A Paler Shade of Noir
I watched Hitchcock’s 1940 film, which I had seen before, close on the heels of re-reading du Maurier’s wonderful 1938 novel, and whilst the film is in many ways a brilliant adaptation particularly served by excellent performances, a tautly written screenplay which sensibly uses du Maurier’s dialogue, where this is given in the book itself, stunning cinematography and of course is excellently suited to the master of suspense’s vision, I do have some reservations at choices which substantially weaken the film, in comparison to du Maurier’s edgier, unsoftened version.
Some of the choices made by Hitchcock (or possibly by Selznick, who produced the film), seem pragmatic and perhaps understandable, but there are two major changes – the rather soapy, surviving adversity as the music swells to soupy lushness, ending, for Mr and Mrs and, even more importantly, the changed revelation of how ‘the crime’ actually happened, absolutely undercuts the far more powerful, morally tainted and uncomfortable questions du Maurier leaves for her readers, and, of course, for her unnamed heroine. I can’t say more, in case someone reading this hasn’t read the book or seen the film. Did David O. Selznick demand this choice, or did Hitch himself pull his punches? Some stars would not have wanted to be left with moral taints, but I don’t think Olivier was one of those.
The book itself creates the ambiguous ‘after the end scene’ ending, by having the second Mrs de Winter describe the Winter’s post Manderley life, at the start of the novel. We do not get this in the film, either in the beginning or at the end, which creates more upbeat than du Maurier gave us.
I suppose another contrast to the book is what happens to Mrs Danvers. Hitchcock goes for high opera, and a visual which in some ways underlines the similarity that the book has with Jane Eyre, though, again, du Maurier presents something less resolved, less black and white. Readers of course have time to think about what they are reading, and can put a book down. Viewers, at least back in 1940 could not pause and reflect; the dynamic of the movie, once started, must be clearer to follow and more direct in its journey
There were some more understandable changes, which are inevitable when adapting a book which is most careful and subtle at applying the build-up of tension quite slowly, particularly at the start, whereas the film must concentrate everything into 2 hours and 10 minutes.
I was impressed by how very quickly and deftly plot was advanced, and how much the wonderful cinematography immediately created the layered build-up du Maurier’s prose had been crafted to do. We lose of course the interior feelings, imaginings, the running-in-the-head commentary of the book’s narrator, but the way, for example, the pile-up effect of napkin after napkin, leaf of stationery after leaf of stationery, stamped with the assured R de W logo has on the second wife, is expertly rendered by shot choices and Joan Fontaine’s feelings and thoughts as they express in her body language and face.
The initial slow build of connection and suspense from Maxim and the gauche young woman’s meeting in the book is given a much more dramatic and quickly signalled ‘something is dreadfully wrong’ subtext in a film scene which is not in the book.
The DVD comes with a few extras, some interviews with Hitch and some of his film critic admirers, which were interesting, but there are quite a lot of rather hard to read text notes, biographies of the two central actors, etc.
Something I found most fascinating is that Olivier was insistent that his then lover, Vivien Leigh (they were not yet divorced from their respective first spouses) should be cast as the second Mrs de Winter. It was Selznick who, rightly, nixed this, saying Vivien Leigh did not have the right qualities to the part. Too right – if anything Vivien Leigh (and, particularly as her marriage with Olivier began to unwind) displayed behaviour and powerfully charged emotional states which put her on the Rebecca end of the spectrum – plus, of course, that fabulous erotic beauty and clear sexiness.
By all accounts, Olivier was perfectly beastly to Fontaine, and rather undermined her. Hitch, we are told, as he so often did, manipulated the insecurities the young and at that stage, fairly inexperienced Fontaine must have felt, to create ‘in real’ the not good enough, can’t match up, extreme fragility and low self-esteem of the character. Fontaine was of course an American, so there was plenty of potential on-set feeling against a Yankee playing a quintessential Brit, particularly in such an iconic role, as du Maurier’s book had been a runaway best-seller from the off.
No doubt a similar ‘in reverse’ happened when the Brit, Leigh, won the coveted role in Gone With The Wind, which her American counterparts had failed to carry off, though I don’t think either George Cukor, who initially was on board as director, or Victor Fleming, who did direct, had reputations for mis-treating their actresses in order to get specific performances, in the way Hitch did, particularly with the women who were not yet established stars
My other ‘I can’t quite love this film, though I do admire it a lot’ criticism is of Franz Waxman’s score, which, to my taste is a little too ‘this is a love story’ – which is certainly where the Hollywood choice moral, rather than du Maurier’s darker, more bitter and difficult book, and the soupy almost happy ever after ending, at least for Mr and Mrs – are leading. I would have preferred a little more salt, a little more sourness, a little more bitterness in that music.
Most curiously, though the film was nominated for a whole cluster of awards, it won just two: Best Cinematography for George Barnes, and Best Picture – despite the best picture award (which thus went to Selznick) it did not win the Best Director for Hitchcock
Olivier, Fontaine and Judith Anderson, as a magnificent, intensely still and unhistrionic villain were all nominated, along with Robert Sherwood and Joan Harrison for best adapted screenplay, Waxman for the score, and also nominations for editing, art direction and special effects.
I found it a fascinating and rewarding experience to revisit book and film so closely together