[1940] Rebecca

Since evolved from a romantic horror genre to a more complex emotional battleground, Gothic arts take pleasure in allowing audiences to take part in their characters’ suffering; it’s the defining feature. The Germans have a word for the positive-extreme version: schadenfreude, or taking pleasure in someone else’s pain. It’s a mostly strange oddity of the human condition to relish in this emotion: it’s a private condition that’s always better left hushed. Hitchcock was a master of the Gothic, perhaps none more mesmerizing than Rebecca.

Alfred Hitchcock is known for his archetype defining tropes, many of which involve manipulating an audience to suffer–however slightly–for his own pleasure. Hitchcock’s use of schadenfreude remains classic, if not overlooked.His sound and visual cues were likely the first to signal a psychological trauma incoming (PsychoThe Birds), or the first to use first-person to treat the audience as a a voyeuristic character (Rear Window). But these tropes came from somewhere, and they likely were fully formed for Rebecca. 

Rebecca‘s strongest feature is pacing, which seems to turn on a dime, starting and stuttering, purposefully designed to keep the audience intentionally off-balance. It’s written in such a way — likely in the source material, too — that we’re not supposed to know who to root for or against at any given time. The de Winters, alive oscillate between pitiable and crass. We want this man, Maxim de Winter, to find love again, then he’s a rube, and then he’s a murderer. His second wife, never given a name, is cloyingly Pollyannaish and bright-eyed, until she’s convinced to jump to her death. Rebecca, Maxim’s first wife, is revered, until it’s revealed shes the smarmiest of them lot, conniving as ever. These people are all terrible, and it’s Hitchcock’s pacing that let’s his audience figure this out on our own, without need to tell. Hitchcock was a master of show.

But Mrs. Danvers is the most Gothic character and sets a stage for Norman Bates in Hitchcock’s Psycho 20 years later. She has an obsession with Rebecca de Winter bordering on violent delusion, and takes offense to Maxim remarrying, soon after Rebecca’s death but likely ever. She relishes misleading Maxim’s second wife into dark corners, stirring trouble. We’re supposed to hate her, and empathize with Danvers’ prey as an object of evil affection. Mrs. Danvers is obviously mentally ill, but 1940s America sees her as evil and crazy. If Hitchcock understood this about his audience, he made a perfect character. If he didn’t, he shot a great character, accidentally.

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[1948.5] Hamlet

I will be watching all 5 nominees from 1948 before I move on to the next year. The goal here is to watch them and have an internal discussion among them to try to piece together a “history” of the year. Let’s get to it. 

To Be Or Not To Be – That Is The Question

No, it’s not, Hamlet, you brooding Dane.

The real question is what did Sir Laurence Olivier do with Shakespeare’s four-centuries-old masterpiece? Some – casual viewers – saw the silkiest, leanest interpretation of the play. Others – purists – saw Olivier cutting the play into parts convenient and cried heresy. “Anyone who’s ever heard of or seen any production of Hamlet” – the completion of the pie – saw the Shakespeare by accident, or for school or for a blog post and recognized Olivier’s genius for drama, without consideration for the interpretation or for the heretics. In Hamlet, our titular character too often acts too singularly overwrought and too blatantly standoffish to show the true brood as a character of such complexity. Olivier, for luck or for skill, both wrote and acted his Hamlet perhaps as close to Shakespeare’s original fabric.

To Be Or Not To Be – That Is The Question

No, it’s not, Hamlet, you grand inquisitor.

Olivier plays Hamlet as a deft, cunning, impressionable, passionate, capable young prince, not out for revenge or justice, but rather out of sheer boredom. Never is there urgency to his actions, even with directive from his father and strange confession through a play-within-a-play. Olivier’s Hamlet seems content to allow this story to play out quite literally among the court with no true directive, self or not. He feigns madness to…throw his uncle (the new king) and his uncle’s advisor (the “cunning” Polonius, who’s a fool in disguise) convincingly enough to actually drive Ophelia (Polonius’ daughter and love…interest?) mad. For Hamlet the decision to play “mad,” is a simple and inconsequential one – why would anyone suspect the grieving son of anything? It’s not quite rational. It’s not quite full-on insanity. It’s how Olivier plays Hamlet – slightly unhinged, but not so much as to become caricature. Continue reading