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Rebecca, 1940 and 2020

This month Netflix released a new adaptation of the book Rebecca, directed by Ben Wheatley. This was the second “big screen” adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s 1938 book, the first coming from Alfred Hitchcock in 1940. I hadn’t seen the Hitchcock movie before so I figured this would be a good double feature of “new-to-me” movies. Both movies come from the same source material and the stories don’t really stray from each other. The themes are pretty much the same in both movies and the actors even look kind of similar, especially in the supporting roles.

This is kind of a ghost story, either in the memories of the people of the people who knew Rebecca or perhaps an actual ghost of the estate. Maxim de Winter, played by Laurence Olivier in the 1940 version and Armie Hammer in 2020 is a recent widower visiting a resort as he tries to move on from the tragic death of his wife Rebecca. There he meets and quickly falls in love with a beautiful and virginal handmaiden of one of the other wealthy guests at the resort played by a 1940 Joan Fontaine and a 2020 Lily James. In the book, this woman is the narrator and her name is never provided. Those who wrote of the book would often refer to the character as “Daphne” after the author, but others wrote of the character in the book as “I,” as she is also noted in the 1940 script. This kind of denotes the long shadow of the first Mrs. de Winter, Rebecca, who is the titular character despite never appearing on screen, but also notes the difference in class standing of the main character who is considered a servant not worthy of being addressed, someone who needs an invitation in order to eat at the resort restaurant, or relegated to stay in a guest room in the home of her husband. “I” isn’t recognized in her own home, someone asks her if she rides and when she says she doesn’t, the man responds by asking what style of riding she prefers, ignoring her answer in the negative. She’s even doomed to ruining sentence formation with the example of me having to write ‘”I” isn’t.’

de Winter brings his new wife home to his massive estate, a home so large that it has a name that people in their high society circles know very well, “Manderley.” It is much like a castle, a sprawling compound with axillary structures so many that Rebecca had a love nest for affairs that she was able to keep fairly secret. Hitchcock uses this estate to mostly shoot his black and white film in interiors, yet it has such a landscape around it that Ben Wheatley shoots many beautifully colored landscapes. The house is staffed by servants, led by the headmistress Mrs. Danvers, played by a 1940 Judith Anderson and a 2020 Kristin Scott Thomas. For years, the British Car Program Top Gear would ask whether Kristin Scott Thomas would get in a car if you drove up in it, noting whether a man could pull a woman of class with a car in question. That litmus test kind of fizzled out when the guys at the show did finally learn that she drove a Prius, dashing their macho motoring aspirations.

“I” tries to fit in with the others at Manderlay deciding to hold a ball much like Rebecca had in the past. Mrs. Danvers is outwardly hostile to her until they go through this process and she encourages her to wear a dress to look like one of the most prominent portraits in the house. There is a bit of a difference from the two versions of the movie here, mostly because the 2020 version is in color and the coloring is quite vibrant, matching the costumes with the landscapes in many instances. The dress in 2020 is a rich red color, and Maxim is disturbed by how it reminds him of his former wife. “I” initially thinks that he is disturbed because he is still madly in love with Rebecca, only to learn later that he hated her and was involved in her death. Mrs. Danvers’ relationship with Rebecca is shown as a close mistress-servant relationship in 1940, and more of a lesbian relationship in 2020.

When authorities get involved Maxim is questioned for his involvement in Rebecca’s death. Rebecca had led others to believe that she was pregnant, when in actuality she was dying cancer. The authorities rule her death a suicide as she did not want to face that kind of painful death. Maxim and “I” head back to Manderlay having escaped repercussions for Rebecca’s death only to see the compound engulfed in flames. Mrs. Danvers had set Manderlay on fire, in 1940 she burns in the fire, and in 2020 she steps off the cliff in front of “I”. The second Mrs. Manderlay goes through a character development from a naive symbol of virginity to scheming with her husband to avoid a murder wrap and watching her tormentor falling to her death in front of her.

The ghost of Rebecca isn’t really an apparition, necessarily. There is an instance that “I” feels as though she has seen a figure in a hallway during her big party, but aside from that the presence of Rebecca is in how she perceives the lingering and unspoken memories of everyone around her. The ghost of Rebecca is much more of a ghost of expectations and lingering memories of a larger than life person she had never met.

Alfred Hitchcock kind of had to deal with fears and tormentors of his own to make his movie. This was his first movie in America after moving away from England out of fear of German bombings during World War II. He had partnered up with American Producer David O. Selznick for the first time and while the American studios afforded Hitch certain freedoms in moviemaking, Selznick was a controlling producer trying to make his impression on this film. It was Selznick who chose Joan Fontaine as the lead over several others that Hitch had eyed, and Fontaine was not exactly the perfect lead. There are scenes were her accent was so bad that she had to be dubbed later to maintain continuity. Hitchcock and Selznick argued throughout the entire process, yet the movie walked away with several Oscars including best Picture. The two had been entangled in a several picture deal that would end with Hitch dressing up the villain in Rear Window to look like Selznick.

The 2020 movie has faced some backlash from people wondering why the original Oscar winning film would need to be remade at all. This does sport a nice cast, a hot director and a respected composer for the score, and watched back to back with the original, both movies feel as though they enrich each other. Lily James is one of three British actresses that come to mind as very charming and fresh faced along with Gemma Arterton and Hayley Atwell, who tend to play very sweet roles. James is known for her roles in Baby Driver and Yesterday, but was very fittingly the titular princess in Cinderella and Atwell played her mother. This is a theory of these lesser known British lead actresses that they show up to add charm to the screen and are destined to play a trio of sisters in a movie someday.

Director Ben Wheatley is known for a couple of indie movies Free Fire and High-Rise. Free Fire takes place almost entirely during a shootout in a warehouse and High-Rise is a dystopian apartment building where everything falls into chaos. He has established himself as a stylized director and his upcoming movies are going to be a bit of a departure from that into genre movie sequels with Tomb Raider 2 and Meg 2: The Trench. The composer that Wheatley worked with on this was very interesting, the score is ominous moody from Clint Mansell who started out working with Darren Aronofsky on Pi and Requiem for a Dream. His background was in an alt-rock band in England in the ‘80’s that was early in working in sampling and electronic music. His career turned during Requiem for a dream when the hip hop style score Aranofsky wanted didn’t work out quite right but a synthesized string theme jumped out and turned the score much more orchestral and ominous. Since then, he became known for the scores of The Wrestler, Moon, Black Swan, The Fountain, Loving Vincent and High-Rise. He is known for creating an overwhelming mood for a movie through the score and it seemingly came about because of a score that had to be thrown away.

Rebecca 1940 is now known for its sound design, the Criterion disc for the movie even includes a track that isolates the sound design track without the dialogue, but that was one of the only categories that it was not nominated for an Academy award. The 2020 movie doesn’t appear to be likely for any awards, although its sound design, score and cinematography are quite good. I don’t think either of these movies take anything away from the other, and the original certainly doesn’t feel to me like something that is above a remake, especially after eighty years. The truth is, the 2020 movie is likely an introduction for younger viewers and people less likely to watch old movies, to get into the original as well as other Alfred Hitchcock movies. Frankly, both movies are nice, the 1940 movie probably doesn’t quite crack my top ten Hitchcock movies and the 2020 movie is just outside my top twenty movies of the year as it stands right now.

Next Month: Silence of the Lambs and Psycho


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