"We can never go back to Manderley again," the young heroine of Daphne du Maurier's "Rebecca" says in the haunting opening to the 1940 Alfred Hitchcock film.
Maybe she can't go back, but we can. And we do.
Both literary and film fans have returned to the gothic tale of mystery, madness, obsession and romance time and again for more than 60 years. Beginning next Friday, we can see it on stage in the new Buffalo United Artists production, and in November, the Hitchcock film - his first American film and his only movie to be honored with an Academy Award - is scheduled to be released on DVD, with film and sound restored. For readers, there's even a new literary companion piece to the novel, "Rebecca's Tale" by Sally Beauman.
Watching it today, the film has suffered just a bit from age. Viewers may be turned off by some of the dated dialogue, especially in the condescending portrayal of the naive heroine as a child ("Eat your eggs like a good girl," is one grating example). And the heroine isn't overwhelmingly appealing - she's clumsy, awkwardly shy and as played by the lovely Joan Fontaine, a tad stilted (four years later Fontaine brought those same attributes to her portrayal of "Jane Eyre"). You can't even say Laurence Olivier is at his romantic best as the haunted Maxim de Winter. The white added to his hair and mustache in an attempt to visually double the 10-year age difference between Olivier and Fontaine is unappealing, and, let's face it, he could never outdo the brooding romantic intensity he brought to Heathcliff in "Wuthering Heights" a year earlier.
No, "Rebecca's" strength is its heart - as old-fashioned and outdated as it might seem today - and in Hitchcock's ability to craft a dark psychological thriller.
"It's so richly dark and suggestive and scary. It's all the things you don't know about power and sex and what's really going on," said Diane Christian, University at Buffalo professor of English and co-host of Buffalo Film Seminars. "It's a psychological exploration of imagination and its dark side. And it's so beautifully shot. The house and the sea act as images of loneliness, beauty and power. Hitchcock had a great taste for deception and corruption."
Through all its gothic intrigue, it's also a lovely romance that draws comparisons to Charlotte Bronte's "Jane Eyre" with its story of the plain, poor and naive girl who melts the heart of the haunted older rich guy with secrets. Hitchcock even called it a fairy tale and a "Cinderella" story. And, like a fairy tale, it's especially appealing to young women - though it loses a bit of its luster as we age. (Somehow Olivier telling Fontaine to "Please promise me never to wear black satin or pearls, or to be 36 years old," makes us wince as we grow older.)
Together, these factors make "Rebecca" perfect fodder for Buffalo United Artists to tackle. Not only is Dame Judith Anderson's portrayal of the cold, hostile housekeeper Mrs. Danvers quite campy in its own right, the film's lesbian undertones that may not have been apparent to 1940 audiences (or at least not talked about) blaze to life today.