Monday, November 05, 2007

Fontaine Flowers: Rebecca and Suspicion

When Alfred Hitchcock called Rebecca "a woman's picture" he was cutting it down, but in fact that's what it is — and a superb one at that. Hitchcock had a dismissive attitude toward the label, and he is seldom discussed as a woman's director in any sense of the term. But women have a love for Hitchcock that they often don't feel for other suspense directors. His movies do an uncanny job of tapping into the darkest, toughest and most common female insecurities, something that has helped keep them alive over all these years.

The films almost always show, whether front-and-center or in the background, the primal fears that woman have regarding the love of men. A man's love is always conditional in Hitchcock, never a sure thing, and more often than not it is a dreadful hard slog for a woman to get any affection from a man at all. A woman looks at a Hitchcock movie and sees the heroine confronting the same questions that may torment her. Does my sexual history make me unlovable? (Notorious, The Birds, North by Northwest). Is he just biding time with me, or will he make a commitment? (Rear Window). Is he crazy? am I crazy for loving him? (Spellbound).

The two movies that Hitchcock made with Joan Fontaine go very deeply indeed into these questions. In Rebecca, the woman wonders, does he really long for his previous lover? (Which is the same question asked in Vertigo, to be answered in one of the darkest endings Hitchcock ever filmed.) And in Suspicion, the question becomes the worst one a lovelorn woman can ask — did he ever really care for me at all?

Rebecca was the high mark to that point in a series of roles that had Fontaine playing delicate maidens hungry for love. The first such character (and least appealing one, though Joan is believable) was Douglas Fairbanks Jr.'s fiancee in Gunga Din, she who almost spoils the fun by tying the man down. The second was the "sheep," Peggy Day, in The Women.

Here you can see Joan, under George Cukor's tutelage, beginning to absorb some real principles of acting. When she asked the director about gestures and tone of voice, he said, "Forget all that. Think and feel and the rest will take care of itself." In her memoirs Fontaine called that "the best and shortest drama lesson" she ever got. In The Women Fontaine's self-consciousness is almost gone and her concept of Peggy is whole. What she hasn't quite mastered is her interaction with the other actresses. Her playing is all outside, she doesn't take what is said to her and weave it into her subsequent lines. She is a straight woman, doing a swell job of setting up other people's jokes, but not yet able to free her reactions as well. Here is one such joke set-up, which the Siren is reasonably certain will not make it into the remake filming now. With big-eyed horror, Peggy exclaims, "He beats you. Lucy, how terrible." And Lucy, played by Marjorie Main, comes back with, "Ain't it. When you think of the lot of women on this ranch who need a beatin' more than I do." Fontaine registers this outrageous (even in 1939) remark with the same damp-eyed amazement she does most other dialogue.

The Women shows promise, but Rebecca is an astonishing leap forward. Hitchcock worked carefully with Fontaine and she says she liked him, though in retrospect she realized he was manipulating her, telling her that he was the only one who believed she could give a good performance, reinforcing her insecurity at every turn. It wasn't hard. Laurence Olivier made it clear he had wanted his wife, Vivien Leigh, in the part of "I," despite the fact that Leigh's screen test for it was terrible, drawing hoots from George Cukor when it was shown to him by producer David O. Selznick. (Olivier treated Merle Oberon the same way, and for the same reason, on the set of Wuthering Heights.) Fontaine, already nervous and well aware this was a make-or-break role, had to contend with Olivier's idea of banter--informed she had just married Brian Aherne, he sniffed, "Couldn't you do any better than that?" At other times when her costar blew takes he would let fly with words that Fontaine later primly said she had seen only on bathroom walls. Thirty or forty years later she still had little good to say about Olivier and, as this personal reminiscence shows, remembered filming as a nightmare. She said even the other British actors, save Reginald Denny, were cliquish to the point of cruelty, refusing to budge from their afternoon tea in Judith Anderson's dressing room when Hitchcock threw Fontaine an on-set birthday party. And Fontaine doesn't even mention the exterior shots that caused cast and crew to be hospitalized for poison ivy. She couldn't work for three days.

Some actors grow to hate their signature role due to its having typed them, but in Fontaine's case it's easy to see why she retained little personal affection for Rebecca. Still, she shone, and to this day she knows it (check out her answer here to the question of which film of hers is most remembered). The second Mrs. de Winter is often described as weak, docile, terrorized, an example of extreme passivity. But while that is certainly a large part of Fontaine's characterization, it is not all of it, and indeed could not be or the character would probably annoy us all to death. It's the flashes of spirit that Fontaine shows that give you a stake in her heroine.

The first moment you see her, she is stepping up to stop Maxim as he stands on the edge of a cliff and contemplates suicide. She steps back immediately, cowed and uncertain, when he turns around, but then again he is glaring at her as though he might like to throw her over. The Siren would step back too.

Later you get one of the Siren's favorite moments in the movie, when Fontaine defies the dreadful Mrs. Van Hopper (Florence Bates, sheer unbridled delight) and declares she is going to marry Maxim. The Siren loves to watch Fontaine's face in this scene, eyes widening as though she can barely believe her own daring. She's able to muster the nerve, it seems, because Maxim is there with her. Afterward, though, she is unable to stop Mrs. Van Hopper from venomously suggesting that she is a marriage of convenience for her husband and a poor substitute for Rebecca. Later scenes with George Sanders, who was at his very best playing the heel who was Rebecca's lover, have Fontaine's face registering extreme discomfort in the presence of a cad, as well as knowledge that she can't just bounce this well-bred scoundrel out on his ear, even if he did come in through the window.

Later, there is the scene where Mrs. Danvers, played to the hilt by Judith Anderson, shows the bride her predecessor's room. Danvers lingers over a transparent negligee in a manner so lewd it makes the audience blush as well as Mrs. de Winter recoil. (This, one of classic Hollywood's most overt suggestions of lesbianism, stayed in, but the du Maurier ending had to be altered.) Here, all by herself, Fontaine finally gathers up her courage and orders Mrs. Danvers to destroy Rebecca's papers and other items. "I am Mrs. de Winter now," says Fontaine. Her attire, her posture, even her tone of voice suggest a schoolgirl at last defying a harsh headmistress. It's the moment you've been waiting for--some spine!--and it also means that later in the movie, when the tables turn and Fontaine becomes the loving support for a shattered Maxim, the shift isn't so abrupt that the audience can't accept it.

David Thomson has called Rebecca "a disguised horror film," and it comes closest to that description in the movie's most famous scene, where a browbeaten and despondent Fontaine comes close to committing suicide, egged on by the diabolical Mrs. Danvers. Once seen, you remember this moment forever, but the Siren relishes this famous scene more for Judith Anderson than for Fontaine. Fontaine, mind you, plays it perfectly. The conceit is that the second Mrs. de Winter has been driven to the brink of madness. But the young woman, however easily cowed and pathetically eager to please she may be, has seemed up to this point to be eminently sane. Danvers' suicidal coaxing plays as an evil witch casting a spell, not just as a malevolent handmaiden capitalizing on Fontaine's moment of madness. Fontaine's face suggests that she has been hypnotized, more than anything, and it's the sound of noises and flares from the beach that snaps her out of it.

Rebecca had the same effect on Fontaine's acting, in that at last she had the impetus to start REacting; indeed, given the part she was playing, if she could not react well the whole movie tumbles around her ears. In Suspicion, her next movie with Hitchcock and the one that won her the Oscar, the task is somewhat different. She must show us everything but the title quality. That emotion she must fight at every turn, because Lina Aysgarth is desperately trying to allay her own suspicions every time her husband, Johnny, piles up another whopper. Watch Fontaine here, at the end, waiting for the entirely-too-pretty maid to exit.

Donald Spoto, in his biography of Hitchcock, says that contrary to popular belief and the director's own later myth-making, the director had always conceived Suspicion as a "film about a woman's fantasy life" and didn't intend to follow the novel, in which Joan Fontaine's character intentionally drinks the glass of milk her murderous husband has poisoned. Spoto says Hitchcock even told RKO executive producer Harry E. Edington that he would resolve any objections to having a romantic lead turn murderer by "making the husband's deeds the fictions in the mind of a neurotically suspicious woman."

But, the Siren insists, Lina is not all that neurotic. Molly Haskell called Fontaine's character "masochism incarnate," and she has a point in that Fontaine shows us, as clearly as the Production Code would allow, the sexual hold that Grant's Johnny has on her. But while critics usually describe Johnny's actions as mere bad gambling habits, the fact is that he's a criminal embezzler, a chronic liar, shirker and cheat, all of which are flaws that the Siren feels justify a little suspicion from a woman without her being called neurotic or masochistic.

It is the buildup of tension that creates Fontaine's mental state, not the other way around. Fontaine must suppress every question that comes to mind, at first for fear of causing strife with her husband, later because she doesn't want to seem a snob — she is upper class British, Johnny is not. In the scene above, Lina's struggle to keep from bursting out with any sort of anger or even reproach seems almost physical, as Fontaine checks herself a couple of times in mid-move toward Johnny.

Finally, having choked down every legitimate question that Grant's wildly improper behavior is raising in her, Lina really does begin to succumb to neurosis, taking small actions and turning them into murderous portents.

So the "falseness" of the ending is not so much that Grant isn't a murderer after all, which was part of the design from the beginning. It's that suddenly we are supposed to look at Lina as foolish and somehow faithless, not supporting her husband the way she should have, when her husband is a pretty obvious shit, Cary Grant or no Cary Grant.

Fontaine didn't work with Hitchcock again, but her character, as a tightly repressed young gentlewoman, had been firmly fixed by her association with him. She would spend some time trying to break free of that mold, until she took the same character and altered it for all time in Letter from an Unknown Woman.


Uncle Gustav said...

An excellent piece, Siren.

"A man's love is always conditional in Hitchcock, never a sure thing, and more often than not it is a dreadful hard slog for a woman to get any affection from a man at all."

Is that just in Hitchcock, or reality in general?

"A woman looks at a Hitchcock movie and sees the heroine confronting the same questions that may torment her. Does my sexual history make me unlovable? (Notorious, The Birds, North by Northwest). Is he just biding time with me, or will he make a commitment? (Rear Window). Is he crazy? am I crazy for loving him? (Spellbound)."

How sadly and uncomfortably true.

Another weird dynamic in Suspicion is the carefree relationship between Johnny and (ahem) 'Beaky.' If there was a dude like Beaky named Beaky hanging out here and attentive to my every word, Mrs. Flick would probably pack her bags and leave.

While we're at it, if I were to address Mrs. Flick as "Monkeyface" (Johnny's sadistic nickname for Lina) chances are good I'd get a shot in the mouth.

The Siren said...

"Is that just Hitchcock, or reality in general?"

OUCH. To crib a line from (one-time Hitch screenwriter) Thornton Wilder, "Saints and poets, maybe. They do some." Perhaps I should have said MORE conditional than in reality. I feel safe in saying that most men look at James Stewart's attitude toward Grace Kelly in Rear Window and mutter, "dude, are you stark staring nuts?" Not to mention Ray Milland -- married to Grace Kelly and decides, what the hell, I'll just have her killed. Our pal Haskell, interestingly, thinks Hitch identifies with the heroines in the two Fontaine pictures, which may be born out by his lifelong habit of conceiving unrequited crushes on unobtainable women.

As for "monkeyface" and Beaky, too right on both counts. The fact that gorgeous Joan at that point so plainly did not resemble any species of monkey sort of made it OK, but still. I assume it's from the Francis Iles novel but I haven't read it. I feel sure Exiled in NJ has so I am hoping he shows up.

Marilyn said...

Obviously, mere attractiveness (even stunning beauty) is no guarantee of a doting husband. Halle Berry has had two abusive husbands, for example. I totally get why Stewart might not want Kelly. She's high-maintenance and definitely a city girl. The last scene, where she switches to reading a ladies' magazine, says all I need to know about what a mismatch those two are.

The Siren said...

ah, but Grace Kelly was much, much more than beautiful, in life and in that movie, where she has her own very good income, can get designer goods at a discount and even warms up his brandy, for goodness sakes.

Exiled in NJ said...

It has been so long since I read Before the Fact that I cannot remember if 'Monkey Face' was an invention of Grant or of Iles (Anthony Berkeley], and oddly I can barely remember Beaky either, though I seem to recall that Johnny hauls off and spanks his woman.

I saw Suspicion on TCM a month or so ago. Sometimes the thought strikes me that there is a similarity between Johnny and Mrs. Danvers. It's not just the power, but the control factor also.

I guess I'd always believed the old wives tale that the studio forced Hitch to change his ending, never giving it a thought, but if I think about it, when did he ever let a heroine die?

Iles was a 'revolutionary' in his day, sort of a kinder, gentler Patricia Highsmith, but of his two 'cad' novels, I far prefer Malice Aforethought, where the ending has that wonderful twist.

du Maurier's Rebecca has always prejudiced me against the film. Reading it led to my best piece of writing twenty years later. The film lacks the dream-like quality of the first two-thirds of the book, before the author turned the story over to Maxim and gave the nameless narrator what she wanted, his love. In a way, as I read the book, I was falling in love with the narrator, and I suppose JF was not the woman I pictured.

I always wondered if Hitchcock and Selznick had seen Snow White and so burned the witch in the end. I am sure if they were making it today, they would agree with du Maurier and let Danvers 'clear out,' keeping her alive for Rebecca II, III and IV.

I love seeing Sanders warming up to play Addison deWitt. In the same year, he got to play one of his few good guys in Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent. On the other hand, Judith Anderson avoided stereotyping, even marrying Vincent Price in Laura.

I wonder too if the Siren would compare the narrator of Rebecca with JF's later portrayal in Jane Eyre.

Forgive the long winded post but your essay is so damned good; your writing opens my eyes when I see these films again.

The Siren said...

Exiled, I have read & loved Malice Aforethought (and I remember Mystery! had a particularly good adaptation of that one some years back). I think Before the Fact could probably use a real transfer to screen, just to see what it's like.

I had read Rebecca something like three times before I saw the movie. I recommend this book to people with near-perfect confidence that they will like it; it is just a superb piece of narrative fiction, a page-turner par excellence. I think the movie is pretty close to the book, all things considered, which is due much more to Selznick than Hitchcock. Hitch was proposing that they show Rebecca, for one thing. I agree though that a producer as canny as Selznick would definitely have left Danvers alive these days--that she died was probably another idiotic Production Code requirement. "You can show her stroking milady's lingerie but then she must DIE."

One ending Hitchcock toyed with was having Johnny atone by joining the RAF and flying off to near-certain death. I think we can all agree that the ending we got at least beats THAT.

lylee said...

I've sometimes referred half-jokingly to Hitchcock as "my favorite misogynist," if that weren't an oxymoron. Actually, his treatment of women and their, um, neuroses is more complicated than that, as you demonstrate.

Beautifully nuanced discussion of the Joan Fontaine movies, though I must confess I haven't seen "Suspicion." "Rebecca," however, is probably my favorite Hitchcock movie, in large part because of Fontaine's performance.

lylee said...

Oh, and "You can show her stroking milady's lingerie but then she must DIE" made me laugh out loud.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Wonderful essay. How beautifully you write, and your intelligent analysis makes me want to watch the movies over again.

Fontaine never seemed truer than in "Rebecca", her performance was really on the mark, and Judith Anderson was priceless as Mrs. Danvers.

Dume3 said...

One of the best parts of Rebecca is the set design of the mansion. It seems huge to me.

I only wish Hitchcock hadn't used that stupid treadmill shot of them walking with fake branches passing it front of them. It looks awful, like they're flying. Hitchcock was wildly uneven when it came to special effects, probably his greatest weakness.

The worst one he did was the horse accident in Marnie, with those fake horse legs hitting the wall.

Dume3 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
The Siren said...

Lylee, I think Hitchcock definitely had his woman-hating moments--that rape scene in Frenzy, for example, which makes me cringe even in memory. But his best movies have his best women characters, and I don't think that is a coincidence either.

Jacqueline, I gave Sanders short shrift but he is priceless in Rebecca as well. "I say, marriage with Max is not exactly a bed of roses, is it?"

dume3, Hitchcock's special effects are often not special at all, and he doesn't seem to have even availed himself of the best technology at the time. You name two great examples. Mine is much more prosaic, but DAMN the rear projection in the car scenes in To Catch a Thief drives me INSANE. It is so appallingly, inexusably bad.

Dume3 said...

It's strange that a director so gifted in certain respects could look at these projection shots and pass them. Gone With the Wind has some very good projection shots, (except maybe the scene at the Atlanta ball, where doctor Mead is on stage), so that shows it can be done.

Anyway, I think Marnie would probably be the worst thing he ever did were it not for Sean Connery's performance. The whole concept is so Freudian and dated. The same could be said of Psycho, but at least it has a solid visual style--and then there's Marnie's background paintings.

Speaking of driving projection shots, I think the worst I've ever seen from the sound era is the one during the Paris flashback in Casablanca.

Exiled in NJ said...

And yet, watch the plane crash in Foreign Correspondent when the scene is inside the cabin, not when the cheesy models are pictured, to see what could be done by Hitch. Only Peter Weir ever did it better, and his effort was truly terrorizing.

"Correspondent," with the famous windmill scene, and earlier with the umbrellas, made me feel he was far more interested in that work than Rebecca.

Sometimes I notice that train trip up the Hudson keeps passing the same places in Northwest, and Tippi makes little progress in her boat ride if I guage it by the projection in back of her.

If you love Hitchcock, you have to forgive this 'sloppiness' because I think his interest was in the relation of characters to each other and their environment: Farley Granger meeting a slightly crazed young man on a train, or showing young Charley in her small town environment. Those scenes of Santa Rosa are priceless, not only for the story but they tell us something of California in 1943.

Uncle Gustav said...

Poor Hitch: denigrated for lack of cosmetic realism in his fantasies. What next? CGI the flying monkeys in Oz?

It's a shame that this one beautiful epoch in filmmaking has to weather such caustic disenchantment.

Excuse me: I'm Freudian and dated. I think I'll go hang myself and then get rip roaring drunk.

The Siren said...

Aw, Flickhead. You know I don't get worked up over realism and I don't expect miracles from Golden Era effects, either. (And caustic disenchantment with the era? MEEEEE?) But as Dume3 points out, Hitch wasn't even availing himself of the best that the era had to offer. It was a conscious decision on his part, that despite filming in the South of France he was still going to project the backgrounds, for example. Sometimes it irritates me, most times it doesn't, but considering the exquisite care that goes into so much else in his pictures I think it's a legitimate gripe.

But Exiled puts the complaint firmly and, I think, correctly in its place. Well hit, sir:

"If you love Hitchcock, you have to forgive this 'sloppiness' because I think his interest was in the relation of characters to each other and their environment."

Dume3 said...

"Poor Hitch: denigrated for lack of cosmetic realism in his fantasies. What next? CGI the flying monkeys in Oz?"

I despise CGI. There isn't necessarily a realtionship between a lack of realism and a bad special effect. The monkeys in Wizard of Oz look great, and the Hitchcock shots we've been discussing simply do not. Wizard of Oz has fantastic, innovative special effects so I don't know why you'd choose it for comparison. I'm not comparing Hitchcock's effects to modern ones, but to those in other movies of his time.

Dume3 said...

"If you love Hitchcock, you have to forgive this 'sloppiness' because I think his interest was in the relation of characters to each other and their environment."

I agree, but at the same time, I question those who say that the effects in golden age movies don't matter, or should never be criticized. I think its because I've seen enough movies of the era to know how polished their effects can be that I can't blindly accept any effect thrown up on screen. To me, a director should strive for the best possible result in EVERY aspect.

That said, Hitchcock is still one of my favorite directors.

Exiled in NJ said...

In The Lady Vanishes, and moreso in The 39 Steps, we don't see these 'shortcuts.' When Hitch wants to picture motion, we see stock shots of moving locomotives [the dreaded churning wheels]. The interiors reveal little of the outside world.

What perturbs me in Golden Age films is the use of the studio stage in the middle of an outdoor film: Sierra Madre for one, and there is one jarring stage scene in Ford's Yellow Ribbon.

The Siren said...

I am so used to the soundstages that they don't much bother me, especially in black-and-white or Technicolor. Part of the many troubles with the brief colorization vogue was that it made sets look even more like sets. Rick's place in Casablance looked like a cardboard set from a high school musical in the colorized version.

Lemora said...

utiReading about Hitchcock's ability to tap into women's deepest fears and fantasies reminds me of "Belle De Jour," with Catherine Deneuve. Specifically, the opening scene where the heroine is being dragged through the mud in an S/M Romance Novel setting, only to change abruptly to the calm face of the seemingly repressed doctor's wife in her bedroom, in the present day, with her uptight husband. I'd love to be able to see Hitchcock direct "Belle De Jour," starring Joan Fontaine in the Deneuve role, but in 1940, free of censorship.

The Rush Blog said...

Olivier treated Greer Garson the same way, when they did "PRIDE AND PREJUDICE" together. He was always down on those leading ladies he worked with, because Vivian Leigh did not get their roles.