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.

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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?

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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? 

 

Are you not entertained? A Book and a Movie

Try this pair for satisfying entertainment.  

BOOK 

Helene Wecker‘s debut novel is unique. Her protagonists are mythological creatures existing in New York City at the turn of the twentieth century. She weaves the cultural history of Jews (the Golem) and the Arabian Bedouin (the Jinni) and balances the history of the mythology with the vibrancy of the Jewish neighborhood in Lower Manhattan. Part immigrant story and part love story, the Jinni is made from fire and the Golem from earth. They keep their special powers hidden because they want to fit in the human world. That Wecker manages to extend disbelief and you come to care for the Golem and Jinni in their chaotic urban world is a testament to her talent. Gracefully written, it is a fun read, a real page-turner and highly recommended. 4.5/5 

FILM

Wes Anderson‘s stop-animated film is a visual treat with his trademark symmetrical staging and vibrant color schemes. Even the garbage dump island is strangely pretty with perfectly positioned garbage and rats dancing across the stage in unison. Dog and human eyes gloss over and drip throughout the film which became an unexpected detail that created empathy. Close-ups and deadpan expressions are delightful, and the voiceovers by an impressive cast are enjoyable to listen to. Wes Anderson’s production is so mesmerizing, it is easy not to notice that the plot grows tame and the ending all too prettily wrapped up with a bow with an unlikely white savior — a geeky girl from Ohio. Lots of Asian stereotypes in this film. For me, Anderson’s a magician whose sleight of hand seduces. 4/5.

Are You Not Entertained? Books and Films

I’ve watched a lot of films and read a lot of books this past month, and many were okay, but I’d rather cut to the chase and share the best book, film, and television I highly recommend.

BOOKS 

The Shadow of the Wind is a 2001 novel by Spanish writer Carlos Ruiz Zafón and a worldwide bestseller. The story begins with 10-year-old Daniel in 1945 in Barcelona. Deep in a library called the “cemetery of lost books”, forgotten, out of print books are shelved and Daniel chooses from a choice of thousands The Shadow of the Wind by Julian Carax. The book contains gothic elements with chilly descriptions of the temporal as well as the temperamental weather. Outlandish and believable characters like sidekick Fermín Romero de Torres whose clownish physical features melt with wise advice and passionate feelings for women contrast the rain clouds that seem to drip blood over haunted mansions. As the novel progresses, Daniel ages and he experiences love and becomes obsessed with the life of Julian Carax. In fact, Carax’s story parallels David’s so that the novel is structurally interesting. Above all, the novel is a mystery. It is beautifully written; most of the characters get their own flashback narrative where obsession becomes a major theme of the novel. It’s a true page-turner, a rare luscious novel that’s florid in style and exciting to read. 4.5/5. 

FILMS 

I watched several, but they were mediocre at best, so I don’t have any to recommend.

TELEVISION

 

Alias Grace was Margaret Atwood‘s 1996 fictionalized account of the notorious Grace Marks (Sarah Gadon), a servant who was convicted along with stable hand James McDermott (Kerr Logan) of the 1843 murders of employer Thomas Kinnear (Paul Gross) and his housekeeper Nancy Montgomery (Anna Paquin). Grace leaves the prison every day to talk privately with psychiatrist Dr. Simon Jordan (Edward Holcroft) who falls in love with her. Grace retraces the steps of her life for him while he furiously takes down notes. His job is to determine whether she is insane or deserves to be set free after being in the penitentiary for fifteen years. The committee determined to set her free has paid Dr. Jordan to give a favorable report. This six-part series on Netflix is not to be missed.

Other than Paquin, the cast is refreshingly unrecognizable. Sarad Gadon is breathtaking as Grace and the acting by the ensemble is commendable. Margaret Atwood sits as executive producer while Mary Harron is the director. She did a marvelous job framing the landscape and switching camera angles from far to the minute stitching of the quilts. Favorite detail? The explanation of the quilts and what they represent. Here’s a great article introducing the females behind the series in NOW TORONTO ARTICLE FOUND HERE.

As Grace tells her story, the flashbacks are abundant, and I wondered if this overused device would kill the project for me. But by the conclusion of the series, I understood the purpose was to show the various perspectives from the trial, so that the audience wonders, “Is Grace innocent or guilty?” Grace is so charming and practical, you want her to be innocent. But flashback perspectives are so contrary, one wonders what really did happen?

I won’t ruin the climax of the final installment of the series, but my skin crawled. The dual contradictions and confusions finally made all the sense as the story came to a satisfying ending. Beautifully filmed, expertly acted, an exquisite script including the details of the life of females in the 1800s showcasing their conflicts and impossible oppression without preaching made Alias Grace the best television I’ve seen in years. 4.8/5. 

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