Films: Rebecca; Vertigo
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player (Rebecca); DVD from personal collection on big ol’ television (Vertigo).
If you’ve watched the Hitchcock that everybody watches, it’s easy for him to fool you. The truth is that virtually all of Hitchcock’s movies have a similar thread running through them. He only had a couple of basic stories he liked to tell, and most of them involved murder in one respect or another. But Rebecca, the first film he made in the U.S., has the feel of a romance, at least at the start. There are certainly romantic elements that run through the entire film, but this is not a real romance.
A young woman who is never named for us (Joan Fontaine) is vacationing in Monte Carlo with the overly-wealthy Edythe van Hopper (Florence Bates). The younger woman is a paid companion, there to keep the older woman entertained. It is here that they counter George Fortescue Maximilian de Winter (Laurence Olivier), who goes by Maxim. He’s in Monte Carlo as a sort of recovery. See, a year earlier, his wife died in a mysterious boating accident. Mrs. Van Hopper tries to ingratiate herself with the rich, young man, but he’s having none of it. He does, however, appreciate the pretty young thing at her side. They have a whirlwind romance, and when it’s time for Mrs. van Hopper to go away, the young woman instead marries Maxim.
And then the fun starts. The two return to Manderley, the ancestral home of the de Winter family, and the new Mrs. de Winter is suddenly confronted with a few important facts. First, Rebecca, at least according to a lot of people, was pretty damn near perfect. Second, she (our main character) has no real idea of how to run a large manor house like Manderley. Third, and most importantly, Rebecca’s former servant and current housemistress Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) worshipped Rebecca, and thus hates everything about the new Mrs. de Winter.
Like I said a the start, Hitchcock really only had a couple of stories he liked to tell. One of them was about mistaken identity, and he got a lot of mileage out of that basic idea. The second of his major themes was insanity, and that’s the role that Mrs. Danvers is going to play for us here.
Anyway, Mrs. de Winter tries her best to fit in, and seems to be thwarted at every turn by Mrs. Danvers, who hates her passionately. Regardless of how evident it is that this hatred exists, Mrs. de Winter attempts to trust her, going so far as to use Danvers’s suggestion for a costume party with disastrous results. And then, the unthinkable happens. The boat in which Rebecca foundered is discovered and it still has Rebecca’s body inside—a problem since Maxim identified a body as hers a year earlier. And, it seems that Maxim has a few skeletons of his own that need to be revealed before we get to the end.
It’s an interesting story all the way around. There is a sense of doomed romance about our main couple that would seem to be very much at home in the Victorian period. While the film is modern in the sense that it essentially takes place in the time it is filmed, it does have that sort of antique feel to it. The story feels older, like it should be playing out a century or so before it actually is, and it would play in that time as well.
It’s also too long. The run time is just over 130 minutes, and a good half hour or so could be easily trimmed from this film to speed up the process and tighten up the suspense a bit. It feels far too roomy for the story it wants to tell, almost as if Hitchcock wanted to explore something new and wasn’t quite yet sure of how to do it. While the story never really gets boring, there are too many scenes that don’t have much impact. For instance, in one scene, the new Mrs. de Winter breaks something. This comes up later when Danvers accuses another servant of stealing it and threatens to have him fired. It doesn’t establish much—perhaps that Maxim becomes aware of his wife’s discomfort with Danvers, but that can be easily established elsewhere and get rid of a good five minutes between the two scenes. There’s too much of one thing in a scene being set up and a lot more call for efficiency in the way the story is told.
That said, it’s a good film and one worth watching. It goes to some pretty lurid places for the time, and I imagine it may have had a difficult time skating past the Hays Code. It’s also quite interesting to me that when Hitchcock first decides to film in America, he films a story set in his own country.
Much the same ground is covered in Vertigo, a film that comes nearly two decades later in Hitchcock’s career. There are some real similarities in that the main character in this film is haunted by the spirit of a dead woman. This time, though, the plot is far more intricate and far closer to what most people think of when they think of Hitchcock. There are twists and plots within plots, precisely what we expect.
Policeman John “Scottie” Ferguson discovers that he has acrophobia when the chase of a criminal leaves him hanging off the edge of a building and leads to the falling death of an officer. Essentially unfit for duty now, Scottie retires from the force and looks for something else to do. That something else comes in the form of Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), an old college acquaintance. Gavin tells Scottie an incredible story; he wants Scottie to tail his wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak), because he thinks she is slowly going crazy. More specifically, he believes that Madeleine is being possessed by the spirit of her grandmother, Carlotta Valdez.
It’s at this point that I heartily recommend that you go listen to the Harvey Danger song “Carlotta Valdez” while reading the rest of this review. Anyway…
Scottie decides to take the job to help out his old pal and because he gets a good look at Madeleine, who is quite the Hitchcockian cool blonde. He tails her for awhile, and it does seem that she is acting in very strange ways. But Scottie is entranced by the woman, and appears to develop feelings for her, so it comes as a terrible shock when she takes a swan dive off the top of a bell tower, killing herself on the rocks below. Because of this, it comes as an even greater shock to his system when he starts seeing a woman around town who looks exactly like Madeleine in every detail. It’s strange enough, in fact, that he starts to get suspicious and launches his own investigation.
This is where the film starts to get really strange. I won’t spoil it or even get too close, but essentially, Scottie is so taken with this new woman that he attempts to turn her into Madeleine, bleaching her hair to blonde, and forcing her to dress exactly like Madeleine did in an effort to recreate the relationship with the dead woman. He takes it to an obsessive, nearly psychotic extreme, attempting to convince her that she really is the dead woman. It’s a dark fantasy, one that borders on the taboo of necrophilia, and while it’s fascinating, it’s also pretty creepy.
I’d be remiss at this point if I failed to mention Scottie’s former fiancée, Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes). She acts as a sort of conscience throughout the film, giving Scottie someone to talk to and bounce ideas with. Midgs is a really fun character, the kind of a girl who is the protagonist’s best friend despite their failed romance. I like Midge, and sort of wish there was more of an excuse for her to be on screen more.
It’s worth saying here that Hitchcock was a smart director in that he liked very much to keep his audience guessing. Sometimes he gave his audience the standard Hollywood happy ending with the bad guys dead or captured and the good guys triumphant. He also sometimes went the other direction and ended the films on a down note. Vertigo is extremely dark in its ending, about as dark as Hitchcock ever got, and it’s something that very much makes the film work the way it should. This one probably couldn’t end on an up note and be even remotely palatable. That, and like many a film in Hitch’s repertoire, the conclusion comes a few moments before the end of the film—there’s almost no denouement to give the audience a moment to recover from the final shock.
It will ruffle a few feathers when I suggest that of Hitchcock’s great films, Vertigo is probably the least. His five great films are Rear Window and then the incredible four consecutive Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho, and The Birds. All are great and worthwhile, but this one in many ways has aged the worst. The surreal elements, certainly some of the highlights of the film when it was made, come off a bit silly now despite the fact that they are still pretty stylish and have that unique Saul Bass-y feel to them. But Hitchcock’s desperate need to control every aspect of every shot led him to use a lot of in-studio shots with a lot of rear projection, and rear projection never looks as good as it should to a modern audience.
Why to watch Rebecca: Hitchcock branching out a bit.
Why not to watch: It’s too long for its story.
Why to watch Vertigo: It’s essential Hitchcock.
Why not to watch: It hasn’t held up as well as it could have.