A head-shaking irony of Hollywood is that Alfred Hitchcock picked up only one best-picture Oscar during his busy career. And when you consider which movie it was for, the irony just deepens.
"Psycho," right? Nah, too disturbing for the academy crowd. How about "The Birds"? No chance, not with all that flapping and cawing. Then it had to be "Vertigo." Uh-uh, left everybody dizzy but not spellbound.
Hitchcock won the top award in 1940, just after stud-producer David O. Selznick brought the British director to America. The picture was "Rebecca," a Gothic love story and murder mystery starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine.
Based on Daphne du Maurier's popular novel, "Rebecca" (which screens Friday night as the latest feature in UC Irvine's "Cinema Potpourri" series) is a telling example of what movie-goers of the day took for classy entertainment. Expensively staged--a Selznick trademark (he was the engine that drove the costly "Gone With the Wind" the year before)--the movie looks super.
Cinematographer George Barnes picked up an Oscar himself, and his lens moves elegantly from the moody seaside cliffs (befogged and romantically dangerous, a la "Wuthering Heights") to the even moodier interiors of the immense Manderley estate, where the shenanigans occur. Barnes' camera becomes a character in its own right, creating tone and tension even when the stars stumble.
And that underscores the main problem with "Rebecca." Olivier and Fontaine, both remarkable actors, seem a little lost, at least when it comes to defining their relationship. Olivier is impeccable and distant, even abstract as the aristocratic Maxim. Fontaine, playing his young bride as something of a ninny, is more amusing, but she doesn't do much either to explain the how and why of their strange love.
The movie's strengths can be found elsewhere, mostly in the way Hitchcock drapes a haunting and vaguely perverse aura over the whole affair. The questions surrounding the death of Maxim's first wife, Rebecca, and how his new wife figures in provide the basic intrigue, but it's Hitchcock's skill in building layer upon layer of atmosphere that lifts the film above the ordinary.
Of course, this is Hitchcock during a more restrained time in his career; he doesn't give in to the more dramatic and frightening impulses he revealed in later pictures such as "Psycho." Instead, "Rebecca" is very British, meaning stylish and lovely, but rather studio-bound. There are melodramatic passages (listen to the organ music, which punctuates scenes like the soundtrack in a silent move) and, worse, plodding ones.
But when Hitchcock gets it right, he brings foreboding to the exploits at Manderley. Fortunately, he has a few expert character actors to count on, including Judith Anderson as Mrs. Danvers, a weird, witchy housekeeper still loyal to the dead lady of the house. And then there's George Sanders as Rebecca's lover, trying to make a few bucks off her passing. His speech, manners and clothes are perfect, but he's as slimy as the stuff floating in the nearby bog.
* What: Alfred Hitchcock's "Rebecca."
* When: Friday, Nov. 4, at 7 and 9 p.m.
* Where: The UC Irvine Student Emerald Bay Room.
* Whereabouts: Take the San Diego (405) Freeway to Jamboree Road and head south to Campus Drive and take a left. Turn right on Bridge Road and take it into the campus.
* Wherewithal: $2 to $4.
* Where to call: (714) 856-5588.
MORE SPECIAL SCREENINGS
Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media
(NR) A 1993 documentary directed by Peter Wintonick that looks into the life of the controversial intellectual and his observations about politics, big business and the media screens today, Nov. 3, at 6 p.m. in Titan Theater at Cal State Fullerton, 800 N. State College Blvd., Fullerton. (714) 773-3371. FREE
Strangers on a Train
(NR) Alfred Hitchcock's 1951 film about murder, destiny and two men on a train screens Friday, Nov. 4, at 6:30 p.m. in the Newport Harbor Art Museum, 850 San Clemente Drive, Newport Beach. Film historian Arthur Taussig will introduce the film and present an analysis of it after the screening. $3 to $5. (714) 759-1122.
North by Northwest
(NR) Cary Grant, James Mason and Eva Marie Saint star in this classic 1959 Alfred Hitchcock film of mistaken identity that screens Nov. 11 at 6:30 p.m. in the Newport Harbor Art Museum, 850 San Clemente Drive, Newport Beach. Taussig will introduce the film and present an analysis after the screening. $3 to $5. (714) 759-1122.