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Rebecca, Page and Screen

Rebecca Cover

Rebecca is a classic suspense novel, and since I’ve become interested in that genre in recent years, it seemed only right that I read it. It doesn’t hurt that Alfred Hitchcock directed a film adaptation in 1940. Upon reading the novel, I found that it also bears some similarities to a more recent suspense classic: Gone Girl.

It’s no surprise that Hitchcock took to Daphne du Maurier’s work, as Rebecca is perhaps the Hitchcock-iest novel ever. The narrator is an unnamed young woman who marries wealthy widower Maxim de Winter. When the couple returns to Manderly, his family estate, she finds the house haunted by the memory of his first wife Rebecca. The first Mrs. de Winter left behind a formidable legacy, as well as a housekeeper who is still frighteningly loyal to her departed mistress. Manderly itself is almost a character, serving as a living reminder of Rebecca and the privileged world where the narrator feels out of place.

Rebecca 1

This story is a Hitchcock goldmine for themes of female identity. Think of Vertigo and Scottie’s attempts to recreate the woman he loved and lost. Think of Notorious and Alicia paying for the sins of her father by playing the spy. The second Mrs. de Winter is so overshadowed by the memory of Rebecca that she isn’t even given a name of her own, while Rebecca’s name is the title. But as Scottie found out after her, flesh and blood can never live up to memories biased by love, and memories can be a lie. Although her timidity could be exhausting at times, I felt for the narrator in her insecurities and awkwardness.

A quick search reveals that I’m not the first person to draw the Gone Girl comparison. Both stories contain an absent figure wreaking havoc through the perception of herself left behind. Rebecca is described as able to charm anyone and adapt to any situation, and Gone Girl’s Amy takes pride in being a personality chameleon. On the one hand, we could take these characters as an indictment of female duplicity, with Rebecca’s modest narrator serving as the model for appropriate femininity. Hollywood and Hitchcock take the critique further in that direction, but both of these novels are written by women who understand that identity is a performance. One could argue that their female characters just know how to perform to their advantage.

Rebecca 2

Apart from the suspenseful story line, the visual elements of Rebecca make it primed for adaptation. First and foremost, there’s Manderly, which can be presented as beautiful or foreboding. Within Manderly we have the tangible reminders of Rebecca, particularly her bedroom suite in the west wing. The west wing faces the sea (wild, untamed, potentially dangerous), while the second Mrs. de Winter’s bedroom faces the rose garden (safe, controlled, domestic). There’s also visual delineation to be made between the bright, artificial world of Monte Carlo, where Maxim meets his second wife, and the gothic world of Manderly. And really, contrast is a filmmaker’s best friend.

Rebecca is a classic for many reasons. It can be read in the tradition of the gothic novels that came before it or as a precursor to the psychological thrillers of today. As for me, I’m glad to have another suspenseful lady to add to my list.

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Craving Classic Hollywood: Ingrid Bergman

Until recently my only reference point for Ingrid Bergman was Casablanca (1942), and I suspect that many others share this limited exposure. Yes, playing Ilsa to Humphrey Bogart’s Rick is an iconic role, and one that fits her steely Nordic demeanor. However, she was also the star of three Hitchcock films. In Spellbound (1945), she plays a psychiatrist trying to cure Gregory Peck’s amnesia and consequently solve a murder. In Notorious (1946), she’s hanging out with Nazis-in-hiding as a spy for the U.S. government.

Ingrid Bergman

In hindsight, it seems obvious that Ingrid Bergman would be an ideal Hitchcock heroine. She’s a visually striking woman with a sophisticated European air. Her persona is less delicate than Grace Kelly or Kim Novak, making her feel like a dame with some agency. That is, until it occurred to me that in all three of these movies, Ingrid Bergman is taking one for the team. By this I mean, she’s putting herself through emotional turmoil for the greater good or for the man she loves.

Okay, you probably know how Casablanca ends. Ilsa gets on the plane with her Super Noble Resistance Fighter Husband, even though Rick is actually her One True Love. Casablanca isn’t a Hitchcock film, but it sets the tone for Bergman as the sacrificial lamb. (Not to mention, her other roles include Joan of Arc and a nun.) Her characters tend to be introduced as ice queens, whether in the form of party girl Alicia in Notorious or unromantic doctor Constance in Spellbound. Well, prepare to have your cold heart thawed by love, missy.

Notorious (1946)

Notorious (1946)

Her Notorious character is particularly complicated for me. Alicia’s father is a convicted Nazi collaborator, and although the government knows that she refused to be involved in his treason, they pressure her into exploiting her family connections to work as a spy. Cary Grant basically calls her hussy but doesn’t stop her from using her wiles to woo a Nazi pal of her dad’s, now hiding out in South America. In other words, “Alicia, I want you to feel bad about your past behavior, but also please keep acting that way for the greater good. And I will probably still make you feel guilty about it.” This woman cannot catch a break.

At the beginning of Spellbound, a fellow doctor is teasing/trying to flirt with Constance about her disinterest in romance. In truth, she responses with self-effacing good humor. Maybe she’s just not that into you, Dr. Secondary Character. I’m not giving much away when I say that she falls in love with (amnesiac!) Gregory Peck, but that leads to risking her career in order to prove him innocent of murder. In the process she gets a lot of men implying that love has addled her judgement. Here again, her behavior is criticized when she prefers science to men, but criticized again when she values love over rationality.

Spellbound (1945)

Spellbound (1945)

This tension is common in Hitchcock’s female characters, and obviously I’m a bit obsessed with his portrayal of women. Making these connections gave me a newfound respect for Ingrid Bergman because she can play both strength and vulnerability. She may be expected to pay for the sins of others, but she takes an active role in the plot while doing so. I’m indebted, as always, to Anne Helen Petersen, whose very first Scandals of Classic Hollywood post was about Ingrid Bergman’s star image. Although my focus ended up being quite different from her post, I may never have watched these films without it.

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Craving Classic Hollywood: Psycho

With its reputation as a classic horror film, I wouldn’t have thought Psycho was the movie for me. But as I continue my Classic Hollywood self-education, it seemed impossible to ignore one of Hitchcock’s quintessential works. And not unlike Norman Bates, I find myself obsessed.

Psycho Poster

My first reaction to Psycho (1960) was that it complicated my understanding of Hitchcock as a filmmaker, and by the end I was thinking that maybe it fit into that framework after all. As much as I love Cary Grant and James Stewart, it was refreshing to see a Hitchcock film without his usual stars. Marion Crane felt like a different kind of Hitchcock female, as the first act of the film is driven by her actions without the typical male voyeur. That is, until the second act and enter Norman Bates. The first scene finds Marion in a hotel room (!!) with her lover (!!!) wearing only a slip and white bra (!!!!!). I can only assume that showing a leading lady in a bra was scandalous in 1960, even though the huge pointy contraptions of the time seem modest by today’s standards.

Okay, so Marion’s lover isn’t married, but they can’t be together because he’s in debt and has alimony payments. Ah, romance! Then $40,000 cash crosses Marion’s path at work, and she seizes the opportunity. A Hitchcock trademark is imbuing a seemingly innocuous object with menace. One example is the key to the wine cellar in Notorious (1946), and the envelope of cash serves the same purpose in Psycho. Marion drives off to meet her boyfriend, only to find herself caught in a rainstorm and checking into the Bates Motel. But not before she’s shown in a black bra because now she’s bad, see?

Psycho Janet Leigh

Psycho is a study on how to achieve scares and suspense without resorting to gore. The famous shower scene is shot in such a way that the violence is frightening without showing much blood. It also made me realize that the power of blood is connected to its color because the image of a blood splatter is less disturbing when it’s gray rather than red. Apparently Hitchcock chose to shot Psycho in black and white partially to limit the gore. The viewer doesn’t lose the sense of horror, but the focus remains on suspense rather than disgust.

Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates is a revelation to me. He has some of the hallmarks of an obsessive Hitchcock male, such as when he spies on Marion through a hole in the parlor wall, but he’s not trying to be Jimmy Stewart. The way his performance oscillates between earnest and awkward gives him a creep factor all his own. The film’s second act is the intersection of Marion and Norman, and their conversation in his parlor is a treasure trove of iconic lines. In the third act the focus shifts entirely to Norman and the people trying to figure out what’s happening at the motel. The story structure is brilliant in its simplicity.

Psycho Norman and Marion

In this interview Gillian Flynn mentions watching Psycho a lot when she was growing up. I mean, of course she did. At first I thought I recognized her penchant for flawed female characters in Marion’s agency and the cruelty of Mrs. Bates. Upon further reflection, I had to acknowledge that Hitchcock females are always deeply flawed, although Marion is stronger than average. Norman Bates is certainly unhinged by the women in his life, and what’s more Hitchcockian than that? Still, there’s something about Psycho that sets it apart, a sense of innocence corrupted that’s missing from his other stories of obsession.

You can watch it for the mesmerizing performances. You can watch it for the score that just won’t quit. Watch it to see Janet Leigh in a bra, for all I care. Often imitated but never matched, you just really need to watch Psycho.

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Craving Classic Hollywood: Vertigo

During my CAMS class in college, I watched Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo twice. In fact, I watched it twice in one day as part of an assignment. My Classic Hollywood self-education has included watching other Hitchcock films for the first time, but Vertigo demanded a repeat viewing. This is my first experience with watching a movie and then being able to read a paper that I wrote about it three years ago. I expected a lot of overlap in my observations, but my focus was actually quite different each time.

Vertigo 2

You don’t need me to tell you that Vertigo (1958) is a good movie. Next I’ll be asking if you’ve heard of a little film called Casablanca. There are visual references to Vertigo all over our culture, from the opening credits of Mad Men to Edward and Bella’s creepy forest confrontation in Twilight. (I probably never would have made that second connection without Professor Carol Donelan.) It’s the story of John “Scottie” Ferguson, played to obsessive perfection by James Stewart, who is asked to investigate the mysterious behavior of an old friend’s wife. Enter the platinum-blonde mystique of Kim Novak as Madeleine Elster, entrancing Scottie with her frailty and desperation.

My response paper focused on perception as a major theme of the film. Our assignment was to link concrete details to the film’s meaning, which might explain why I wrote about point-of-view shots and two-shots instead of characters and relationships. Still, I was barely thinking about those details during my recent viewing. It was nice (if strange) to learn something from my past self. I even talked about the closeup of a woman’s eye in the opening credits, writing: “Film is an inherently visual medium, but these opening images encourage us to consider the visual experience of the characters, as well as our own.”

Vertigo Midge

These days I was obsessed with the women in Scottie’s life: hallucination-prone Madeleine and just-a-friend Midge. More specifically, I was obsessed with how differently they were portrayed and Scottie’s attitudes toward each of them. Midge is a thoroughly modern gal who doesn’t need Scottie to remind her to get her hat. (“I don’t need a hat!”) The woman designs undergarments, for goodness sake, which she can joke about with her male friend without blushing. In their first scene together, Scottie actually collapses into her arms while trying to master his fear of heights. Can you say gender role reversal?

Ah, but Scottie doesn’t want to be the one who swoons. He wants to be swooned upon, if you will, and Madeleine is certainly willing to oblige. This woman, polar opposite of Midge, doesn’t speak until 45 minutes into the movie. Scottie watches Madeleine, and the camera follows his gaze. Kim Novak is filmed as an object of beauty, something to be admired against the lush backdrop of a restaurant’s brocade wallpaper or a flower market. In this first nonspeaking section of the film, Madeleine’s closeups are usually in profile. Her beauty is admired in fragments, more sculptural than human.

Vertigo 3

The fact that Scottie falls in love with an image or an idea, rather than a real woman, is a central conflict of the film. At one point, Midge paints her own version of the portrait that Madeleine (and by extension, Scottie) repeatedly visits at an art gallery, with her own face replacing the woman in the portrait. She presents it to Scottie as a joke, but he isn’t laughing. He doesn’t want Midge inserting herself into the let’s-be-crazy-together thing he has going with Madeleine. He is simply not interesting in objectifying her, and in this case that’s not a compliment.

This isn’t the first Hitchcock film where Jimmy Stewart poorly treats a woman who loves him in order to obsess over something else. In Rear Window (1954) he would rather spy on his neighbors than make out with Grace Kelly, from which we can safely deduce that this guy has problems. Both films position Stewart as the male voyeur, the photographer or the private detective. My current focus as a viewer, particularly with Vertigo, was definitely influenced by Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” an essay we read for class. Mulvey discusses how the camera often mimics the male gaze, where women are the pleasurable object of his gaze, and misogyny ensues. However you feel about her theory, it’s fascinating to consider in the context of Hitchcock’s films.

Vertigo

Hitchcock’s world is not an ideal place to be female—or for that matter, to be Jimmy Stewart. But damn if it isn’t fun to analyze. If you stuck with me through this lengthy post, I thank you.

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