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Genre: Mystery Drama Romance Thriller
Overview: A young and naive girl marries a millionaire. When she moves into his huge mansion, she finds the memories and influence of Maxim's first wife all too strong.
When I first saw Joan Fontaine's face I cringed at the thought that this would turn out as terrible as Letter Of An Unknown Woman, but she's fantastic. As for SIR Laurence Olivier, if you doubt a man's presence in a film, see any of his works. I'll admit there's a touch of the melodramatic, but that's a clear sign of the times. My favorite role has to be the character of Mrs. Danvers, the head servant of the household. Chillingly great!
Think Hitchcockian lighting and this might be the first film that comes to mind. In this one he isn't all about the vivid expressionistic style so much as he's about reinforcing how that terrific mansion is a symbolic prison. Every large and gorgeous sunlit room is streaked with the shadows of window panes, which normally would just make a scene look realistic and masterfully lit, but the way it enhances the mood is just fantastic. Every interior scene of that estate is fantastic. Hitchcock makes it a living, breathing character.
Filled with dialogue that spark the mind and delves deeply into the mire that is a haunted past, this film is brilliantly written. When Mrs. Davers speaks, her informative and soothing words burn a deep scar at the same time into our meek bride. When we touch the open nerve that is Maxim's pain of his deceased wife, we know there's more that need be told. Every line is meticulously calculated to invite curiosity while still revealing so much about the characters involved. Fantastic.
I had a slight issue with the big secret at the end and the subsequent reactions, but overall the story was incredibly involving. We begin with a whirlwind romance that becomes more and more marred by a dark past. When our favorite wife is brought into this new society filled with such challenges as living in the shadow of a better woman who has truly insinuated herself in every room of the house, that's a lot of story to tell. The magic is that that ain't even the half of it. You wait when the secret comes out. It's multi-layered awesome.
The thing that bothered me most of all was the era of it. We're constantly reminded of know how deeply rooted we are in 1940 and all the little suspensions of disbelief add up fairly quickly. A scene where the couple walks past some trees is just the actors on a treadmill in front of a projected screen, same as the driving scenes, same as that gaze from atop the cliff. Here and there are some moments of technical weakness that I not only couldn't shake, but outright laughed. Though these mood-killing moments are few and far between, the comment is there to state how it disappointed an otherwise incredibly engrossing and thrilling tale. I know I'll see this again one day. It's great.
Overall Rating: 86% (Right Back At Ya!)
What a relief. When I was starting to falter, wavering in the thought that perhaps Hitchcock actually WASN'T the genius I expected him to be, right when I wondered why he does romance and love triangles more than thriller, he goes and makes this. More than anything this film has taught me how important producers are to a film. No matter how smart the director or the crew, without devoted producers, a story just can't be properly told. Seems like they were more of a hindrance than an aid in Hitch's darker years. Looks like that's over.