Daphne Du Maurier and Alfred Hitchcock

Jamaica Inn, Rebecca, and The Birds.  Daphne Du Maurier’s talent combined the dark passions of love and assigned them to characters of dubious morality. Jealousy, unrequited love, and sexual frustrations are the seeds that haunt her characters. Young pretty females with pluck are trapped in the confines of older men who make them birds in cages. The psychological demise of her villains and the extent to which humans struggle with morality thrilled Alfred Hitchcock. Debauched as a romance writer by her critics and not taken seriously, Alfred Hitchcock saw something more in Daphne’s writing; however, the varied success of their collaborations was frayed with complications.

Image result for images of jamaica inn

First, the books are better than the movies. Daphne Du Maurier apparently lived in Jamaica Inn for three years as she wrote her novel. Located in southwestern Cornwall, the Bodwin Moor, every sense was aroused from her storytelling. Her expertise for putting the reader in the dank bogs and treeless fells and moors with grasses, mist, and wind combined with the rocky coastline and 1820 masted ships crashing into the rocks and drownings and murder–and then add in the spooky hauntings of ancient Druids and the imagination conjures up Vikings who swept in and took charge, maybe stealing the silver at Tintagel? Honestly, where else would one need look to find the ideal setting for suspense? In short, Daphne Du Maurier mastered the art of description and created a stellar gothic tale. What is the story about?

Her dying mother requests twenty-year-old Mary Yellan travel to Jamaica Inn, the home of her Aunt Patience. When she gets there she is dismayed to find that Patience is a nothing more than a doormat, a mumbling, frightened woman who cowers from her truculent husband, a giant with a massive frame and booming voice, Joss Meryln.

The inn is muddy and dark and holds secrets. Lots of them. Mary wants to escape with her aunt, but entanglements and midnight meetings envelop her in mystery. She begrudgingly falls in love with uncle’s dashing little brother, Jem Meryln. It’s a fun read with a melodramatic ending. 4/5.  

British actor Charles Laughton purchased the film rights and appointed Alfred Hitchcock as director. Hitchcock’s creative control was thwarted as Laughton took liberties with the story and created scenes to surround his character. Even beautiful Maureen O’Hara couldn’t save the melodramatic mess that made Daphne Du Maurier cringe when she saw it and Hitchcock groan with disappointment. 2.5/5. I just watched the 2014 version on BBC of Jamaica Inn starred Jessica Brown Findley as Mary Yellan and Matthew McNulty as Jem. Overall, it was disappointing. Casting was great for Mary and Jem. But the bullying Uncle Joss who was towering and blustery in the book was not so in the film. Lean, beady-eyed Sean Harris played the role and his personality didn’t carry that necessary Alpha-dog trait that would keep Mary or his weak wife in fear. The script was the main problem. I’m all for admiring the separateness of the visual text and the reading text but when you start tinkering with Mary’s motivation (Uncle Joss’s wife played by Joanne Whalley did not need protection or saving) and start inserting characters (the vicar’s sister played by Shirley Henderson with the witchy voice) you take away from the necessary characterization of others (the vicar couldn’t have been duller) and if the sway away from the classic is too far, you’ll have a mutated miscarriage on your hands. The only thing done right by the BBC, 3-part series was to film most of it in Cornwall. The beauty of the moors, the gray coastline, along with the dreariness of Jamaica Inn was done well. 3/5. 

Rebecca (1941) was another frustrating project for Alfred Hitchcock. Producer David O. Selznick fought with Hitch about script changes and alterations to the ending to abide by Hollywood code laws but ruined the moral demise of the villain that Hitchcock wanted to amplify.  Book: 5/5. Movie: 4/5. Despite the 2 Oscar wins for Best Picture and Cinematography, Hitchcock’s second adaptation with a Du Maurier’s story left a bad taste in his mouth. You can read more about their seven-year relationship, Selznick the egomaniac vs. Hitchcock the persnickety in this 1999 Variety article found here:

Hitchcock, Selznick and the End of Hollywood

The Birds (1963) Selznick was distracted in New York and left Hitchcock alone with arguably his best film. What’s so good about it? The inclusion of a nail-biting soundtrack? The evilness of the birds and the sing-song innocence of children at the schoolyard? The attack of the city, from the birds perspective, from areal shots down to the intimate attack of Melanie in the phone booth? The shocking discovery at the neighbor’s farm? The fantastic cast? Or trying to figure out the theme of jealousy exemplified by the strange love dynamic between Mitch Brenner’s family?

Image result for images of the birds movie tippi and rod

One aspect of The Birds that intrigues me is Hitchcock’s obsession with beauty and what constitutes femininity and masculinity. As Melanie Daniels, Tippi Hedren is the cool, quintessential perfection of beauty. The bird plays a bird. Why, even the name “Melanie” is melodious, bird-like. Her counterpart is Rod Taylor who plays the character Mitch Brenner. Physically perfect as the broad-shouldered, square-chinned, capable, strong idea of masculinity, Mitch (the name sounds like a rock) is surrounded by females who peck at him, crowd around him fluttering, and expect much from him. All the females in the story want intimacy with Mitch. Except for the one woman who is a man in disguise, Mrs. Bundy, the ornithologist. Sounding like the manly professor, sitting in men’s clothes, posing in manly positions at the diner, she is the absence of feminity. She studies the birds but she is not one of them. 5.5 

Daphne Du Maurier’s short story was unlike the film. Her short story was about a farmer named Nat Hocken who protected his family from the flock of birds that attacked and invaded the family’s cottage. Alfred Hitchcock took her story and ran away with it to create a multi-layered psychological thriller that’s unlike any other.

What’s your favorite scene, book or film, of Jamaica Inn, Rebecca, and The Birds? 


74 thoughts on “Daphne Du Maurier and Alfred Hitchcock

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        1. Well, I like using subtitles to catch the dialect and the names which are foreign to my American ears. I turn up the sound, too, so I didn’t have any issues with the sound. But it does seem to be a universal complaint from those who watched it. Ach, well.
          I prefer to remember the book. That vicar, though. Why he needed to jump off the rock like a self-sacrifice, I don’t know.

  1. “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”
    Few opening lines have ever drawn me into a book in the way this did.
    I loved the book, and also love the film. Perfect casting, sets, and locations, and a standout performance by Judith Anderson, as Mrs Danvers. I give both book and film 5/5, any day of the week.

    I am less enamoured with Jamaica Inn. I agree that the film was not a patch on the book, though I am not a huge fan of that either. And the recent BBC TV effort was appalling. Never before have so many viewers complained about poor lighting, an inaudible soundtrack, or bad performances, in a ‘classic adaptation’ that the BBC generally do so well.

    I am going to have to disagree about The Birds, which as I think you already know, I consider to be overrated, and poorly acted. I never cared for Rod Taylor’s wooden acting anyway, and Hitchcock’s lust for making Hedren into a desirable yet fragile female is almost embarrassing to behold. I have never actually read the book, so can’t comment on that.

    Nice idea, Cindy, and executed in your usual accomplished style.
    Best wishes as always, Pete. x

    1. Hi Pete! Rebecca’s Mrs. Danvers is a favorite of mine. I loved her performance. I read the novel as a teenager and loved it. I should read it again with older, wiser eyes. Hitchcock’s perversion for Tippi is legendary. It gives him that sickening step-father incestuous vibe — I agree with you on that. The more times I watch “The Birds” the more I enjoy it. Thanks, Pete, for commenting.

  2. “The Birds” is my favorite Hitchcock film (as opposed to being his best) and, I believe, his most revealing. (The recent resurgence in regards to the unfathomable pedestal dwelling of “Vertigo” is entirely thanks to Donald Spoto and the brilliance of Herrmann’s scoring, without which the film might be revealed as the patchy, illogical mess it is.) Two scenes in “The Birds” stand out, both importantly confessional as to Hitchcock’s entire modus operandi of his oeuvre: the diner scene in which Melanie (in actuality, the audience) is accused of complicity in bringing the birds to Bodega Bay, and the final shot: a model of economic suspense while delivering the final (rather jocularly sadistic considering the pent-up anticipation of that same blood hungry audience) narrative twist that will deny the audience the expected cathartic avain apocalypse; certainly the reason for the film’s rather hasty and ill-considered ranking as a lesser achievement.

    1. Chandler, my favorite Hitchcock films are Notorious and N by NW — “The Birds” would be 4th or 5th. Anyway, the diner scene I agree was pivotal on a lot of levels. That somehow Melanie was somehow responsible for the attack on Bodega Bay linked with the dourful expressions of the other females with Melanie’s arrival and her confidence that she’d nail Mitch one way or another (The only oddity for me was Melanie’s rowing by herself over to the house. She’s just too dressed up and pretty to row herself. Suzanne Pleshette’s Annie Hayworth, yes.) Anyway, Melanie is a fascinating character.
      The ending does seem anti-climatic. The birds just fly away. Like a tornado destroying a town. You wake up and the wreckage is left while the sun shines like nothing happened. Giving amphomorphic tendencies to birds gives them a God-like, symbolic stature. I wonder what Hitchcock was thinking about when he gave them a sinister side?

      1. the original final shot was to have been the birds massing on the golden gate bridge, but hitchcock settled on the more ambigous ending. but i think it is safe to assume that bodega bay wasnt the birds sole target, and that the war between birds and humans has just begun.

        1. Yes, I agree. There seemed to be two stories going on. One, the attack of the birds and the “meaning” behind their attacks, and two, the family dynamic of the Brenner family.

          1. Great questions. I can only speculate. The father maybe died in Korea? Which left Mitch becoming the pseudo dad and husband? If you went really perverse, Mitch and the mom had the little sister.
            But that seems too ultra-twisted for this story. We assume that the little girl is the biological daughter of the mom. Is it ever mentioned that she’s the little sister to Mitch? Seems more likely Mitch had an affair and the little sister is the result. I don’t know. I’m just rambling. All I know is that Jessica Tandy as the mom is too old to have had the girl. Unless it’s a big miscast, I think it’s Mitch’s girl. So who’s the mom?

          2. there is nothing to suggest the girl os anything but mitchs little sister, and there is no mention of the father. the answers will remailn a mystery, just as is the ethnicity of polonius, laertes, and ophelia, in hamlet. greeks in denmark? back to the birds, it is the roles being played by the characters that is important, not the genetic relationships, but if forced to pin it down, i would guess that annie is the mother of the little girl and mitch is the father. jessica tandy was probably a whore and mitchs father one of her customers, mitch is too old for his father to have died in korea, or WW2 for that matter. rod taylor was 32 when thebirds was filmed,, and his character doesnt look any younger than that, so he would have been born circa 1930, had his father been present at leat until inducted into ww2, there would have been some memory of him..but in the film there is none, so i suspect he was a transient.

          3. I don’t see Jessica as a whore. She was raped and Mitch was the result. That’s why Lydia was skittish and fragile. Yes, to Annie! There’s an aloofness about her. I can see her letting MItch raise the girl. Also, it was important that the house was off at the edge of society. That separateness allows for the strange happenings to occur rather than if their home was in town and they had neighbors.

          4. consider marnie’s mother. do yu see a relationship between the two films? mitch didnt raide the girl, his mother did. mitch had to play the brother. both melane and jessica are sexless baby thieves. mitch is the typical homosexual/ don juan whch iis why he rejects annies traditional womanliness. and is ttracted to the barren melanie and ruled by his witch mother.

          5. Don Juan/homosexual, yes. I never thought that Mitch was attracted to Melanie. It felt forced like another bird wanting to own him. Beauty is a curse, in this case, for the man. Everyone wants a piece of him.
            I don’t see Melanie as a baby thief. She was completely uncomfortable around the sister and Lydia. If she could get Mitch away from Bodega Bay and never return, she’d do it.
            I agree she’s a barren woman. She steals men, not babies.
            I think Hitchcock liked playing with the themes of the manipulative, perverted, non-nurturing mother. Marnie, The Birds, Psycho, Notorious. Didn’t he personally have one of those as a mother? Anyway, seeing a mother not act like the mother we expect was a trick to unsettle the audience. Why must the man always be the villain? We’ve all known horrible women in our lives. The Black Widow.

          6. dont forget north by northwest, which is the first of the mother series that is resolved in marnie. you make a good point with the isolationist insight, and il like to take it a step further to suggest the relationship of the bids to shakespeares the tempest, with a gender reversal of the mother as prospero and the son as miranda. also, the freudian verson of tempest. forbidden planet, may contain the explanation of what the birds represent…monsters from the id. this time from mother, not fathr anxiety, and it isnly calmed when she accepts melanie as the successor queen to her matriarcchy, which is why i see melanie and lydia as having essentially the same personality. i dont see melanie at all as a stealer of men. all we know of her history is narcissistic.

          7. monsters from the id
            I agree with that. I do think the birds are symbolic. I think Lydia is more complicated than is given notice. Awesome connections, Bill.
            What fun!
            Tomorrow is the 13th. Time for a discussion on Brian DePalma. Hope there was one or two of his films you approve of…

  3. Great post. I will be starting a series of posts soon that use Hitchcock as a starting point, so let me say that these films show the broad variety of stories he told…

  4. I heard that Hedren was actually afraid of birds, Hitchcock told her he was going to use mechanical birds, so nothing to worry about. When he saw how pitifully phony in looked on film, he switched to real birds without informing his leading actress and she never forgave him.

  5. My two favorite scenes in the Birds are the first and the near last. the first because of its sheer perversity in genre subversion. The script reads like a Hawksian comedy, but without the comedic talents of a Grant-Hepburn team, the comedy is dead, giving the scene a weirdness that sets the tone for the rest of the movie. Neither Hedren nor Taylor can act, and both are physically repulsive. Creepy mannikins oozing with masterbatory ego. Perfect for the roles they inhabit. The last scenes, beginning with the bird attack through the fireplace, are perhas the finest Hitchcock has ever directed. I read the film as a reconstruction of a family unit that has been traumatically compromised by perverted shifts in role assignment. In these scenes in the living room, Hitchocks mise en scene masterfuly explores the shifting relationships and loyalties between the four central characters, all of which is beautiffuly resolved when they take their final places in the car.

      1. The Birds. 2. North by Northwest. 3. Shadow of a Doubt. I wouldnt want to be wite rf thise guys, althuhg since I hit fifty, I folllowed a rule set by Cary Grant. I wont kiss a girl under 30 unless she kisses me first. For hitchcock, I prefer Grant. For Capra, I prefer Stewart. Of the classic movie stars, I would choo
        se to be Gary Cooper.

          1. Ha! Eva Marie Saint…far more interesting and sexy. Grace is too perfect, too intimidating. Eva! Well, you could spend the evening in a bar drinking having intellectual conversations while passing smoldering glances. And she would deliver. However, no one looked better in a dress than Grace. Still. I prefer the conversations. Thanks for asking!

          2. Torn Curtain has some excellent sequences, but doesnt quite cut it, Fenzy was a real bore. I was rapt throughout the wrong man. what dragged for you nly mde the suspense and injustice more intense for me.

        1. Shadow of a Doubt is one I have not seen. I like Joseph Cotton in all the films I’ve seen him in. I don’t know how this one escaped me. I’ll have to rent it. What should I look out for that met with your approval?

          1. the ones i think are worth seeing….39 steps, the lady vanishes, stage fright. the wrong man, strangers on a train, marnie, topaz, the man who knew too much 1956 , rope, lifeboat, saboteur, suspicion, psycho, the birds, noeth by northwest, shadow of a doubt

          2. Oh shit! I forgot 39 Steps. I really liked Life Boat. The Wrong Man with Henry Fonda dragged for me, but I loved the fractured face and the storyline. Marnie is awesome. Never saw Stage Fright, either.
            And your least favorites?

          3. I cant stand Spellbound, Rebecca, Notorious, Jamaica Inn, Under Capricorn, Foreign Correspondent, Famoly Plot,, or The Trouble with Harry. Also, I dont care for his silent movies.

  6. Hi Cindy! I love Hitchcock, and l love your article. Despite whatever flaws his films may have, Hitchcock always has some surprises up his sleeve. Both “Rebecca” and “The Birds” are memorable. “Jamaica Inn”, less so! Now, to look for a copy of “Rebecca”…

  7. Sometimes your observations about movie plots are more interesting than the actual movie. :). I saw the Birds a very long time ago and the horrifying scenes have come back to haunt me over the years. Too realistic for me! I guess there’s talent behind instilling that fear. Not sure if I saw the first one long ago. I remember watching something similar on one of my boring flights long ago too when I was able to travel and only a couple of scenes from that one remain with me.

    1. Hi, Ian! A fine compliment to me today, for sure. 🙂 I am haunted by scary scenes which is why I don’t watch horror movies anymore. I just don’t like to be scared of my own shadow. The Birds is creepy but doesn’t scare me.

    1. Hi Paul. I’ve done my job, then. I hadn’t read Du Maurier since high school. I was enamored with her writing when I picked up ‘Jamaica Inn’ a couple weeks ago. It was a lot of fun exploring the pair’s relationship. I get a lot out of watching films more than fifteen years old with my older eyes. I appreciate them more than when they were first released.

  8. What a great post! It’s such a fun read! Hmm … I’ve never read one of Du Maurier’s books but now I’m intrigued (I did read the short story that inspired The Birds). Have you seen My Cousin Rachel (1951)? I thought that was a very good movie. There are also film adaptions of Frenchman’s Creek (starring Joan Fontaine), Hungry Hill (starring Margaret Lockwood), The Scapegoat (starring Alec Guinness and Bette Davis) and Don’t Look Now (starring Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie). P.S. A tiny correction: Selznick & Hitch parted company in 1947, many years before The Birds went into production.

  9. Great post 🙂 Whenever I watch a film adaptation of a book or whatever, I remind myself that it is not “THE BOOK.” Instead, I remind myself that it is the director’s interpretation of the material. Having said that, I will say that The Birds is the greatest of his Daphne du Maurier adaptations. For one thing, Hitchcock is also producer so he does not have to worry about compromising and as a film adaptation, the mystery surrounding it’s plot spellbinds the viewer not only psychologically, but physically as well. Then again, this is a horror film full of suspense so I may be cheating there a bit. I found your interpretation of Mitch and Melanie fascinating. I heard someone else say that the vicious bird attacks may be the work of Mitch’s overprotective mother, who eventually ends up becoming comfortable with Melanie’s presence when the bird attacks die down. My interpretation comes from both your theory and the person who made that other theory. I think the main reason The Birds tops all of my other favorite Hitchcock films is because it invites the most interpretations whether they are correct or not. Anyway, keep up the great work as always and keep those comments coming 🙂

    1. Hi John, thanks for contributing with your 2 cents. Lydia Brenner is another intriguing character because you can’t figure out what her real motives and real role is in the film. Families have strange stories behind them. I have one dear member in my family who is my little sister, my niece, and my cousin. It would take an hour to explain how that’s possible. Who knows about the Brenner family. An unsolved mystery!

  10. i did like carlitos way. also liked carrie and dressed to kill. but i dont have anything worthwhile to say about them. looking forward to reading what others have to say though.

  11. Laughton and Hitchcock .. I can imagine that wouldn’t work too well. Selznick too. The history of Producers interfering with Directors is not a happy one. Peckinpah comes to mind, But there a plenty of examples. It’s like standing behind a painter and telling how to do the painting. I wonder how many movies have been ruined by such interference? Sometimes the Directors attempt to fix things (Directors Cut) but that’s pretty hard.

  12. I agree that Rebecca could have better (at least according to Hitchcock) had he had a free rein in it. Especially, the film’s ending is illogical in comparison to the book because of the rule that the film should never have shown a murderer walking away free. I also never actually imagined anyone even close to Anderson as Mrs Danvers when reading the book. I imagined someone older and less obviously menacing in that role than Anderson.

    It is also interesting the way you comment on the depiction of femininity and masculinity in The Birds. It definitely contributed to the film having a powerful effect that it did. I also don’t quite agree with the comment above that it is wrong to lower the ranking for this film because of the ending. I think the ending is the film’s weakest part. I mean far from being open or thought-provoking, it is the result of a simple fact that Hitchcock played with a number of endings and did not shoot the one with birds sitting on the Golden Gate Bridge. That would have been a more “complete” conclusion.

    1. The ending: I still think there’s a dual story going on, and Hitch chose to end the family dynamic. I am trying to imagine the ending with the birds sitting on the Golden Gate Bridge. For me, it loses that strange suggestion that somehow Lydia Brenner and Melanie evoked the attack in the first place.
      With regards to Rebecca, Mrs. Danvers is the film is the only character that has stayed with me over the years. I agree I wonder what Hitchcock would have done if he had had free rein in it.
      As always, I appreciate your thoughts and your input.

    2. the bridge shot might have offered a more complete resolution, but it would have been a corny one, like the epilog tacked onto the first invasion of the body snatchers, the ambiguious ending, in my opinion, is part of what lifts the birds to a higher aesthetic level than other, more conventional thrillers.

      1. If by an aesthetic value you mean leaving the film without the end, then I won’t argue. The film is watched as though they cut out the ending, it does feel incomplete, unlike other especially thought-provoking and ambiguous film endings. In the past they did films in two halves with an intermission. The ending of “The Birds” feels exactly like such perfect moment before the intermission, after which the second part will begin.

        1. i disagree. if you carefullu examine the mise en scene from the time thr birds come down the chimney into the house to the final shots in the car, and note the changing relationshios betwee the three characters based on hiw they move around the room and change seating partners, you may find in the ending a very satisfying resolution to the relationship ambiguities that are the make up the principle themes of the film. if you see the film sipy as an ordinary animal horror film, such as frogs for example, the end would indeed be very unsatisfying.

  13. its not that the poeple have provoked the bird, but that the bird attacks have provoked the people out of their complacent decline into degeneracy and into that new, bird-strewn, dawn.

      1. The Birds, Psycho, and Marnie. Few people seem to know Marnie. I thought it was one of his best. And then North by Northwest. What is your favorite?

  14. Great reviews. I enjoyed reading this post immensely.

    This will likely be a surprising comment, but I much prefer the original short story of “The Birds” to the radically different Hitchcock film. This actually has nothing to do with his decision to change the story. I’m perfectly okay with a filmmaker being inspired by some basic idea and telling a different story from it. I don’t even consider it an adaptation. It’s more of an “inspired by” sort of situation. The part of the film that works for me is the final section where the remaining characters are trapped in the farm house. This section is brilliant. The sound design is especially effective. I’ve always felt other overlooked Hitchcock films to be superior to this one in many ways. l like it but don’t love it. There are so many lesser known titles that I feel deserve this popularity. I understand that this is a minority opinion.

    I like the Du Maurier novels quite a bit. I keep trying to get people to read them. That said, none of my favorite Hitchcock’s sprang from her work. That’s odd. I’ve never been able to account for it. I’ve always loved “Rebecca,” but I don’t rank it high on my list of favorites. Perhaps this is because he made so many great films.

    My 5 favorites are Vertigo, Psycho, Rear Window, Notorious, and North by Northwest. All of these tie for my #1 spot for various reasons. Others follow not far behind. I’d have to think about it.

    I am interested in knowing your thoughts on the two film adaptations of “My Cousin Rachel.” Have you seen those yet?

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