The Master (2012)

The Master PosterIT IS EERIE and discomfiting to have first viewed ‘The Master’ on the eve of Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s death. To have watched him fully embody the film’s title and seen his messianic command take shape and grow amongst his flock, even as it fractured at the foundations. To have been captivated, unblinking, by his rapport with Joaquin Phoenix—one ruddy, round, and relentless, the other wretched and wracked—in a connection ineffable and inexplicable to everyone but themselves. And above all to have thought, ‘This is a great talent. A gifted, grounded, and uniquely human performer. One who has grown alongside a director of equal merit, Paul Thomas Anderson, who recognizes and celebrates his gifts. What a rare prize it will be to watch them explore their potential together in the coming decades.’

And now all too rare. There is a temptation to lionize a body of work once its creator is gone, not least when he left his career at its zenith. But ‘The Master’ was a compelling and memorable mystery even before news of Hoffman’s death broke, and it remains so in the aftermath, due in part to Hoffman’s presence but not wholly. Fraught subtexts and unresolved threads are unavoidable in any film that (allegedly) depicts the origins of Scientology and its founder, L. Ron Hubbard. And Anderson explores them like no one else.

The Master Phoenix Quell ShipAnderson’s earlier films were expansive ensemble works, starting with ‘Hard Eight’ ‘Boogie Nights’, and culminating in the epic ‘Magnolia’. More recently he has narrowed and intensified his focus, first in the clunky but compelling ‘Punch Drunk Love’ (2003) before stunning audiences with ‘There Will Be Blood’ (2007). The leading actors in those films could not have come from more different traditions. The first, Adam Sandler: a crass, lumpy, deliberately amateurish everyman with a dismissible mien but hidden wounds. The second, Daniel Day Lewis: noble bearing, hard-cut profile, vast presence, smoldering emotions, and Shakespearean gravitas.

Five years later (the longest quiet stretch of Anderson’s career), Hoffman stepped forward to bridge the gap as the eponymous Master, called Lancaster Dodd. His creased face carries all the scorn and poise and confidence of a prophet, but still there is a boyish simplicity to his smile and common cast to his features that cuts through all cinematic artifice. How could he possibly be pretending? Acting at all? How could we not believe him? And collared by his side is Freddie Quell (Phoenix), an irrepressible alcoholic and hedonic WWII vet with PTSD who serves as the audience’s inlet to the Master’s private crusade. Virgil leading a pitiful Dante. In this role Phoenix is everything Hoffman is not—hunched while the other walks erect, ambivalent while the other is resolute, aimless while the other speeds upon a motorcycle towards a distant point across desert flats, laughing and helmetless. Quell is a piece of prey rolling over on the altar of its predator.

Master Phoenix Quell Portrait PhotographerBoth actors’ performances are transformative, so perfectly dissimilar as to create a seamless whole. It is not explained to us how they meet nor do they seem to know themselves (for a time). It is a relationship that simply exists because it must, and it does so more deeply than any other on screen. Thomas’s direction exploits the dynamic through his characteristically long takes, probing close-ups (echoing Quell’s job as a portraitist in the years after the war), and with such a shallow depth of field that two characters hunched over a table become floating heads of perfect focus amidst a wide sky of muddled stars.

Master Hoffman PartyAnderson also changed cinematographers for the first time among his feature films, using Mihai Mălaimare, Jr. and shooting entirely on 65 mm. The resulting picture is startlingly precise, trenchant, and deeply beautiful, capturing both the pristine definition of nearly neon-blue Pacific waves as well as the warm, granulated semi-sepia cast of Quell’s department store family portraits.

This meticulous framing and imagery is equaled by lethally honed dialogue that the actors must have relished. Says Master upon meeting Quell: “I am a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist and a theoretical philosopher. But above all, I am a man, a hopelessly inquisitive man, just like you.” It’s stilted in a way, running up almost uncomfortably into stylized intimacy. But those long takes and the camera’s quiet comfort inject an irrepressible rawness and realism that is breathtaking in any context: a steadicam panning through a department store as two well-dressed men fight like wounded birds, or rattling through a dark and claustrophobic clapboard hallway before bursting into a fallow field and sprinting out towards dusk.

Master Phoenix Quell FieldsThese intense passages focus predominantly on Quell, first in his lonely misery and then on the consequences of his thralldom to Master. This leaves the film’s other characters spinning slowly in small eddies of their own, peripheral to the central whirlpool that leads down into indefinite depths. Being so focused and yet so technically unresolved is one of ‘The Master’s challenges. Perhaps this a problem for some, but at least it is a deliberate one. Like Quell pacing doggedly from wall to window, ‘The Master’ is vividly committed to its course, even if that course never seems to land anywhere else than where it started—on a painfully bright beach and Quell alone with his woman made of sand.

This emptiness may leave some troubled, confused, or merely disinterested. And the film does indeed lack for a universal truth or central dogma to grasp like that so fervently espoused by its Master. But Anderson’s plots are rarely linear and clear in their intent. To experience them is enough. No prescribed lesson need be learned to feel as though something significant has occurred. Anderson, like his Master, shows us an open hand, clenches it so tightly as to make us believe he is holding onto everything, and then opens it again, revealing nothing. And we are kept taut, riveted by his commitment and inspired by his vividness, yet still afforded the slack to seize hold of our own passions, our own struggles, and then release them. Alas, as with Hoffman, some can never let go.

Master Hoffman England Smile


True Romance (1993)

True Romance PosterIT COMES AS little surprise that Tony Scott’s ‘True Romance’ was originally part of a longer screenplay by Quentin Tarantino that also included ‘Natural Born Killers’. ‘True Romance’ predates Oliver Stone’s ‘Natural…’ as well as Tarantino’s own ‘Pulp Fiction’ by a year and in many ways is a template for both: run and gun vigilantism, sociopaths around every bend, retro chic meets modern gratuity, a star-studded ensemble, and even the dialogue. To a degree, that is—‘Pulp’s “Does he look like a bitch?” being much snappier than this film’s “Do I look like a beautiful blonde with big tits and an ass that tastes like French vanilla ice cream?” But where those later (and more celebrated, if not always greater) episodes hearken to an Elmore Leonard kind of debauched criminal underbelly, ‘True Romance’ attempts to position itself in more of the ‘Bonnie & Clyde’ mold, wherein two young loves have nothing to lose and by breaking the law somehow win our affection.

True Romance Slater Arquette DrivingA fine idea, but it doesn’t quite work. Despite being founded on a wholly unironic ‘true romance’, the film spends very little time establishing this connection between Clarence (Christian Slater) and Alabama (Patricia Arquette) beyond their whirlwind first date, which turns out to have been a birthday present setup with a half-hearted prostitute. Thus we have virtually nothing invested in the couple before the guns come out and they’re on the lam with a half-mil in cola. Aside from hazy scruples what the two have most in common is their desperate need for love and to escape. He idolizes her sweetness, she his coolness, and neither seems interested in looking deeper than the façade each has built for the other.

True Romance Drexl Gary Oldman In a typical action flick this is to be expected. And judged on those grounds, ‘True Romance’ is quite a trip, essentially consisting of a series of showdowns that become progressively more physical: Clarence vs. Drexl (Gary Oldman); Christopher Walken vs. Dennis Hopper (their characters being merely excuses for the two actors to meet); Alabama vs. Tony Soprano Virgil (James Gandolfini); everybody else vs. everyone who’s left. Given the waning gravitas of the actors involved, this transition is well-chosen. In the first clash, Gary Oldman is electric as a white Jamaican drug dealer, his face crisscrossed with scars, his teeth mottled, one eye milky. Slater holds his own, but only because of some ballsy dialogue—Oldman is the gale that picks up Slater’s ember and fans it into flame. The next meeting, a 10-minute sit-down between Walken and Hopper, is the film’s raison d’êtrea perfectly hypnotizing exchange between two masters for whom a tightening around the eyes or faint nod communicates far more than the orgiastic gunfire and eruption of down pillows in the film’s climax. In that earlier scene, Jeffrey Kimball’s camerawork wisely slows down, favoring wider angles, fewer cuts, and more static shots. The dramatic drop lighting and passive observers in the background impart a theatrical quality that is far removed from the rest of the film, where tight, provocative angles and quick cuts are common. On a related note, Alabama’s battle with Virgil is also quite affecting, but mostly for its bestial shock value—choreography trumping content.

True Romance final shootoutAnd that is ‘True Romance’ in brief. Some flashy affectations to a depth beyond its stature that ultimately diminish its actual nature. If Tony Scott and Quentin Tarantino would cease protesting (pretending?) that violence is secondary to the film’s “bittersweet” core, the little romance that exists here would feel more true.

TL;DR: Deeper than ‘Natural Born Killers’, but how much is that really saying?

Casino (1995)

Casino Poster Scorsese‘CASINO’ IN BRIEF: 90 minutes spent on a labyrinthine (and even somewhat nuanced) buildup of a far-ranging criminal empire followed by 90 minutes of personal disasters. Altogether that makes three hours of bad things happening to people we don’t like. It’s a kitchen-sink approach to filmmaking, with ‘Sunset Boulevard’-style plot arc and narration; not one but two (wait, make it three) characters with voiceovers; freeze frames; slow-motion; dimmers and highlights; subtitles; and a virtually omnipresent pop music bed that dictated the audience’s moods at every turn. Only when characters were completely in collapse, shouting too loudly to appreciate Scorsese’s topical song selection, does the music stop. Like oases, those open spaces beneath the dialogue are welcome moments of respite no matter the scene (e.g. whichever drug-fueled tirade Sharon Stone might be unleashing on a long-suffering Robert De Niro).

Casino 95 Stone De NiroIf it weren’t so constantly self-congratulatory, ‘Casino’ might be enjoyable without caveat, as it is fundamentally sound as both a gangster film and a rise-and-fall memoir. But Scorsese simply has too much fun with his own have-it-both-ways take on Italian mobsters—Romantic and brutalized—so a story that would have been stretched at two hours somehow sprawls into three. Most of Scorcese’s big pictures handle themes akin to ‘Casino’s, but none spends as much time setting up a payoff that is hardly rewarding. ‘The Departed’ is the only film for which he has won an Oscar for Best Director, perhaps because it broke out of this expository rut and allowed its characters to define themselves through their interactions instead of the aggrandizing, rather detached monologues used here (and in ‘Goodfellas’).

This also occurs just by simply existing, instead of grandstanding, as we see in ‘Casino’s finest frame, which is also its last: a decidedly curmudgeonly De Niro, approaching his dotage, sits recollecting all that he’s endured and stares out at us like a dying portrait. And we all, at last, can exhale.

Casino De Niro Old

Insomnia (1997)

Insomnia PosterBEFORE STIEG LARSSON (or more ironically, his death) introduced the world to Lisbeth Salander, Scandinavian crime drama had already developed a durable and distinctive model spanning cinema, television, and text. Its plots explored the tacit tension between progressive societies and provincial prejudice, half-hearted protagonists with misanthropic streaks, and a melancholic pallor unique to the lands of the midnight sun. Larsson’s ‘Millennium’ books and their filmed adaptations have become the most recognized of these stories, but their very fame also decouples them from the unheroic anonymity the genre prefers. A better illustration might be Erik Skjoldbjærg’s ‘Insomnia’ from 1997, which follows Jonas Engström (Stellan Skarsgård), a disgraced Swedish detective, to a remote Norwegian town north of the Arctic Circle to solve the murder of a teenage girl. It’s an unremarkable premise, assuredly among the oldest in crime fiction. But if one cliché may allow another, ‘the devil is in the details’ and in ‘Insomnia’ they are sinister indeed.

The film is shot without much glamor, professionally albeit with an apparently limited budget and on-location. The cinematography has a washed-out, documentarian feel starkly enhanced by the super-8 styling of its startling opening sequence. Soon after meeting Engström we feel as though we’re behind the scenes of an episode of ‘Cops’ to intimate and explicit for public broadcast.Insomnia cabinWhen the detective arrives to town it is beset by fog and dusky despite the midnight sunlight. He has little knowledge of his new colleagues, the case at hand, or the land itself; the fog seems to shrouds many paths into the future and provides no hints of which to take. Then, in a moment of forgivable confusion, he makes a terrible mistake and his world starts fading into white. Not black. Rather, a perpetual light that slowly sinks him into isolated chambers lacking continuity with the world beyond. Standing in an apartment and looking towards the window, all we see is a blinding brightness that refuses to give way. Engström is locked inside an open cage, in sleepless purgatory. And then ‘Insomnia’ truly begins.

The role is perfect for Skarsgård: looming, weary, soft-spoken, yet at times brutally forceful, we believe both his temerity and his ambivalence. In the land of the midnight sun he is a perpetual shadow. His relationships with other characters are quite vaguely sketched, but absolutely meticulous blocking gives the attentive viewer all he needs to know. In groups of two or three, characters subtly orbit through three-quarters shot to reflect the constantly changing power dynamics. Sometimes they enter the frame at an unexpected angle or at a strange interval, as if the film was jump-cut and we blinked a second too long. Or, like Engström, we fell prey to a sleepless exhaustion. The dialogue, meanwhile, is straightforward and largely procedural—only by watching the visual cues (how the camera disguises a face, how a character meets or avoids another’s eyes) can we fully appreciate the forces at play. For Engström is not one to betray his intentions, not least after he has become complicit in the very case he’s investigating.

Insomnia 1997 huntIn this sense it is hard to classify this film as a character study, since it does not sufficiently explore or reveal Engström’s character. At the beginning we get hints of his background—disgrace in Sweden, virtual banishment to the boondocks—and at the end his future remains unclear. A minimalist score by Biosphere, largely ambient/electronic, also gives us precious few cues. It is not the director’s intent, nor that of his co-screenwriter Nikolaj Frobenius, for us to reflect on Engström as an archetype or dissect him as a specimen. But neither is he a cipher, simply channeling his environment without coloring it. To the contrary, his flaws and failures directly cause everything in ‘Insomnia’ aside from the murder that began it. The story simply exists.

Only once the film is through do we realize what a tightrope it has walked, between gratuity and obfuscation, obsession and apathy, unavoidable concrete evidence and pure fabrication. And though Engström’s life is weary, callous, unsympathetic, and locked in a downward spiral, the viewer does not feel belabored or tortured by the viewing. Skjoldbjærg is not concerned with shock and awe, nor is his main character a long-suffering masochist whose soul-wrenching distress is visited upon his audience with mordant glee (looking at you, Darren Aronofksy). Neither are we left cold by the proceedings—we feel alarm and dismay, some revulsion and exhaustion all—but there remains a foundation of sobriety and somberness that allows us to engage the narrative as it if were a vivid police report and not an abusive rite of passage. The film ends with a long cut of Engström riding away in the back of a car, caught but not captured, with his deadened eyes looking almost directly into the camera as if to ask, ‘who are you to judge?’

Insomnia Stellan EngstromA 2002 remake by Christopher Nolan starred Al Pacino and Robin Williams. (Amidst decades of ebullient joy, in that one year Williams unleashed a lifetime of villainy in ‘Death to Smoochy’ and ‘One Hour Photo’ besides.) Predictably, it spent too much of its energies on the mind games of its characters and too little on the environment that birthed them. The difference is critical: people end, places don’t. And this is the sober center of the Scandinavian model, where the petty lunacy of man plays out across indifferent landscapes. Our greed may mar their surfaces over the years, but their influence on us is far more final. Their indefinite expanse defies the closure human stories crave, and they outlast us. Sleepless.

Wild at Heart (1990)

Wild at Heart posterDAVID LYNCH is a director of meticulous consideration and invention. The kind of director who will ‘build’ dust bunnies and install them himself beneath a radiator on-set even though the camera never looks below knee-level. He may not always (ever?) explain himself to the audience, but at his best we get the sense that each bizarre idiosyncrasy or hokey tangent has some essential purpose. Superfluity itself becomes an essential component of his milieu, as in ‘Twin Peaks’, ‘Blue Velvet’, or ‘Mulholland Drive’.

nicholas-cage-wild-at-heartBut this approach doesn’t always work. Sometimes an entire film will become superfluous, recognizably kin to Lynch’s other films but nothing more than a burst of sound and fury. ‘Wild at Heart’ is one such. (‘Lost Highway’ another.) Based on a novel by Barry Gifford, the film follows an Elvis-loving outlaw, Sailor Ripley (Nicholas Cage), and his young girlfriend Lula Fortune (a young and willowy Laura Dern) on a parole-breaking trek through the South. Along the way they are dogged by increasingly outré hitmen (including a repulsively perfect Willem Dafoe) but still find time for plenty of high-kick dancing and motel room sex. The fundamental plot is rather salacious and could have been developed as a mystery or thriller, but Lynch focuses much more on the characters and their quirks. The trouble is that none of them resonates especially well, and thus we end up with neither compelling intrigue nor drama.

Wild at Heart willem DafoeAnd yet there is an awful appeal to the picture, extruded and perversely insistent. Nicholas Cage has a habit of appearing in such films and this is one of his ‘peak’ performances. It’s easy to ridicule his impossible earnestness, like an agitated child overcome with conviction, but few actors could commit to this role as completely. Sailor may be guilty of manslaughter, but he also loves ‘dancing’ to thrash metal, idolizing Elvis, and wearing a snakeskin jacket that “represents a symbol of [his] individuality and [his] belief in personal freedom.” So he and Lula drive on, pushing down the dull and maculate dirt showing through their gilt fantasy (and the audience’s tolerance for the gauche) until the nightmares catch up. Cage’s character may be a farce, but so, too, is the film—like a Cormac McCarthy novel retold by Elmore Leonard and played by circus characters. And Cage is as hard-charging a ringleader as Lynch was likely to find. The great German director (and future Lynch collaborator) Werner Herzog, describes Cage as “always formidable.” And this is true. He also says there is no such thing as “the OK Nic Cage”, which is maybe less true. The point remains that in ‘Wild At Heart’s fairy tale denouement—Cage standing atop the hood of a gridlocked car, singing ‘Love Me Tender’ with a prosthetic broken nose—he is unquestionably Sailor Ripley. And vice versa.

Wild at Heart final sceneBut for all this awkward compulsion, ‘Wild at Heart’ is not a good picture. Its bizarreness and gratuity lack the balancing charisma and beauty found in ‘Blue Velvet’, for example. Both films feature a deranged, lipstick-smearing antagonist—Crazy Frank in ‘Blue Velvet’, Lula’s mother, Marietta Fortune, here in ‘Wild at Heart’—but only the former instills anything like dread. The latter is just a sideshow, a paranoid caricature of femininity like Nadine in ‘Twin Peaks’.

Wild-at-Heart LaddLynch seems to be most comfortable while working from original material, whereas ‘Wild At Heart’ and the frightfully imbalanced (albeit fascinating) ‘Dune’ are both novel adaptations. As his own master, Lynch can make us feel the beating of a dark and deep pulse without having to tap and exhaust it. He is less adept at finding the veins in others, however enthusiastically he may attempt it, because his own sources are so far removed from the norm. And thus ‘Wild at Heart’ feels more like an outsized romance from an art school portfolio, stabbing with wild ambition and never striking the heart.


Magnolia (1999)

MagnoliaFEW DIRECTORS CONTROL the medium of film so completely, inhabit it so naturally, and utilize it so freely as Paul Thomas Anderson. Another Anderson, Wes, also has an arresting eye for symmetry, theatrical framing, and a ‘just so’ sort of staging, but his characters are almost invariably extruded stylizations. Paul Thomas’s could actually be real people Many also point out P.T.’s allusions to director Robert Altman or sometimes Lumet’s ‘Network’ (which the director even screened for his ‘Magnolia’ crew), and the references are undeniable. Homage is different from derivation, though, and for all his acknowledgement of precedent, Anderson’s films still breathe an air all their own.

To sum up ‘Magnolia’, his second release for a major studio (after 1997’s breakout ‘Boogie Nights’), is simple: a semi-connected series of vignettes exploring the lonely existences of late-20th century Californians. But as with all great ensemble pieces and works of this scale, that description encompasses everything and nothing at once. In this case, not seeing the forest for the trees might actually be a useful tool for reflection—at least as a place to start.

magnolia what do kids know

First and easiest to note is the superb photography. ‘Magnolia’ is rife with the poised framing, economy of motion in close-up, and masterful long tracking shots that are a signature of Anderson and his cinematographer Robert Elswit. But equally laudable is the editing by Dylan Tichenor—patient and more patient still. Tichenor often is involved with films (Anderson’s and others’) that give actors their time and the audiences their space: see also ‘Doubt’ and especially ‘The Assassination of Jesse James’. Yet while his long average cut might be considered old-school, the choice of subject and perspective is provocatively modern. Nearly all communication in the film occurs intimately between two individuals, often via the conventional over the shoulder close-up, but the cuts rarely occur when they ‘should’. Entire monologues are portrayed with the camera looking at the listening party, showing only the speaker’s gesticulations in the corner of the frame from time to time until the listener becomes the speaker and our positions shift. The tactic rejects the leading attitude of most Hollywood films—which constantly snap us to attention with one garish cue after another—in favor of an organic and absorbing pace that makes time irrelevant. ‘Magnolia’s three hours pass more efficiently and swiftly than many films half its length.

Donnie Smith Magnolia And what subjects we have to look upon. Every character deserves a page, from the deep humanism of a hospice-worker (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) to a men’s self-help celebrity (Tom Cruise) oozing damaged machismo. The actors generally hold up their end of the bargain, too. No pairing is more perfectly natural than William H. Macy as Donnie Smith, a frumpy everyman as an adult despite childhood celebrity as the Quiz Kid on TV. (Poor Donnies—Hollywood loves to demean them.) As the film progresses Macy slides his character into a lyrical, tragic existentialism and then a pitiful, wry conclusion on par with anything he’s done for the Coen Brothers. This transformation is cued at a sports bar when Donnie emerges from his booth and the camera follows in a slow-motion pan across the room—soon to be his stage of self-discovery and abasement. The revelation is aided by a remarkable tête-à-tête with Henry Gibson, white-haired, debonair in a velvet blazer who waves bills coyly at a hunk bartender. Macy slouches into the barstool beside him and the two casually slip into an exchange that is half a conversation, half a shared soliloquy on life and love. The utter lack of pretension in its presentation is essential and disarming.

magnolia-john c reillyOn the other end of the spectrum, perfectly grounded and uniquely forthright, is John C. Reilly—tender, earnest, and vulnerable behind a thin veil of ego that accompanies his policeman’s badge. His sudden and absolute fall for the coke-addict Claudia Gator seems forced at first, but in reassessing the mission statement monologues he practices in his cruiser, waiting for ‘Cops’ to come calling, we can deduce that he has also been waiting for someone like Claudia for a long time. What at first seems like naïveté is actually a deep and unshakeable faith in himself, his God, and humanity. Donnie Smith, bloody-mouthed and teary-eyed, says to him words they both feel, “I have a lot of love to give. I just don’t know where to put it.”

magnolia robards mooreAs the hospice ward of Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jason Robards delivers a capstone performance: terminally-ill and confined to his bed, his illness seems as much to stem from the guilt of abandoning his family decades past than any physical malady. Yet this would be the last film he ever made.

All of Anderson’s actors show a commitment and singular focus that belies ‘Magnolia’s sprawling structure. In business management gurus talk about getting employees to ‘buy in’ to a corporate culture, and Anderson clearly has such unanimous support. Perhaps ‘Magnolia’s greatest success is that, despite all odds, its many fragments submit to Anderson’s guidance and becomes one story—not nine. But it’s also a story that makes its deepest marks when we’re actually watching it and not later, caught up in our own introspection. ‘Magnolia’s characters, isolated though they may be in their separate vignettes, rely upon and relate to one another in such a way that the audience feels less a participant in the progress than a patient observer.

magnolia but it did happenAnderson declared to his crew on the first day of shooting that they “should unashamedly try to make a great movie.” And in some ways they have. But in reaching so far ‘Magnolia’ also occasionally stretches into stagy self-absorption . The sheer quantity of teary confrontations and pivotal life moments intercut over a waxing violin threnody (not to mention the spontaneous song its characters suddenly begin to sing, mostly alone, staring out into the vastness emptiness of their lives) stretches and then mockingly twangs the band of credulity in our attentive faces.

But then stunningly, startlingly, and in a complete reversal of tenor: the frogs. To place such a jarring and patently bizarre twist in a film’s delicate denouement shows Anderson’s greatest confidence in himself, his story, his actors, and his sense of humor. The last is particularly crucial, as it (partially) disarms criticism of ‘Magnolia’ as too aloof, didactic, or a purely narcissistic Hollywood drama.

Magnolia FrogsMoreover, there are subplots left unfinished and characters hinted at but never introduced. Anderson is content to leave these ends loose and let them fray. Some were tucked into place by earlier and longer rough cuts of the film, but their absence here is part of the queer fabric of life, where patches go missing and some corners don’t quite align. This authentic touch rewards our close attention but not obsessive analysis. There are mysteries here, as in life, that no cleverness could stitch together into a seamless array of pat endings and feedback loops of vaguely reassuring closure. No, ‘Magnolia’ is not ‘Crash’. This is just something that happens.

Rebecca (1940)

Rebecca-Alfred-Hitchcock-Film-rebecca-1940THOUGH FAR FROM Alfred Hitchcock’s first film (or even his fifteenth), ‘Rebecca’ is likely the most crucial turning point in the director’s august career. He had previously directed financially successful films in Britain, some of which are still celebrated today (e.g. ‘The 39 Steps’), but it was ‘Rebecca’ that won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 19490 and launched his American career.

Compared with his pulse-pounding 50s output (‘Psycho’, ‘Vertigo’, ‘North by Northwest’), some viewers may find ‘Rebecca’ to be rather prim. Indeed, it is a decidedly British tale, migrating from a Monte Carlo hotel patronized by old money and their paid companions to a ludicrously overstaffed estate in southern England called Manderly. It is the home of one Maxim de Winter, a high-society type who abjures such middle-class trifles as children, chores, or a salaried profession; we enter it alongside his new wife, Mrs. De Winter the second (whose maiden name is never given), an ordinary girl woefully out of place amidst silk-gloved servants. Her status as a commoner is accentuated further by the appearance of a pin-striped and monstrously-lapelled in-law named Favell (George Sanders, preeminent among English archetypes in all of cinematic history), whose role is modest but pivotal.

Rebecca staff manderlyA view of ‘Rebecca’ as blue-blooded and old-fashioned does not err. It is a film of retrospection, both in the literal plot as well as its presentation, harking to such ghostly precedents as ‘Topper’ (1936) in light-hearted moments and Henry James’ novella ‘The Turn of the Screw’ (1898) as it darkens. Yet such scenarios as these, so strictly meted out and miserly in ‘action’, were essential in developing Hitchcock’s signature style and knack for claustrophobia. To wit: implied tension is more excruciating than explicit acts; what happens off-screen is more terrible than what we can actually see; and our imagination is the greatest and darkest villain of all.

Olivier Fontaine RebeccaConsider the trajectory between ‘Rebecca’ and 1946’s ‘Notorious’, a highly topical film about hunting escaped Nazis a year after VE-Day and heavily weighted by sexual tension. These surface-level themes are wholly absent from ‘Rebecca’, where the young Mrs. De Winter is treated like a child and the outside world is utterly inconsequential. Yet in tracing the line back from ‘Notorious’ we can see how the blueprints match up: a plot with minimal physical conflict centered around a female protagonist, imprisoned in her own house and molested by specters of the past that stretch out suffocating fingers. That same dread is palpably clear in ‘Rebecca’. Absent of flashing kitchen knives or close shaves with crop dusters it reveals more clearly the foundation of Hitchcock’s enduring monument.

We never actually meet Rebecca in the film, but it doesn’t take long to learn that she is the deceased first wife of Mr. De Winter. And though we never so much as see her face, her wardrobe, embroidered handkerchief, precisely positioned toiletry, and her funereally aloof housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, ensure that Rebecca is present in every frame. Rebecca is the breath that whispers in and out of Manderly’s vaulted ribs and Mrs. Danvers her avatar, haunting the new Mrs. De Winters through the halls like a morbid Virgil. Another allusion is stronger still: up a long approach and perched upon the hilltop, Manderly resembles the sepulchral castle of Graf Orlock—the Nosferatu—the Victorian embodiment of repressed sexuality. In ‘Rebecca’ our monster is the imprisoning precedent of aristocracy, and it preys upon Mrs. De Winter mercilessly.

rebecca de winters danversAs Mrs. De Winter, Joan Fontaine has a guileless optimism that suits the role—young, naïve, but clever and sweet in a down-to-earth way that was enough to sweep Maxim out of his despair, for a time. Alas, this unaffected spirit also leaves her quite overmatched by the debonair Olivier, a natural fit for Maxim. He would be a playboy if he cared to, rather flip for all his good culture, possessing a fabulous wealth towards which he is breezily indifferent yet naturally in command. In his late 30s at the time, he projects a playboy’s vivacity but has enough gravitas to make us believe his fretful brow and weary eyes. The bond between Olivier and Fontaine never quite settles, though, and the psychological burden of Rebecca eventually becomes too much for Fontaine to bear. Her left eyebrow arches most delicately, her head shakes almost imperceptibly, and a shadow of a smile tugs at one corner of her mouth, disbelieving but striving for appeal like a tentative pet. It’s a camera-ready look that wins us early but is too shallow to keep us long.

Maxim De WintersThus the film’s finale—a showy inquest, an increasingly dispossessed Maxim, and the suddenly scheming cousin Favell (that’d be George Sanders)—undercuts the creeping psychology of the earlier acts, where Olivier and Fontaine strove to establish some kind of chemistry undistracted by outside elements. The more actors on screen and the higher the stakes, the less convincing the central couple becomes. Only the implicit presence of Rebecca herself can bring them together in the end, despite all her specter did to destroy them.

Rebecca Manderly‘Rebecca’ the film makes it through this rocky patch, albeit a bit worse for the wear, pushed on by Hitchcock’s macabre energies and pulled by an unsung secondary cast. The most choice of these is the De Winters’ accountant, Frank Crawley, played with a hangdog stoicism by Reginald Denny. He is a legitimizing and sturdy center amidst a melodramatic sweep of big personalities and bigger set-pieces, granting everyday audiences a perspective from which to watch the dreadful strains of their noble betters. But not yet to internalize those fears and take them home.