkness and implied threat – what happened at the little cottage by the sea where the crazy old Ben (Leonard Carey) gurns out of the doorway? What is the whole story of Rebecca? The new Mrs. De Winter is told that Rebecca ‘wasn’t afraid of anything’ – in contrast to herself who is frightened by every shadow, and there’s plenty of them at Manderlay. ‘I suppose she was the most beautiful creature I ever saw’ says Crawley, betraying his own unrequited feelings. Mrs. dWII seeks the advice of a fashion magazine (does she really have no girl friends at all?) ‘What on earth have you done to yourself?’ says Max as she appears dressed to the nines in a new London dress – the old flatterer. It’s pretty broad to believe that she’s that alone and clueless.

When she eventually ventures into Rebecca’s rooms it’s as much of a mausoleum as the Bates house in ‘Psycho’ – everything frozen in time, evocative also of Miss Haversham’s house in David Lean’s ‘Great Expectations’ (but with better housekeeping). Disturbed by the dreaded Mrs. Danvers she is then given the grand tour, Mrs. D. rubbing her own and then Mrs. de Winter’s face with Rebecca’s furs in an undeniably sexual way.

She shows her Rebecca’s translucent lace and silk night dress (‘look, you can see your hand’) – the image eventually becoming underlit and evoking more of a scary feel in the spidery Mrs. Danvers’ tour. By the end of this scene (and Mrs. Danvers ‘listen to the sea’ speech) the young woman is absolutely terrified – with no Max to comfort her (he’s away for a few days). There’s a lovely dissolve to the crashing ocean as Danvers intones and repeats her sea lines – her image going to a freeze frame before we see the waves.

Mrs dWII’s sketches, by the way, are woefully poor – she mentions early on that her father was a painter but clearly the skill didn’t pass itself on (maybe his talent was houses rather than canvas).

When she is sketching her potential outfit for the costumed ball, we see various crude renditions of Joan of Arc and the like, before Mrs. Danvers helpfully suggests she replicate a frock that Rebecca wore, guaranteed to flip Max out in one of his rages. Her triumph turns to bitter tragedy when Max sees her, Mrs. Danvers finally coming out and revealing her hatred for the new Missus – ‘even in the same dress you couldn’t compare’ she spits.

Max’s recollection of Rebecca laughing at him in the cottage and relating that she is pregnant by George Sanders’ car salesman Jack Favell (she’s actually not – but has already admitted her endless shenanigans to Max four days after their wedding) is done really well – the camera moving around the cottage and across various inanimate objects to illustrate the characters’ movements of the past, as Max narrates. He thumps the door to illustrate her falling as the camera pans down.

Sanders is great in throughout (I like him a lot generally) and especially when he tries to blackmail Max for sufficient cash to retire to the country with a few acres for shooting. He’s an oily sort, nibbling nonchalantly on a chicken leg and sipping a drink as he lays out his scheme. Max eventually plants one on him after calling his bluff and having all the cops present to expose Flavell as the scruples-free scoundrel he is.

The devoted, obsessed Mrs. Danvers has some kind of love for the similarly evil Rebecca. I don’t quite buy that Max would fall for someone quite as bland as Mrs. dWII but it works ok. He seems a much more passionate and strong soul than her – she so much of a doormat you feel he’d be bored with her in a short while.

‘Rebecca’ is kind of overwrought but mostly in a good way. Olivier portrays Maximilian as a tortured soul – did he/didn’t he bump his wife off? Did he love her in the first place (no, they hated each other from the off, Rebecca scedaddling up to London for days on end for steamy love trysts with her ‘cousin’ Flavell). I like Olivier’s performance throughout – he’s a furnace of barely controlled emotions, desperately trying to cap his feelings of anger and guilt at covering up the death of his first wife whilst attempting to be loyal and loving to his new one.

Joan Fontaine overcooks it a fair bit and seems so meek and mild I just wanted to grab her and feed her a plate load of guts. And Mrs. Danvers is some kind of a beastly harridan: a force to be reckoned with, a well done – nay overcooked – piece of admirable ham who gothics her way through the film with outrageous actions and suggestions (at one point nearly persuading the henpecked Mrs. dWII to top herself).

I have to say that Mrs. Danvers seems the most typically Hitchcockian aspect of the movie – the rest of the film goes along well enough but it really comes alive when she’s onscreen. What would it be like with just a normal housekeeper or if Mrs dWII grew a pair and had her sacked? The film would grind to a halt and turn into a domestic bliss, God forbid. Mrs. Danvers is the catalyst for all nastiness in the film – and makes it what it is.

The over-the-top denouement, Manderlay in flames and Mrs. Danvers like some horror movie villainess looking up to see flaming beams falling towards her, is powerful and effective.

The film overall seems to be rather an odd mix of the domestic and the hysterical. It’s good, if a bit overlong and ultimately is a murder–mystery-whodunit with the answer being ‘no-one’. Yes it’s a classic: but it’s not classic Hitchcock.

Miscellaneous notes

There’s a right royal staircase at Manderlay – shown off to best effect when Mrs. de Winter II descends dressed in the fatal frock recommended by Mrs. Danvers.

*Not quite as tear inducing as my favourite of all time, the crane move to reveal the town of Sweetwater in ‘Once Upon A Time in the West’, but Hitchcock/Waxman give Leone/Morricone a good run for their violins.

**There is another dissolve from her to a clock, by the way, just after the tempting to suicide scene – what is it with these clock dissolves? Later it dissolves from Mrs. Danvers to a tree…hmmm, lost me a bit here.

***I agree with Patrick McGilligan in his book ‘Alfred Hitchcock – A Life in Darkness and Light’ that this is the most purely Hitchcockian moment in the film.

The version I watched was on the UK Fremantle label and has really good picture and sound quality. The visuals in particular are quite superb.