“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again… I came upon it suddenly; the approach masked by the unnatural growth of a vast shrub that spread in all directions… There was Manderley, our Manderley, secretive and silent as it had always been, the gray stone shining in the moonlight of my dream, the mullioned windows reflecting the green lawns and terrace. Time could not wreck the perfect symmetry of those walls, nor the site itself, a jewel in the hollow of a hand.”
Opening lines from a much-beloved text & instant classic when it was released in 1938, Daphne du Maurier‘s Rebecca is a favorite of many and considered one of the finer Gothic romances. But this was Alfred Hitchcock’s second du Maurier adaptation in a row.
Hitchcock had just cranked out Jamaica Inn to disappointing effect, even though it featured the powerhouse actor Charles Laughton, of whom he had famously said “You can’t direct a Laughton picture. The best you can hope for is to referee.” The reason this is forgettable, though still worth seeing (even his flops are fun), is that Hitch was busy shopping himself to Hollywood. Tired of a crumbling British film industry, he wanted to work at a major studio with all the modern tools at hand. The only one of those who’d hire him was the famously fussy perfectionist David O Selznick. So 1939 sees Hitchcock fulfilling his contract with this quickie.
Selznick green lights Rebecca, but rejects Hitchcock’s adaptation outright, preferring more of a straight adaptation, and a long battle begins where Hitchcock is forced to rewrite the screenplay and learn how to shoot and produce in a more modern studio style. Selznick was exacting. Selznick and Hitchcock would butt heads.
Trouble was, Selznick was busy with exactly adapting a little picture called Gone with the Wind. So, the rascal Hitchcock decides to merge his style (setting up each shot exactingly, shooting with one camera, moving on) with the studios’ (shooting “master shot” style, with several cameras, getting different angles and distance of framing, then sorting it out in the editing room later). Our favorite director gets to play with alternate takes and different outcomes to elements in the story. In other words, rather than shooting one scene from several cameras, he shoots one scene different ways several times. Selznick’s too busy pouring all of his efforts into his reputation-making adaptation across the lot to notice.
The end result? When it premiered, Frank Nugent of the New York Times enthused that Hitchcock’s “famous ‘touch’ seems to have developed into a firm, enveloping grasp of Daphne du Maurier’s popular novel.” Later on, Donald Spoto said that Hitchcock worked closely with the screenwriters to “fashion a script with breadth and nuance, with wit and universality beyond the straightforwardness of du Maurier’s plot.” Better than? You be the judge.
The Evergreen Branch Library screens and discusses our latest installment in the Dial H for Hitchcock series, Rebecca, this Wednesday at 1:30. At 6:30 we repeat the screening.