Monday, August 04, 2008

Last Night I Dreamed of Manderly...

237. Hitchcock's Rebecca (1940) is a haunted movie. Rebecca De Winter, the title character, is dead before the first frame of the movie, but her presence--her malign presence--is felt all through the film. It's so strong that it all but eclipses the film's lead character, the second Mrs. De Winter (Joan Fontaine), whose name the audience never even learns. Certainly, Manderly is one of the cinema's great haunted houses, and there has never, ever been a more sinister sinister servant than Judith Anderson's Mrs. Danvers.

Despite the fact that Rebecca was the director's sole Best Picture winner, it has never occupied the first rank of Hitchcock's films among critics and scholars. It tends to defy auteurist theorizing, because it just doesn't seem like a Hitchcock film. Hitch rarely went in for gothics, and this film is just about as gothic as it gets. It's a facile explanation to say that the movie is more David O. Selznick's film than Hitchcock's, but a close examination of the film and its context suggests that this might actually be an overstatement. Hitchcock was no stranger to Daphne Du Maurier, after all. Prior to Rebecca, he adapted Jamaica Inn. Later he adapted The Birds. More than that, it's widely held that Hitchcock was actively undermining Selznick's control of the film by editing the film in the camera. Selznick hated the way Hitchcock filmed. He called it a "jigsaw method" of filming. It only went together one way. Hitchcock didn't provide Selznick with "coverage," and so greatly reduced Selznick's usual role. Some of the film's other flourishes come directly from Hitchcock: the wrong man falsely accused shows up late in the film, as does the director's perennial examination of a guilty conscience. The use of deep focus cinematography is out of character, but it appears that Hitchcock was still experimenting with the possibilities of film. The most interesting thing I noticed about Rebecca with this viewing, though, is the striking similarities it shares with Vertigo, and not just in the theme of a man haunted by a dead woman. Several scenes seem oddly twinned, like Mrs. De Winter's appearance in Rebecca's costume gown and Madeline's transformation from Judy. This isn't the first time I've noticed Hitchcock working out themes and images to which he would later return. Maybe being an auteur means you never throw anything away.

238. Director Johnny To is a master at cinematic legerdemain, so if you take his 2001 duelling hitman movie, Fulltime Killer (co-directed by Wai Ka-Fai), at face value, you might think that it's ONLY an exercise in cinematic hyperbole and miss the deeper waters the film explores. It certainly wears its style on its sleeve, but beneath that, it's a sly deconstruction of the hitman subgenre. It's pretty up-front about its influences/targets: a little Seijun Suzuki here, some Jean-Pierre Melville there, a dash of John Woo. Ostensibly, it's a remake of Branded to Kill, in which the #2 assassin in the world seeks to knock off #1 and assume pre-eminence in his chosen field. The set-pieces in this movie are a lot of fun--the best involves a bunch of hand-grenades and a a prison cell--but it's the structure of the filmmaking itself that is most arresting. A polyglot of languages and styles and a fractured narrative will challenge an action fan looking for cheap thrills. But it's worth it. The closest thing to it is probably Wong Kar-Wai's The Ashes of Time.