Frank S. Nugent was the reigning New York Times film critic from 1936 to 1940, and a fairly young one — 28 when he landed the job and 32 when he left it. He gradually segued into screenwriting and wrote 21 film scripts until his death in 1965 at age 57. (Obviously something befell him.) 11 of those scripts were for director John Ford, including The Quiet Man, Mister Roberts and, most notably, The Searchers.
Last night I turned to Nugent’s March 1940 review of Rebecca to get the Tooze effect out of my head, and it hit me all over again that Nugent could write like Joe DiMaggio could hit, and that he really knew the world that he lived in, and was as knowledgable about the language of film and the nature of powerful, talented types and the ins and outs of Hollywood poltics as anyone else, Manny Farber or Andre Bazin or anyone in that high-falutin’ realm included.
Savor this, and note how Nugent felt obliged to define the word “cineaste”:
“Before getting into a review of Rebecca, we must say a word about the old empire spirit. Hitch has it — Alfred Hitchcock that is, the English master of movie melodramas, rounder than John Bull, twice as fond of beef, just now (with Rebecca) accounting for his first six months on movie-colonial work in Hollywood. The question being batted around by the cineastes (hybrid for cinema-esthetes) was whether his peculiarly British, yet peculiarly personal, style could survive Hollywood, the David O. Selznick of Gone with the Wind the tropio palms, the minimum requirements of the Screen Writers Guild and the fact that a good steak is hard to come by in Hollywood.
“But depend on the native Britisher’s empire spirit, the policy of doing in Rome not what the Romans do, but what the Romans jolly well ought to be civilized into doing. Hitch in Hollywood, on the basis of the Selznick Rebecca at the Music Hall, is pretty much the Hitch of London’s The Lady Vanishes and The Thirty-nine Steps, except that his famous and widely-publicized ‘touch’ seems to have developed into a firm, enveloping grasp of Daphne du Maurier‘s popular novel. His directorial style is less individualized, but it is as facile and penetrating as ever; he hews more to the original story line than to the lines of a Hitch original; he is a bit more respectful of his cast, though not to the degree of close-up worship exacted by Charles Laughton in Jamaica Inn.
“What seems to have happened, in brief, is that Mr. Hitchcock, the famous soloist, suddenly has recognized that, in this engagement, he is working with an all-star troupe. He makes no concession to it and, fortunately, vice versa.
“So Rebecca — to come to it finally — is an altogether brilliant film, haunting, suspenseful, handsome and handsomely played. Miss du Maurier’s tale of the second mistress of Manderley, a simple and modest and self-effacing girl who seemed to have no chance against every one’s — even her husband’s — memories of the first, tragically deceased Mrs. de Winter, was one that demanded a film treatment evocative of a menacing mood, fraught with all manner of hidden meaning, gaited to the pace of an executioner approaching the fatal block. That, as you need not be told, is Hitchcock’s meat and brandy.
“In Rebecca his cameras murmur ‘Beware!’ when a black spaniel raises his head and lowers it between his paws again; a smashed china cupid takes on all the dark significance of a bloodstained dagger; a closed door taunts, mocks and terrifies; a monogrammed address book becomes as accusative as a district attorney.
“Miss du Maurier’s novel was an ‘I’ book, its story told by the second, hapless Mrs. de Winter. Through Mr. Hitchcock’s method, the film is first-personal too, so that its frail young heroine’s diffident blunders, her fears, her tears are silly only at first, and then are silly no longer, but torture us too. Rebecca’s ghost and the Bluebeard room in Manderley become very real horrors as Mr. Hitchcock and his players unfold their macabre tale, and the English countryside is demon-ridden for all the brightness of the sun through its trees and the Gothic serenity of its manor house.
“But here we have been giving Mr. Hitchcock and Miss du Maurier all the credit when so much of it belongs to Robert Sherwood, Philip MacDonald, Michael Hogan and Joan Harrison who adapted the novel so skillfully, and to the players who have re-created it so beautifully. Laurence Olivier‘s brooding Maxim de Winter is a performance that almost needs not to be commented upon, for Mr. Olivier last year played Heathcliffe, who also was a study in dark melancholy, broken fitfully by gleams of sunny laughter. Maxim is the Heathcliffe kind of man and Mr. Olivier seems that too. The real surprise, and the greatest delight of them all, is Joan Fontaine‘s second Mrs. de Winter, who deserves her own paragraph, so here it is:
“Rebecca stands or falls on the ability of the book’s ‘I’ to escape caricature. She was humiliatingly, embarrassingly, mortifyingly shy, a bit on the dowdy side, socially unaccomplished, a little dull; sweet, of course, and very much in love with — and in awe of — the lord of the manor who took her for his second lady. Miss du Maurier never really convinced me any one could behave quite as the second Mrs. de Winter behaved and still be sweet, modest, attractive and alive. But Miss Fontaine does it — and does it not simply with her eyes, her mouth, her hands and her words, but with her spine. Possibly it’s unethical to criticize performance anatomically. Still we insist Miss Fontaine has the most expressive spine — and shoulders! — we’ve bothered to notice this season.
“The others, without reference to their spines — except that of Judith Anderson’s housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, which is most menacingly rigid — are splendidly in character: George Sanders as the blackguard, Nigel Bruce and Gladys Cooper as the blunt relatives, Reginald Denny as the dutiful estate manager, Edward Fielding as the butler and — of course — Florence Bates as a magnificent specimen of the ill-bred, moneyed, resort-infesting, servant-abusing dowager.
“Hitch was fortunate to find himself in such good company but we feel they were doubly so in finding themselves in his.”