Just saw "Rebecca" and "Notorious" on (non-Criterion Premiere Collection) DVD's for the first time recently.
Despite knowing a few minor things about it beforehand (title character never appears, a body is found halfway through the movie, etc.) "Rebecca" completely won me over, held me in suspense 'till the very end and kick-started Hitchcock's impressive American period (not in that exact order). Like Disney's 2007 movie "Enchanted" this is a de-construction of a fairytale in which seeing how things go askew from expectations is half the fun. The improbable only-in-movies whirlwind romance (rich English nobleman marries attractive civilian... nothing like this happens in the real world
, right?) is the perfect excuse for Hitch's keen eye on human behavior, mistrust of authority and a person over his/her head in a new-to-them environment to make for suspenseful good times. The only way the behavior of Laurence Olivier's Maxim makes sense to me is that he's bi-polar (I can see how Orson Welles took an inspiration from Olivier's role here for the middle-aged portions of "Citizen Kane"). Joan Fontaine sells the vulnerability and wide-eyed wonderment of her character really well; loved it when Maxim points out the innocence is gone from wife #2's face after his confessions, and Fontaine's subtle facial gestures convey this personality change perfectly.
The last 45 minutes just blew me away, one mouth-dropping surprise/twist after another (Rebecca was a saint...no, turns out she was a bitch... wait, she was depressed... no, she...) and damn if Judith Anderson doesn't sell the obsessed/unraveling/crazy/loyal employee routine really well. The only way Mrs. Danvers could have been better-played is if Agnes Moorehead had done the part. George Sanders and Florence Bates are clearly having a ball (as are we watching them) playing Favell and Mrs. Van Hopper (again, not in that exact order :p). Whenever these two were on-screen "Rebecca" came even more alive than usual. Manderley is like a prototype Xanadu (giant chimney, towering rooms, etc.) with personality and quirks of its own. Even the obvious miniature SFX shots hold up well 71 years later in conveying that Rebecca, Maderley and some of the people in it were united in purpose and mind. This one will be fun to rewatch with the commentary track on despite Schickel doing the talking (swoon).
What can I say about "Notorious" that hasn't been said before? Incredible, just freaking incredible; easily one of the two or three best Hitchcock movies I've seen. I was totally taken aback to see Ingrid Bergman, the definition of class & beauty, not only doing the role of a 'loose woman' early in "Notorious" but also pulling it off convincingly. Then, topping that, I get Cary Grant playing a government stooge whose feelings for Alicia he keeps close to his chest as he both seeks to manipulate her but also steer her toward the 'right' decision, either for him (not take the assignment to spy on old flame Sebastian) or for country (go ahead and sleep with the enemy) as a mole inside a Brazilian nest of German war criminals. And then, as the cherry on top, Claude Rains delivers in Alexander Sebastian a multi-dimensional villain (complete with Leopoldine Konstantin as Hitch's typical mother-as-boss devil guiding her son) whose affection for the leading lady might be greater and more sincere than the movie's hero. This is one seriously f***ed-up love triangle where, whether they intend to or not (and often times they do), the men in love with Alicia hurt her and she hurts them back in an effort to get a rise out of Devlin ('you can add Sebastian to my list of playmates'
... SNAP!) or just to survive (when Alicia puts the key back in Sebastian's key chain I felt both hurt for him and anxious for her). Hitchcock's movies always have strong relationships driving a protagonist's quest or pushing the narrative forward, and in "Notorious" the elements that bring Grant, Bergman and Sebastian together aren't as intriguing or compelling as the fact their characters' love affairs are front and center throughout its running time. And this is a '46 Hitchcock thriller featuring an American drunkard whose German father was jailed for treason infiltrating on-the-run Nazi's in Rio De Janeiro!
"Notorious'" spy plot and the McGuffin (really, uranium sand? ) may be secondary to the drama and repressed romance between Devlin-Alicia-Sebastian, but just because the story is playing second-fiddle doesn't mean the plot mechanisms that screenwriter Ben Hecht and Hitch came up with (the long tracking shot from ceiling to key-on-fist close-up, Alicia's slow poisoning, the tension between Sebastian and his fellow German conspirators, the censor-thumbing lengthy kiss sequence, etc.) aren't well executed and perfect backdrop for his post-War World II fantasy with more than a connection with then-contemporary headlines. Watching the movie again with the Drew Casper commentary track (the man sounds possessed by his love and devotion to both Hitch and this particular masterpiece; his fawning is a little OTT but doesn't cross the line into ridicule) I enjoyed "Notorious" even more. It's both typical Hitchcock and unlike any other Hitchcock movie I've seen, an intimate love triangle surrounded by intrigue and danger out of a pulp novel that nevertheless comes across as classy and righteous. At first the ending stunned me with its suddenness, but thinking about it and then seeing it again it fits that I would leave "Notorious" feeling as sorry for Sebastian as I was happy for Devlin and Alicia.
Between "Rebecca" and "Notorious" (both classics/masterpieces) Hitch's partnership with Selznick was worth the disagreements/compromises/crap the director had to put up with early on in his American career. Haven't seen "Paradine Case" or "Spellbound" yet though, could Hitch have possibly gone 4-0 working with/for Selznick? I'll find out soon.