Picturing the Best: Rebecca and How Green Was My Valley

movie-rebecca-rebecca-1940-10778537-500-375Of all the Alfred Hitchcock films in existence, one shouldn’t feign surprise that it was Rebecca that was lovingly overcast with the radiant glow of the amber Oscar. Frankly, and as is often the case, the reality is that the singular Oscar glory was afforded to one of the more stolid, “respectable” pictures in the canon of a director that thrived when he was barreling away from respect at a hundred miles an hour. By the standards of sub-expressionist horror, mind you, Rebecca is plenty disturbed, with Hitch’s direction sterling and suffocating even if it’s less maverick and personal than it would be later in his career. But watching Rebecca, a ghoulishly charming little bedeviled jewel in bewilderingly trumped-up costume drama airs, it’s painfully obvious that he was playing mega-producer David O. Selznick’s mercenary at this point, and that the film’s Oscar glory is less a statement to any truly revolutionary or thought-provoking aims than to the sheer size of the film’s majesty. While Vertigo, Rear Window, Strangers on a Train, and a dozen other Hitch films animate wonderfully contradictory impulses to truly destabilizing ends, the only thing Rebecca animates is Selznick’s production budget. And the only thing it tests is the size of Selznick’s ego, his inimitable capacity to gild and ornament a competent husk of a film with all the production decorum his bottomless pockets could buy.

The resulting film can’t exactly be called “safe”. But for all its immanence in the once-common “eccentric, maddened lives of the aristocracy” sub-genre, it is difficult to judge Rebecca without finding it trapped in between the rock of the tenebrous, playful Universal Horrors that preceded it and the hard place of the more prickly, thorny film noirs and more demented Hitch auteur vehicles that would trample all over Rebecca a decade later. Unlike those films, Rebecca doesn’t submerge itself chthonically into any truly maddening, underground themes. Comparatively, and somewhat depressingly, it merely emboldens itself outward, skyrocketing itself to the acme of prestige cinema largeness; it’s a big, glorious behemoth of a drama, a glittering diamond meant to blind you about how little lies underneath

It does absolutely glitter though, in every way. With romantic, Victorian histrionics in tow, the film sets us about the internal battle of wills between Joan Fontaine’s Mrs. de Winter, newly married to Laurence Olivier’s Maxim de Winter, and the housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), who constantly recalls the new Mrs. de Winter of the forlorn but never fading memory of Maxim’s first wife, the now deceased Rebecca. It’s hardly the most thematically rich tale, although the film preserves writer Daphne du Maurier’s allusions to the unmalleable nature of wealth and the vise grip the deceased cast over not only consciousness but tactile place.

Said place, the sequestered mansion Manderlay that now serves as a mausoleum and a monument to the creepily closed-off, self-deifying lifestyles of the lazily wealthy, is more the work of Selznick’s lustrous production crew – Lyle Wheeler as the production art designer most notably – than Hitch’s esteemed direction. Truth be told, it’s difficult not to argue that Hitch is a little entombed in the overdetermined narrative twists and nearly-engorged dark beauty of the set design. Sometimes, he seems more interested in exposing the set’s lustrous beauty than in exposing any hidden thematic undercurrents beneath the set with his camera. His camerawork is clever but not revelatory.

Although the film’s form is relatively straightforward compared to the more damaged, fascinatingly broken hounds of hell that the later-period Hithcock would unleash, the mise en scene and the framing still win over the day. There’s a surfeit of shadowy misery in the mansion, corroborated by a clutch of perilous wide shots, all of which characterize Manderlay as a cryptlike, Stygian font of trauma as well as an emotional construct, a sort of nebulous nexus at the intersection of the physical and the mental. Plus, Hitch’s habit of eschewing wide shots when the wraithlike Mrs. Danvers appears does satisfyingly express her control over the screen as a walking dead embodiment of the iron clad will of Rebecca herself. Even better, the stagnancy with which Mrs. Danvers exists in the frame – domineering over it like a tyrant, the screen wrapping around her rather than her having to walk into it – envisions her as a totem to memory that slips into the scene or appears in the mind rather than having to peskily saunter through it like a mere mortal.

Still, even at the film’s phenomenally entertaining best, Hitch is, here, content to merely pervert our existent perceptions of space, to play us like his proverbial piano, rather than to call attention to and reorient our perceptual abilities altogether. Rebecca, despite its strengths as a gloomy showpiece of internalized ghosts, never makes the leap from character-focused work that presumes a normative world tilted slightly on its axis to the more radiant realms of a Tarkovsky or an Ozu, directors who threw away normative assumptions about perception altogether. Some might flacidly suggest that working within the rules to subvert them is a more distinct challenge to the audience’s mental well-being, but this early cinematic treat is ultimately unable to overturn the Hollywood worldview it emerged from, the world in which bigger and showier is intrinsically better.

Even by early Hitch standards, Rebecca feels less singular his than, say, The 39 Steps or The Lady Vanishes. Du Maurier’s phantom casts a pall over the production, ultimately conspiring with Selznick’s grandiloquent interest in baroque visual leviathans to sabotage Hitch’s more perturbing fixations and to diminish the film’s capacity to truly provoke anything beyond that which its surface story suggests. Sure, Rebecca is deliciously deviant and suitably disturbed, but it’s all caked in a semi-fable-like pallor that feels less nasty than Hitch at his subcutaneous best. It’s a sepulcher to the dead, the damned, and the desperate, but it isn’t, like, say, Shadow of a Doubt, truly alive with death, or capable of exposing aspects of death and decay that don’t automatically rise to the surface. The meeting of Hitch’s lively, modernist pulse and Selznick’s stagebound classicism doesn’t always congeal into something more valiant than the sum of its admittedly terrific parts. It’s probably great cinema, but merely great.

Score: 8/10

walter pidgeon & roddy mcdowall - how green was my valley 1941How Green Was My Valley

It’s a cruel irony that John Ford’s most beloved film in his own oeuvre is also his most socially reviled, the precarious gods of fate having rendered it a villain of circumstance. Released one year after Ford’s scorching fable The Grapes of Wrath, the idyllic, bucolic How Green Was My Valley feels positively jejune in comparison, especially when counterposed with the destructive vitriol of the astringent Citizen Kane, which famously lost the Best Picture Oscar to How Green, forever dooming Ford’s film to the weight of history. Forever known as the lamb that sabotaged Kane and took it to the slaughter, no one actually seems to write about How Green Was My Valley on its own accord anymore; reviews are counterpoints, comparisons, disaffected and construed pitchfork-hurling lamentations of that which could have been. How Green Was My Valley has forever been an object of discussions about Citizen Kane, rather than a subject all its own.

Unfairly, I might add, especially when we consider the relative fraudulence of validating the Best Picture as an award that signifies superlative status – many worse films have won Best Picture, and the rank and file of masterpieces that have been denied the award is legion. Still, How Green Was My Valley is a tall order 75 years later, its concealed aura of disaffected melodrama so often undercut by Ford’s more explicit, surface-bellowing romanticism that seems cloying and overly idealized today. Hell, the film was even sabotaged before it was released, when producer Darryl F. Zanuck was forced to slash and burn the post-Gone with the Wind stars in his eyes for a more restrained, nonchalant black-and-white tale of a pastoral Welsh community beleaguered by the cruelty of capitalist coal mining gluttony.

Comparatively traditional in relation to the despondent, nearly fangs-drawn Grapes, How Green ultimately reaffirms Ford’s somewhat parochial fixation on old school notions of prosaic gender and patriarchy even as it reprimands and even redresses the ruination wrought by the unbridled expansion of capitalist industrialism. It’s hardly Ford’s most radical picture, lacking the stark, slithering door-frame suggestions of The Searchers that so elegantly suggested the audience’s own inability to truly exist within the world of the film. But it is, after all, a John Ford picture, and he brings a characteristic viscosity to the steely, black-and-white imagery that intimates the ragged, slab-like obliteration caused by capitalist living in contrast to a gauzier, less harshly lit pastoral vision of family life Ford is obviously more smitten with.

Admittedly, the film never makes the self-reflexive jump to suggest that the rosiness of this now forlorn way of rural living is ultimately fictive, although its whimsical narration by an older character looking back on his past vaguely implies that this vision is more idyll than reality. The ruminative tone of the story, more vignettes about youthful Huw (Roddy McDowall in flashback), his sister Angharad (Maureen O’ Hara), and the rest of their family, don’t delight with devilish fancy like Orson Welles’ similar expression of the gap between past and present in Citizen Kane. But Ford’s shot selection is impeccable, relying on low angles like Welles and in equally ambidextrous ways, in this case both to suggest his unwavering respect for the working-class community and to ossify the demonic Kapital factories into monuments of desecration. It’s not top-tier Ford, and it’s certainly no Citizen Kane, but it’s a thoroughly inviting piece of cinema.

Score: 8/10 (I recognize that I gave these two films the same score despite wildly different review tones, but I’m doing a little resurrection for the latter film, and the earlier film needs no resurrection).

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