By Thea Lenarduzzi
There's a scene in Hitchcock's 1939 adaptation of Jamaica Inn in which Sir Humphrey Pengallan's manservant dares to bring up the matter of his master's unsettled accounts. Sir Humphrey's response, delivered with brio by a bloated Charles Laughton, is, "Don't butcher and baker me". It seems particularly ironic given that that is precisely what Hitchock and his team of scriptwriters – which included J. B. Priestley – were doing to Daphne Du Maurier's novel. Du Maurier disliked the adaptation so much that she considered denying the director the rights to bring Rebecca to the big screen the following year. Thankfully, she came round ….
Last night I took the train to Leytonstone again. I was lured there for a screening of that film (and the promise of mulled wine and the first mince pies of the year), part of a Hitchcock season organized by Create London and Barbican Film. Leaving the Tube and heading above ground, a swipe of my Oyster card saw me pass like a spirit through the barrier before me; a colourful display of Hitchcock-inspired murals led the way.
The aim of this year-long season, launched in September with a screening of Vertigo at St Margaret’s Church, Leytonstone, is to reinforce the links between the great man and his suburban birthplace (Leytonstone, Essex, at the time) by bringing “the suspense, adventure and glamour of Hitchcock’s films back to the place that was perhaps their original inspiration”. Part of a programme of events leading up to the opening of the new Empire Cinema next year, the screenings herald the return of cinema to a borough that has been without for ten years.
Last night’s screening was held in Leytonstone School, a captivating example of early twentieth-century mock Elizabethan architecture, all lattice windows and ivy. After trying (like fools) to capture its gothic airs with our mobile phone cameras, we were ushered into the assembly hall where we took our seats, the beams of the building whispering softly of the beeches of Manderley, their “naked limbs leant close to one another, their branches intermingled in a strange embrace, making a vault above my head like the archway of a church”.
The film critic Catherine Bray stood up to introduce the project and the film, a copy of the novel in her hand. Du Maurier described the story, in a note to her eagerly awaiting publisher in 1937, as “Psychological and rather macabre”, an epithet which, Bray suggested, might do just as well for Hitchcock’s own work. Rebecca holds a special place in his filmography; it was the director’s first Hollywood film and, though it was not his first adaptation of Du Maurier’s work, it was certainly his most faithful. This was less a reflection of the novelist’s tight grasp following the Jamaica Inn debacle – she insisted that Laurence Olivier take the role of Maxim de Winter, more polar an opposite of Laughton could surely not have been found – and more a result of the producer David O. Selznick’s if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it attitude. The novel was after all – and in spite of the reviews (“A lowbrow story with a middle-brow finish”, said the TLS) – a best-seller for a reason.
The ending – that is, the morally dubious happy ending written by Du Maurier – could not, however, make the final cut: the Hollywood Production Code maintained that a crime of the sort committed by Max de Winter – and covered up with the assistance of the “my wife”, “my dear”, “erm…”, played by Joan Fontaine – could not be seen to go unpunished. And it is this version of Maxim we met again last night, played with great charm by Olivier, of course, but stunted nonetheless – a part of him shaved off, the darkest knot carved out.
Mrs Danvers, too, is a rootless figure, sinisterly so. There is none of the maternal psychology of the novel – Judith Anderson who took the role was, at forty-two, considerably younger that Du Maurier’s antagonist. To put it bluntly, the lesbian subtext is to the fore – a lingering close-up on Mrs Danvers’s face as she brushes the heroine’s cheek with one of Rebecca’s furs “You can feel it, can’t you? The scent is still fresh, isn’t it?”.
You will find them all preserved, however, in Du Maurier’s novel, a reissue of which will, I predict, come sometime in the new year alongside a couple of remakes – Jamaica Inn on the BBC; the Hollywood (re)treatment for Rebecca.
But what struck me on re-watching this Rebecca was the humour – and I don’t think it was all retrospective, a result of the mannered dialogue and techniques of the period – and the score, which chops and changes from soaring strings to thunderous drums as quickly as the whirlwind romance between de Winter and “erm” plucks them from Monte Carlo and drops them in Manderley. It is a kind of cinematic hysteria. As Du Maurier said of the novel, “a tragedy is looming very close and CRASH! BANG! something happens”; the speed with which one must move from relaxed laughter at something “you silly fool” has said to the heights of anxiety as Mrs Danvers closes in is dizzying.
There was a round of applause last night – equal parts appreciation and a curious sense of relief that the spell had been lifted – with everyone turning to their neighbour, checking each other’s reactions. When was the last time you clapped at the end of a film (in public, I mean)? A reminder of the power of cinema, for sure, and of the importance of this invigorating project.