The Masters of Suspense: Hitchcock and Du Maurier

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”

  • Opening line from Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, 1938

For the greater part of the 20th century, two great artists produced some of the most chilling and suspenseful works that the world had ever known. Though they operated in different mediums, there was a tangible connection between their themes and styles. The two seemed to be kindred spirits, sculpting masterpieces which would both haunt and thrill their respective audiences. Though they operated over a similar span of years, the pair overlapped only thrice, though it’s hard not to wonder what incredible work we may have seen had their paths crossed with greater frequency.

Daphne du Maurier is amongst the greatest writers of gothic horror in the history of literature. She crafted tales that shaped memory and mystery into ghosts and ghouls. Her prose enchanted readers for decades. However, her rise to prominence and fame in the thirties was timed perfectly with the advent of the Hollywood studio system and her novels were destined for more than just the printed word. Studio heads yearned to capture her popular stories on screen, and film adaptations of du Maurier’s work have been there for audiences from 1939’s Jamaica Inn to today’s My Cousin Rachel. Few novelists have been so persistent over the decades, and even now, nearly thirty years after du Maurier’s death, filmmakers seem to be racing to put their own mark on one of her titles.

3594f0f0726253b0251fc738421d23dd-alfred-hitchcock-interesting-photosAlfred Hitchcock is a filmmaker who likely requires no introduction. His prolific career, which spanned over fifty years, remains at the forefront of any film buff’s mind. The “Master of Suspense” has more than fifty feature film credits to his name and is widely considered one of the greatest and most significant directors of all time. Throughout his career he would go out of his way to thrill and terrify audiences as much as possible. It is all the more surprising that in the nearly forty years that their careers overlapped, the fortunes of Alfred Hitchcock and Daphne du Maurier met only three times. Still, we are lucky that they did.

In the late 1930s, Hitchcock was the most well known director in England and one of the first true celebrity film directors in the world. It was no surprise, then, that he was persistently courted by studios to cross the pond and come make his pictures in Hollywood. His visually daring, wryly comical suspense films were wildly popular and the demand for his talent ballooned. He was even receiving attention from famous producer David O. Selznick who was fresh off of Gone With the Wind. However, before departing his homeland, Hitch would take on one more project: Jamaica Inn. This would be his first effort to adapt du Maurier’s work.

jamaicainn2-1600x900-c-defaultJamaica Inn was produced by another British native who would also go on to have a storied Hollywood career: Charles Laughton. Laughton was a world famous actor whose talents are still revered to this day, but his career as a producer and his single stint as a director (the iconic noir-horror The Night of the Hunter) was enough to justify a lofty reputation. That said, things on the set of Jamaica Inn were not representative of a wonderful collaboration between two film giants. Instead, Hitchcock got his first taste of the sort of production style that would create friction between him and David O. Selznick during his first decade in Hollywood. Laughton was an overbearing producer who insisted upon putting his own mark on the project, especially when it came to his physical presence in the film.

Laughton played Sir Humphrey Pengallan, a villain whose role was largely invented for the film. In du Maurier’s novel, the story centers almost entirely around a young girl named Mary Yellan, played in the film by Maureen O’Hara who was very new to the screen at the time. In the book the audience is guided through a puzzling mystery almost entirely through Mary’s eyes. However, in order to keep Laughton on the screen as much as possible, Hitchcock was forced to expand what, in the novel, was an essentially marginal character into the film’s major antagonist. This ultimately made for a less than interesting screen experience, though Laughton’s performance does have some fun moments. Jamaica Inn is rightly considered to be a forgettable Hitchcock film. Though there are some compelling visual moments, as in most Hitchcock movies, the film leaves much to be desired in terms of thrills and it is almost certainly the worst of Hitchcock’s three du Maurier projects.

After making Jamaica Inn, Hitchcock came straight to Hollywood on a contract with David O. Selznick. Even to this day, Selznick has a legacy of being one of Hollywood’s all time most prolific producers. Beyond Gone With the Wind, Selznick is known for producing classics such as The Third Man, King Kong, Anna Karenina, and several of Hitchcock’s most famous films. He is also credited with introducing Ingrid Bergman to American audiences and would famously pair her and Hitchcock together for the first time. However, Selznick was notorious for being controlling, hard to work with, and long-winded. He held a strong belief that films should represent their source material as faithfully as possible. This request was impossible for a filmmaker like Hitchcock who liked to use the source material as a loose guide and primarily follow his own instincts.

rebecca-mrs-danvers-entranceThrough this trying collaboration Rebecca was born. Starring Lawrence Olivier and Joan Fontaine, Rebecca is a haunting gothic horror driven less by what the viewer sees than by what they can not. It is a ghost story with no ghost. It is perhaps du Maurier’s most famous novel because it captured the imagination of readers, and likely also a great deal of sympathy for the young and innocent protagonist who is haunted by the memory of her new husband’s dead wife.

To Selznick’s insistence, the screenplay follows du Maurier’s novel quite closely. Though this was certainly a source of frustration for Hitchcock, the faithfulness plays to the film’s strengths. Du Maurier was a brilliant writer of authentic and witty dialogue, so the film didn’t experience much change in dialogue besides deciding which of du Maurier’s own words could be cut or slightly altered to better fit a two hour run time. That said, Hitchcock did not let this film pass him by without putting his own touch on it. Limited on the script, Hitch was forced to work through other means to make the movie his own. Use of dark, shadowy hallways, elegant sets, and mysterious and ethereal figures were cornerstones of the Hitchcock style that he employed to perfection in Rebecca. Without diverging from du Maurier’s story, he managed to make Rebecca a recognizably Hitchcockian film. It is still viewed as one of his earliest masterpieces, and rightfully so. The film is often terrifying while showing very little to generate actual fear. It is a masterwork of atmospheric horror and suspense, an area which Hitchcock would explore many more times throughout his career.

Despite the fact that Rebecca sparked a tense and difficult working relationship between Hitchcock and Selznick, it was one of Hitchcock’s most successful projects and marked the only time that one of his films took home the Academy Award for Best Picture. This alone shows that, despite his difficult approach to producing, Selznick was a worthwhile partner to have. There have been many other film adaptations of Rebecca, but Hitchcock’s remains the most famous. It is also worth noting, even if just as a matter of trivia, that Joan Fontaine’s sister, Olivia de Havilland, starred in the first ever film adaptation of the famous du Maurier novel My Cousin Rachel.

For 23 years, Hitchcock didn’t return to du Maurier’s work. Perhaps working on these two adaptation with these two extraordinarily overbearing producers had soured him on adapting her novels or perhaps he simply ventured into other projects of interest. Regardless, it wasn’t until the later stages of his career that he decided to pursue a cinematic adaptation of a du Maurier short story which had intrigued him and which he claimed to have read only once prior to making the film.

birds63b_758_426_81_s_c1If Rebecca is a deeply faithful book to screen adaptation, The Birds is the antithesis. The story that du Maurier put on paper hardly resembles the final product that Hitchcock brought to the screen and yet they share a similar bewitching and intriguing quality. The only feature shared by the story and its adaptation is the basic premise that birds have begun inexplicably attacking and terrorizing people. Beyond this man versus nature struggle, the plots entirely diverge. Du Maurier’s original short story revolves around a farmer and his family trying to survive several days of the sudden plague of vicious birds. The family listens on the radio for updates on how the British government plans to address the attacks while rationing and hunkering down to prepare for nightly attempted break-ins by their winged adversaries.

Hitchcock’s story takes a more scandalous approach which also adds a great deal of mystery to the plot. It tracks a girl named Melanie who travels to a small town to pursue a casual romantic interest just as the birds decide to begin attacking the citizens of the town. The ironic coinciding of these arrivals is at first implicitly suspicious and then explicitly questioned in the film. Did Melanie somehow usher in this plague or did she simply show up at the wrong time? Hitchcock does not offer the viewer resolution but instead takes a haunting premise and creates a terrifying scenario within it.

The Birds stars Tippi Hedren as Melanie, and the relationship between Hedren and Hitchcock was notoriously fraught. Known for his obsession with blondes, Hitch was excessively abusive toward Hedren and the filming of The Birds was extraordinarily difficult for the fairly inexperienced young actress. Still, it is amongst Hitchcock’s most impressive cinematic feats. While he merely copied some basic details from du Maurier’s short story, he perfectly captures the fearful and mysterious tone of her words while putting a decidedly Hitchcockian flair on it. Many arguments have been made about what the greatest Hitchcock film is, but it’s hard to argue that any of his films are quite as visually imposing as The Birds.

In one striking sequence, madness enraptures the town culminating in a gas station explosion and an incredible shot from the perspective of a large flock of birds as they descend on the ensuing chaos. Another captivating suspenseful shot unfolds as a group of birds slowly gather on a jungle gym while Melanie lights a cigarette unaware of the danger mounting behind her back.

In a particularly interesting moment, Hitchcock utilizes one of his favorite plot devices and explores one of his philosophically controversial views on filmmaking. While many story tellers are consumed with plausibility, Hitch was always more interested in intrigue. He believed that if you put a character in a situation that was exciting and compelling enough, the audience would buy in regardless of how unbelievable the situation is. Perhaps the best example of this phenomenon occurs in The Birds when Melanie, frantically sorting out the chaos at a local diner, encounters a knowledgeable ornithologist. While a less courageous filmmaker may have felt compelled to explain why exactly an ornithologist would happen to be in this diner at this moment just when her perspective on this niche topic of expertise could be useful, Hitchcock had enough faith in his audience to simply put her there and allow them to accept the premise as a part of the excitement.

daphne-du-maurier-writing-at-desk-xlargeAlfred Hitchcock closed out his British career with Jamaica Inn, he opened his Hollywood career with Rebecca, and a strong argument could be made that The Birds was his last true masterpiece. Something about taking on the work of Daphne du Maurier seemed to constantly mark a turning point for the Master of Suspense. It’s not hard to see why the pair were so well matched. They were kindred spirits creating similarly thrilling tales with their own individual artistic voices. The two managed to convey the same themes through nearly opposite means. Du Maurier was one of the most brilliant literary minds of an era, a wordsmith in the truest form. Hitchcock, on the other hand, viewed filmmaking as an almost exclusively visual medium. She operated with words; he, with images. Yet, they both left their mark in similar ways, their works eternally capable of striking fear within us.

“Give them pleasure. The same pleasure they have when they wake up from a nightmare.”

  • Alfred Hitchcock
The Cuckoo Clock is an ongoing column that looks back upon the films and filmmakers of yesterday. It reflects on the themes and artistry of bygone, but not forgotten, eras in filmmaking.
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