This paper examines the elements gothic suspense Alfred Hitchcock’s first American film Rebecca. Transcribed to the silver screen from Daphne du Maurier’s gothic novel, Rebecca is a truly Hitchcockian thriller with an expert combination of size, scale, nature, and architecture. The macabre natural sets and ornate Victorian architecture both establish the film as a gothic suspense. More than that, these elements also run through the subtext of the film, acting as potent symbols and manifestations of the late Rebecca. True to his reputation, Hitchcock’s first American production is filled with the brilliant stylistic choice of manipulating scale and space to evoke not only suspense (while it is the primary function of these scenes), but also love. The mansion of Manderley takes the stage in this film, and the remarkably versatile Hitchcock speaks through it—with the foggy, wooded grounds, the soaring gothic peaks, sweeping shots of the oppressively large manor, and claustrophobic confrontations between the unnamed protagonist, “I,” and the cold housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers. While the authentic acting and compelling writing certainly contribute to the film’s success, it is Hitchcock’s dark brush that masterfully colors Rebecca with drama and suspense.
The photographer Cindy Bernard explored how memory and cinema interact. By taking photos of modern locations where famous Hitchcock scenes were filmed, Bernard (especially in her Ask the Dust series) taps into the collective consciousness of her audience. To those who have seen these movies (North by Northwest and Vertigo in particular), the parts of the scenes missing create a ghost-town effect, and the viewer can take in how much has really changed. For those who have not seen these films or are unfamiliar with these scenes, these are simply places–recognizable or mundane. They are out of context, yet somehow evocative. In either case, the relationship between film and memory opens up questions as to how film can give a physical space an immortal and unique place in our culture.
Hitchock homages are everywhere. One of the weirdest homages (and probably the least-understood by the audience) are homages in kids’ entertainment. Here are two examples of homages to one of Hitchcock’s most famous scenes:
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Vertigo (1958) is often counted today as one of Hitchcock’s greatest films, if not one of the greatest films ever. However, I have to disagree with modern reviews, and instead side with Variety’s 1958 review. For all of the exciting parts that are included in the movie, they are overshadowed by the boring, dragging chunks in between.
“Through all of this runs Hitchcock’s directorial hand, cutting, angling and gimmicking with mastery. Unfortunately, even that mastery is not enough to overcome one major fault, for the plain fact is that the film’s first half is too slow and too long.”
I couldn’t agree more. I really did enjoy some parts of the movie, especially the final scene, but the film overall felt like it fell short of Hitchcock’s skill. While some people get tired of predictable plot structures, the loose ends and wandering plot were very distracting to me. By the second half of the film, I felt it should have been over. We realized Scottie had lost his mind (unnecessarily), and that he had to re-enact his lover’s crime to have closure. Everything else was basically filler. The thing about suspense is that it relies on the basic, classic plot structure. The audience needs to be able to predict what will happen in order to feel that sense of fear of the inevitable. Instead, we get a confusing second half.
If I had to point out why the film is such a success today, I would say that the cinematography was fantastic (as it always is with Hitchcock). But more than that, the film was over-rated, in my opinion. Since it was taken out of circulation, newer generations hadn’t had a chance to really review it. Going off of what earlier critics said, which were mostly negative, they would have dismissed the movie. Older critics also saw Hitchcock more as an entertainer than an artist, so it was up to newer critics to reverse that image, even if it meant giving undue credit. I would probably put 39 Steps or Shadow of a Doubt highest in Hitchcock’s works. But, being one of my least-favorite Hitchcock films is still a great achievement in my book.
Handcuffs are one of the most common motifs throughout Hitchcock’s films. Whether it’s a quick flash, or a major plot device, it goes without saying that Hitchcock loved handcuffs. And why not? Handcuffs are versatile and very open to interpretation. But what exactly is he trying to say? The sexual and authoritative overtones are obvious, but since handcuffs are something that spans several films, it’s worth delving into a little bit.
In Blackmail (1929), the use of handcuffs is much more subtle and rare than his other films. Hitchcock’s near obsession with authority is written all over this work, and there is little more that sums it up better than handcuffs. Handcuffs are the ultimate symbol of police authority especially, given that only the police are allowed to make arrests. This is clearly evident in the opening scene, where Frank and his partner make their on-screen arrest. Set in an obviously working class neighborhood, the presence of the law barges in, bringing their handcuffs with them. The following shots rush through the booking process, of which the handcuffs are the centerpiece. The shot below is in reference to the scene where the Frank and his fellow officers are fraternizing after work. Here we have a pretty intimate scene between men, yet the handcuffs make a big appearance. Where the police go, they go, no matter how relaxed the setting. It’s almost a sign of insecurity. There is a decidedly brave, almost Marxist theme going on here embodied in these two scenes. Just as an officer needs his to protect himself against violent criminals, Hitchcock wants us to know that cuffs are the only things standing in between civilization and chaos (with his tongue in his cheek, of course).
In The 39 Steps (1935), however, we see handcuffs in an entirely different light. Here Hitchcock takes an even bigger leap into social criticism. Whereas in Blackmail the cuffs are symbols of power and privilege, Hitchcock takes the image and turns it on its head. When Hannay and Pamela start as adversaries stuck together, their blossoming love nullifies the power of the cuffs. The cuffs go from tools of imprisonment to a set of wedding bands. This isn’t just Hitchcock being clever, but openly subversive. When the faceless Law tried to create a barrier between the characters, freedom and love prevails.