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A Rose and Her Thorn: Rabid

From my piece published at the New Beverly.

“One is not totally in control of making one’s metaphor when making a movie. You find that it seems right, and you’re not necessarily able to articulate why it is right. Certainly the premise of Rabid is outrageous on a certain level… Now, there was a time when I was making this movie where I said to my producers, ‘This makes no sense at all. This cannot work …’  He convinced me. He said, ‘No, it’s really got something. The imagery is really powerful and it will work….’ What people saw it as was a kind of metaphor for AIDS, later on, or for the spreading of various viruses, whether they were talking about the spreading of the virus of Cronenberg filmmaking, I’m not sure, maybe somebody’s going to propose that. But in terms of your own personal interpretation and whether or not the film strikes you as scary or ridiculous, well, I’ll leave it up to you.” – David Cronenberg


There’s a scene near the end of David Cronenberg’s Rabid in which beautiful, rabid Rose is revealed to her boyfriend, Hart. She’s just sucked the blood from her best friend who will join the epidemic of foaming-mouth zombies, suffering a new strain of rabies that is engulfing Montreal in panic and destruction. Hart’s been searching for his love – poor injured Rose (he crashed his motorcycle with her riding on back, nearly killing her) – after she’s had emergency skin grafting surgery to save her life. She’s stuck in an institute of rich plastic surgery patients, one man is snootily revolted that her bloodied body is brought in for others to witness (ugh!), but her life is saved.

But she takes off – mayhem has ensued.


What on earth is going on? Well, then Hart sees her – on the floor of her friend’s apartment, Rose’s sharp, recently acquired phallus retracting back into the vaginal orifice that has manifested from her armpit after experimental surgery – surgery she didn’t ask for. And from that plastic surgery center –  it was the closest place to tend to her. Rose was not getting work done (I feel I must point that out because we know how those stories can spin, and I feel protective of Rose). Something about this injured girl next door entering this center feels both comic and exceedingly sad. They didn’t mess with her face, but we know this new, powerful mutation is present – we’ve been following Rose throughout this ordeal – and we are fascinated. Her mixture of terror, warmth and sexual intensity is alarming and, at times, heartbreaking. She’s strong and vulnerable and she can’t seem to reconcile the two – never mind the new power that’s unleashed. We see the men look at her and wonder what she wonders. But we also understand. She has a strange, startling power and she uses it. Repressed down, under that pretty face and welcoming smile, she’s most likely deeply angry. She also feels guilty about being so angry.


So, when Hart sees what she’s done to her friend, she looks at Hart with a penetrating mixture of deep shame and desperate self-defense. “It’s not my fault,” she nearly whispers as he stares at her in shock. Montreal, now descending into a terrifying virus, a madness, citizens infected with a zombie disease that will probably spread throughout the world, Hart figures out it was she who started it and turns on her. (Shades of the woman in the diner in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds – screaming at Melanie Daniels: “I think you’re evil! Evil!”) He states: “It’s you. It’s been you all along.” She asks, anxiously, “What are you talking about?” He becomes irate: “You carry the plague! You’ve killed hundreds of people!”


This is when my heart sinks for poor Rose (played by a liltingly affecting, at times poetic Marilyn Chambers) and I think David Cronenberg’s does as well. When she protests with such sadness: “I’m still me! I’m still Rose!” I think, oh, Rose, you are still you! With the same heart, the need for warmth, and your completely understandable fear and rage that many of us (particularly women) understand. When Rose cries to her doctor in an earlier scene, wailing, I’m hideous, doctor! I’m crazy and I’m a monster!” we feel her anguish and self- loathing – that terror of destruction, that people hate you and that you deserve it (even when she doesn’t). It’s all played out with such primal urgency and it’s hard to articulate because Rabid is not a morality tale, it feels more like a dark fairy tale. Even her name – Rose – conjuring up duality is reminiscent of sleeping princesses and Anne Sexton poems. It opens so idyllically – Rose goes for a romantic motorcycle ride, two lovely people in love in leather on a nice day, and then …  she wakes up “hideous.” And after doing so, having no control over a narrative that will turn her into an Eve, a Lilith, a vampire and a woman with both a vagina and a sharp, scary dick – something a man cannot compete with. Hart yells: “You’re not Rose!"

Throughout its running time, Rabid works on such a primitive and lyrically allegorical level that we move along with it – curious and horrified and titillated to see where it will go. It’s funny and sad and absurd and a little bit of a turn on, too –  which seems strange. But maybe not. Cronenberg does not judge.


But, back to this moment with Hart (played by the uniquely pretty, almost feminine Frank Moore), at this moment, the movie shifts into a penetratingly potent metaphor of blame, of guilt, of anger, of disgust. A lover’s quarrel filled with the internalized hatred of the body. And this is something women often feel – they sometimes feel disgusting and worry about it – and in particular, they (we) feel disgusting to men. We have stomachs that swell with water retention and we curl on bathroom floors with cramps painful enough to make us vomit. We have fibroids. We have cysts. We have cysts with hair and bones and teeth. We have blood coming out of our  …“wherever.” It’s nature, it’s unfair anyone would judge or not trust a woman for bleeding but the idea that bleeding is weakness persists. As Rose declares that she needs blood to subsist, it’s upsetting and she’s scared, but it’s strong too. Blood is a source of strength. And also, anger. Rose then screams: “It’s YOUR FAULT!"


When I first saw this movie, I thought she might kill Hart, perhaps accidentally. I thought he wouldn’t understand her, or at least not even try. (No one really understands each other here, and that’s another intriguing aspect to Rabid) But in a beautifully tender moment, Hart turns off the anger and feels awful for her. He did get into that crash on the motorcycle and he did harm her. But it’s not his fault either. Really, nothing is anyone’s fault in Rabid, one of the reasons Cronenberg is always so complex. His films are often so emotionally messy, and bodily messy, tapping into very recognizable and mythic feelings of repression, of a loss of control, of psycho sexual urges, of mutations, of agency … positive and negative. In many of Cronenberg’s films, there is blood coming from the … wherever (see The Brood). And he’s comfortable with it, fascinated by the duality of women. But he knows others are not, or at least scared of women, which makes Rose’s boyfriend a kind soul: “There’s got to be a way we can fix this,” he says, attempting to soothe her. How moving. He’s walked in on his bloodsucking vaginal phallus girlfriend (!) and eventually sees her as Rose again. But there’s no way to fix it and she screams and runs and he falls down the stairs. She does not penetrate him for his blood, because she, I presume, loves him. She’ll make the sacrifice by the end. It’s terribly sad.


It seems odd to say that Rabid is a beautiful film, but in so many ways, it is. From the shots of Chambers in her fur coat, walking the streets at night, to her scurrying through the countryside, from even her bizarre orifice, it’s filled with haunting imagery. There are theories one can ascribe to it, some morbidly funny, some political, some virus-related, but, to me, it rolls along to its own rhythm, with you to make of it what you will – Cronenberg’s as messy as a period and as unexpected as a hormonal surge.

Sissy Spacek was the first choice to play Rose, but, as much as I revere Spacek, I’m glad Marilyn Chambers was cast. She’s so wonderful to take in, to think about,  so empathetic and so powerfully mysterious. She’s lovable and scary. The once-Ivory Snow soap box girl turned porn star (Behind the Green Door, Resurrection of Eve) has a blonde beauty that’s so fresh and simple (she was known for not looking like what one would expect a porn actress to look like) yet she is so exceedingly sexy in her unadorned way. Cronenberg does not feel like he’s exploiting her – she’s so natural, from the simplicity of her white panties, to the way her breasts look. Particularly when they’re on display as she’s shivering with cold and needing a hug – a moment I find tremendously moving even if she rams her razor phallus into the man who nervously hugs her. Chambers’ Rose has a face that is hard to read and, so, open to possibilities. The kind of face that reflects back something to others, or whatever men and women project onto her. She either looks back at you – you get her – or you’re baffled by her. 

I love a scene in which Rose sucks the blood from a cow. It’s the most gorgeously fairy tale sequence in the movie, beautifully shot in the darkly blue-tinted sky as she walks along on a rainy night. She arrives at a farmhouse and like a sweet princess, is attracted to the warmth and fur of the cow (lying down). She tenderly pets the creature, projecting a multitude of emotions – kindness, innocence, a need to touch, to feel this breathing creature, she then feeds on the cow’s blood. And then she vomits. When the farmer catches her, he does what many men want to do to her – fuck her – and so she feeds on his blood. I suppose we’re to root for her here but I really wish she could have napped, silently, for just a little while, with that cow. Poor Rose.


Thinking of Rose, and the poignancy of Chambers’ performance, I thought of some obvious analogies – of Ann Brontë writing, “But he that dares not grasp the thorn, should never crave the rose.” At the end of Rabid I recalled “Mrs Dalloway” by Virginia Woolf: “’Roses, she thought sardonically, All trash, m’dear.’” Rose is not that, of course, but she knows no one will ever see her the same and is terrified by what Hart has told her.  And so she locks herself in a room with an infected man and waits… It’s a test, but she essentially allows herself to die. And, literally, at the end, she is dumped in the trash as an anonymous Rose, workers ditching her body unaware she could be the cure. Not all, trash m’dear.

Kill Or Be Killed: The Hitch-Hiker


Ed Brubaker's newest Kill Or Be Killed comes out November 29. My newest piece covers the brutal, beautifully crafted Ida Lupino film, The Hitch-Hiker, starring Edmond O'Brien, Frank Lovejoy and William Talman. The film was based on spree killer Billy Cook, who had a deformed eye & "HARD LUCK" tattooed on his fingers. When arrested he said, "I hate everybody's guts." Order here. And here's just a tiny bit of my piece:

“This is the true story of a man and a gun and a car. The gun belonged to the man. The car might have been yours or that young couple across the aisle. What you will see in the next seventy minutes could have happened to you. For the facts are actual.”


Sometime in 1951 or 1952, actress, film director and movie star Ida Lupino walked into San Quentin and met a multiple murderer. The murderer was spree killer Billy Cook, a young man who had killed six people in the span of 22 days by road and by car, posing as a hitchhiker, holding hostage and/or doing away with a nice mechanic (whom Cook spared), an entire family, and a deputy sheriff. He killed a dog too...

As detailed in “The Making of The Hitch-Hiker,” Lupino said:

“I was allowed to see Billy Cook briefly for safety issues. I found San Quentin to be cold, dark and a very scary place inside. In fact, I was told by Collie (Collier Young) not to go; it was not safe. I needed a release from Billy Cook to do our film about him. My company, Filmakers, paid $3,000.00 to his attorney for exclusive rights to his story. I found Billy to be cold and aloof. I was afraid of him. Billy Cook had ‘Hard Luck’ tattooed on the fingers of his left hand and a deformed right eyelid that would never close completely. I could not wait to get the hell out of San Quentin...”

Again, to read my essay and the comic, order here.


Love (and Memory) Is Strange: Badlands

From my piece on Badlands, published at the New Beverly.

“Where would I be this very moment if Kit had never met me? Or killed anybody? This very moment. If my Mom had never met my Dad? If she’d of never died? And what’s the man I’ll marry going to look like? What’s he doing right this minute? Is he thinking about me now, by some coincidence, even though he doesn’t know me? Does it show on his face?"

I saw Badlands on TV when I was in middle school. At least I think I saw it. I was 13. I remember scenes, or I remember the memory of seeing scenes, because I had been staying home from school for a week, sick, only I wasn’t sick, I was delirious. I was having an awful few months and I hadn’t been sleeping. My insomnia and nerves were so terrible that I was walking around in a dazed, somnambulant state and watching movies would get my mind off whatever was troubling me. I liked wandering around outside but I was too tired so I would curl up on the couch and sleep in the day, eyes opening and closing to the TV and to movies, images melding into daytime and into dreams. Badlands feels swirled in my own dreams, younger and older, but during those bad months, I wasn’t dreaming much.


I didn’t know why I couldn’t sleep and it frightened me. I didn’t like being inside my own head, sinking into my thoughts. Movies were a way to mix up my mind, glazing my brain from things I didn’t want to think about and buoying my spirits. Often my own thoughts and the images I was watching would merge – this is my life – and if you’re tired enough (or maybe crazy, and lack of sleep can make you crazy), you are in a movie. That’s why Badlands felt (or feels) a part of that beautiful, disturbing escape, an escape from thinking my raw thoughts too much. It’s like the frames of Badlands were snapshots I had taken in my own mind. But of course those were Terrence Malick’s snapshots. He handed them over to me, and to everyone else haunted by the picture. Badlands is a powerful thing.


And thoughts are so powerful when you’re young. They start to really expand and flower when you’re 12 or 13; your brain is still growing. Those thoughts can seem strange, exciting and wonderful, but sometimes disturbing – adolescence makes you jump to different places, feel new sensations, and experience a darkness that makes you wonder if the odd stuff coming to you are just impressions running through your mind, or if you actually think that way. Your curiosity is like the girl in Badlands – Sissy Spacek’s Holly looking through the pictures in her dad’s stereopticon and wondering about what could have happened had her circumstances been different. What her future would become. And you lay awake and worry – worry how Holly was worried about tossing her sick catfish into the yard. Was that a terrible thing to do? You think of living in different cities, you think of running away, meeting a boy, you think of driving off in your parent’s car in the middle of the night. I tried that – driving the car before I knew how to. I backed it into a large pine tree


Those thoughts and that car and that pine tree make me think of watching Badlands. But this is all a fevered memory and my recall may be wrong. Maybe I’m imprinting a future impression on the past and how I saw Badlands because I know I watched Badlands in full, in a conscious state, when I was a little older, when it became a favorite movie. But the first viewing – maybe that’s like a memory the way you look at a photograph of yourself as a kid and wonder if you really do remember that trip to the beach.  You’re gathering information based on a picture you’ve looked at numerous times. Would you remember anything if you didn’t have that picture? Martin Sheen’s Kit and Spacek’s Holly were pictures, music and voices I heard, I think, in and out of consciousness on that couch. Kit’s good-looking, charming, sometimes a little dumb, casually cold-blooded “character” (he really wants to be a character) and Holly’s strange, ethereal beauty, her questionable lack of concern for others’ deaths (we know Kit doesn’t mind) save for her catfish and briefly, her own dad (played by Warren Oates), and her flowery narration are firmly planted in my mind. It’s real to me and yet, totally fantastical to me. Kit and Holly’s own mythmaking rolls into my own movie mythmaking and even a few events in my young life.


But did I see this? I’m sure I’d heard of Charlie Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate, the real life lovers the picture was inspired from. During two deadly winter months from 1957-58, 19-year-old Starkweather murdered eleven people in the states of Nebraska and Wyoming with his 14-year-old girlfriend Caril in tow. Was she a captive, an accomplice or caught up in a crazy romantic delusion? He was put to death, she was given life (she served 17 years). Reporters, the public and mostly teens were fascinated by this duo and this boy who reminded them more of a nihilistic James Dean than a boogeyman, though he certainly scared a lot of people. The couple is as mythically American as Bonnie and Clyde, only more terrifying and senseless, killing and stealing cars and grabbing items from houses in the late 1950’s.  They weren’t modern day Robin Hoods robbing banks during the depression; they were rebels without a cause taken to the extreme of teenage rebellion and alienation. But like Bonnie and Clyde, they looked good. As such, they were made for the movies


Even Charlie’s name, Starkweather, conjures up a cinematic image, a temperature, a chill. Leaving their imprint on popular culture from Bruce Springsteen to The Sadist to a Naked City episode, “A Case Study of Two Savages,” starring Rip Torn and Tuesday Weld, the dark romance of the leather-clad bad boy stuck – it’s something kids gravitate towards, and even with Starkweather’s brutal murders (including a baby), he’s glamorized – kids often glide over the horrifying, focusing on the They Live By Night lovers-on-the-run allure (which could have inspired Starkweather, the second Nicholas Ray movie he may have crafted himself on next to Rebel Without a Cause). Uniquely, however, save for their loveliness, Malick’s Badlands doesn’t glamorize the pair, not in the usual way, even as rapturously beautiful as the picture is. The killers are softened, yes, but their murders, though awful, are less heinous, and their disconnect towards death is merged with the heart-aching beauty and the wonder of nature. You’re not sure if you feel for them, if you feel for how lost and delusional they are, or if you feel for the idyllic world they’re hoping for – the stunning world Malick is placing around them. Because we hope and hoped for that world too, we even ache for it.


That ache is what feels layered inside me. It’s wrapped up in a powerful memory. So did I see it at 13? It doesn’t matter – I feel like I saw Warren Oates painting that big sign with all of those big fat clouds in the blue sky, I feel like I remember him shooting Holly’s dog, I feel like I remember Kit running through that SwissFamily Robinson-like fort and sleeping under that Maxfield Parrish painting swiped from the dad’s house, I feel like I remember the two dancing to “Love is Strange,” Holly barefoot, Kit in boots, and I feel like I remember Holly sitting in the car with Kit reading that movie magazine: “Rumor: Frank Sinatra and Rita Hayworth are in love. Fact: True. But not with each other

I’ve now seen Malick’s first film, a masterpiece, so many times that it’s permanently embedded in my brain and it twists inside my grey matter with images and impressions from countless viewings, including my own unreliable recollection at 13. The movie is so special, so enchanted, so truly transcendent that it clings to your very soul, a palimpsest on the brain. If that sounds hyperbolic, so be it. But the moment I hear Carl Orff’s “Gassenhauer” in the movie, or anywhere, I get goosebumps. Sometimes I want to cry. The way it starts out quietly, delicately, and then builds and builds, the drums moving towards that crescendo, it feels like the most dramatic music box a little girl ever opened – timorous innocence becoming stronger and more confident. Faded adolescent memories come to me in brighter detail, full of hope and promise and sadness and those first feelings of falling in love. And then, growing up and realizing that person isn’t what you built them up to be in your fevered adolescent brain (or your adult brain). You, yourself, are an unreliable narrator, just as Holly is in Badlands.


Part of Malick’s brilliance lies in the way the picture is narrated by Spacek’s little 15-year-old girl who, at times, seems both younger than her years and older – a girl who, from the outset, is estranged from her father (“He tried to act cheerful, but he could never be consoled by the little stranger he found in his house,” she narrates). Her dad (Oates, so weirdly beautiful here, both fearsome father and broken-hearted widower who kept his wedding cake in the freezer for ten years) forbids her to see the local bad boy, 25-year-old Kit, a garbage collector who is fired from his job and who puffs himself up in a world that doesn’t give a shit about him. He’s a cool young man, gorgeous in his 1950’s blue jeans, but he doesn’t seem to fool others with his big talk. He can fool a teenager, however. Holly recalls he “was handsomer than anybody I’d ever met. He looked just like James Dean.” That would be quite something for a shy girl who believes she lacks personality, a girl simply twirling her baton in those white shorts on the lawn. And then this boy comes along, changing her fate forever. She likes that he appreciates her mind, and not just sex.


They fall in love, they bond on a deeper level. Only, we never really see them discuss deeper ideas about life, we just get glimpses of their worldview on the periphery of events – like when Holly feels guilty for throwing out that sick catfish. She confides in Kit who tells her he does stuff like this too, and that some of his behavior would be considered strange. We then watch him stand on a dead cow in the feedlot.  A catfish in the yard isn’t so weird; it’s something a confused teenager would do if she were fearful of witnessing death.  Maybe she has good reasons to fear death – her mother died, her father shoots her dog dead for seeing Kit behind his back, and what if she died a virgin? She doesn’t want to die. Kit seems less concerned about death. He just wants to be somebody. He wants to leave a mark. And he does. He’s finally given some respect and certainly celebrity when he’s caught. And in the end, chained up and chatting up the authorities, throwing out keepsakes to the law so they’ll remember him, he seems, finally, even happy.


We don’t know how much of Holly’s sometimes florid recollections are a true representation of how she feels; about the brutal events on their crime spree. Though I do believe her reveries – I believe them in terms of how she wants to feel at the time, or how she wants to remember them at the time. But her romantic notions turn into tedium and annoyance towards Kit, even a wish he’d die. The rush of teen love is always dramatic, and so when Holly says: “In the stench and slime of the feedlot, he’d remember how I looked the night before, how I ran my hand through his hair and traced the outline of his lips with my fingertip. He wanted to die with me, and I dreamed of being lost forever in his arms.” You don’t doubt her. But you also watch their scenes together and observe them talk about banal things, like garbage on the street, or a tree falling in the water; Kit records a series of bromides on the Dictaphone when they take a break holed up in the rich man’s house they’re holding hostage.  Holly seems joyful and attracted but sometimes, disappointed and irritated. When they finally have sex she asks: “Is that all there is to it? Gosh, what was everybody talking about?” Kit answers, “Don’t ask me.”

The stench and slime of the feedlot seems how Kit views the world outside of Holly – and he craves glamour and respect. He likes to leave markers with rocks, or bury personal items either for the purpose of returning to (which won’t happen) or for others to discover. Holly intones: “He said that nobody else would know where we’d put them, and that we’d come back someday, maybe, and they’d still be sitting here, just the same, but we’d be different. And if we never got back, well, somebody might dig them up a thousand years from now and wouldn’t they wonder!” Wouldn’t they. The need to feel, not only alive, but for others to know that you were alive, runs throughout the movie – Kit and Holly creating their own pictures and movies through both romance and heinous acts. Kit knows it will mean something and as he speeds from the law near the end, he fixes the rearview mirror to look at himself. It’s got to at least look good. 

Creating an idyllic world is an escape from the junk of life; a need to transcend regular existence, so taking in the picture’s glory of nature, we feel like we could always escape day-to-day banalities if we tried. Holly observes nature, loving the “cooing of the doves and the hum of dragonflies… the air made it always seem lonesome and like everybody’s dead and gone.” Kit wants more; he’s searching for some fabled kingdom. As Holly narrates: “We took off at sunset, on a line toward the mountains of Saskatchewan, for Kit a magical land beyond the reach of the law.” That magical land is . . . where? It’s either everywhere, in moments, if you really appreciate nature, or, in Kit’s case, in his death, when he’ll be so mythologized that songs will be written and movies will be made about him. Malick understands this eternal desire. Not to be famous, but to be remembered, not to remain specks of dust in such an enormous world.


The movie pulls you in different directions, the way those thoughts that riddle your sleep do when you’re young. The road, the music, the period detail that’s more timeless than stuck in an era; more a dark fairy tale rather than a 1950’s story, the rapturous American landscape and bittersweet romance led by characters who could almost be viewed as ciphers, and yet, they’re not. Their remoteness is not so distant that you can’t feel for them, in spite of yourself. They’re even quite funny, in an understated way. Because Sheen and Spacek are so perfectly cast and they play their characters so inscrutably innocent, and yet, so blasé and scary, not one scene between them rings obvious or absurdly psycho; like they’re yearning to tell us something or reaching out to us for help. After watching a man bleed to death, a heartbreaking scene, Holly narrates:


“At this moment, I didn’t feel shame or fear, but just kind of blah, like when you’re sitting there and all the water’s run out of the bathtub.” Malick doesn’t moralize or explain and even Holly’s voiceovers inform very little about the depth of their problems. But you see the bloom fall off the rose: “We had our bad moments, like any couple. Kit accused me of only being along for the ride, while at times I wished he’d fall in the river and drown, so I could watch.”


Malick’s debut is one of the most extraordinary first films in all of cinema – he was working an alchemy and a genius that felt otherworldly (something he’d continue in subsequent pictures, Badlands remains my favorite). The film, as I’ve made obvious here, became an obsession for me. Its poetic understanding of the intense, alienated teen; their extreme impulses, but also their mystery and banality, how that understanding is wrapped in our own mythos, moves me in mysterious ways.


One of my favorite moments is during Kit and Holly’s long drive through the Great Plains, where their isolation matches the spare landscape – the enormous sky and almost unsettlingly magnificent sunsets. Amidst all of this cinematic gorgeousness, their long and bloody road trip is turning. Holly is weary and wary of living out of the car. They live like animals, she thinks, and she’s becoming wiser as she pictures her ill-fated future with Kit. But, then, there’s that moment, that sublimely beautiful moment: In the black of night, with only the car lights illuminating the darkness, they dance to Nat King Cole’s “A Blossom Fell” from the tinny car radio. Holly may not even be enjoying this moment, but we are as we watch them together. Kit says, “Boy, if I could sing a song like that, I mean, if I could sing a song about the way I feel right now, it’d be a hit.”


Badlands affected me and still affects me and continues to give me chills. And it runs through my mind almost as my own memory, tapping into something primal and wistful and musical – that youthful feeling of the new, influential and forbidden. And then losing that feeling. Badlands haunted me in my sleepless half-awake young self, and I’ll stick to that evocation even if I’m not sure of the exact age. My own memories with the movie and the memories and images of the movie itself, what Malick was meditating on, echo what Carson McCullers wrote about wistfulness; things we long for but can never really attain: “We are torn between nostalgia for the familiar and an urge for the foreign and strange. As often as not, we are homesick most for the places we have never known.”

Her Shadow Between Us: Rebecca


From my piece published at the New Beverly.

“Her shadow between us all the time,” he said. “Her damned shadow keeping us from one another. How could I hold you like this, my darling, my little love, with the fear always in my heart that this would happen? I remembered her eyes as she looked at me before she died. I remembered that slow treacherous smile. She knew this would happen even then. She knew she would win in the end.” – Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier


There’s a scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca that I find startling not for being scary or cruel or moodily mysterious, but for being so disarmingly matter of fact. We’ve heard different takes on the intimidatingly beautiful, now dead, Rebecca de Winter, the black-haired goddess with gorgeous taste in décor, lingerie, bedding and those three things every man and woman yearn for: “breeding, brains and beauty,” that her almost unearthly perfection is constantly uttered with a kind of hypnotized rapture. And with that rapture there is hatred, seething hatred – chiefly from her widower husband, Maxim de Winter (played by Laurence Olivier) – who sees this goddess as a gorgon, pure evil, and the destructor of not only his marriage, but his manhood, his very sense of self inside his own home – the grand estate called “Manderley.” Everything Rebecca touched left an imprint, people, pets, objects, clothing, writing desks, windows, even the sea couldn’t sweep her away, and she haunts every corner of the estate just as she haunts the minds of those who knew her. Maxim’s obsession is so deep that he’s infected his second wife (played by Joan Fontaine) with Rebecca-mania, and she, or rather, “I” (as she’s referred to in the movie and in the Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 novel), can’t move an inch without a reminder of the past beauty. We naturally feel for “I,” a lost young woman plucked away from her vulgar dowager employer by the wealthy, mysterious Maxim, (“I’m asking you to marry me, you little fool” he snips, with little charm) and is soon swallowed up by his house and the various obsessives around him, chiefly the looming housekeeper Mrs. Danvers.

The second Mrs. de Winter (an often heartbreaking woman) is yearning to be loved by her cruel, often smug husband, and to escape the shadow of the ever-present Rebecca. She’s an orphan, insecure and frightened, and she’s grateful for a home, but can she have any sort of her own space within it? Can she start out anew with her husband? Well, no, she cannot. How can one escape the past and create a future when even one’s napkins are embroidered with the previous Mrs. de Winter’s omnipresent “R”? 


But back to that stirring moment – when the movie is removed from Rebecca’s satiny, sensual bedroom (Judith Anderson’s impressively weird, hateful but clearly lovelorn Mrs. Danvers makes you love Rebecca, and you can practically feel the silk of her nightgown and nun-sewn undergarments) and into a more down-to-earth, clinical setting – a doctor’s office. There sits the doctor who diagnosed Rebecca (and who revealed to her that she had cancer, a very human condition) discussing his past patient without agenda, without romance. Indeed, he remembered her as beautiful and powerful, but he also says something about her that’s affirmative and almost simple, not in a trance as the others – that she was “wonderful.” He says: “I remember her standing here holding out her hand for the photograph. ‘I want to know the truth,’ she said. ‘I don’t want soft words and a bedside manner. If I’m for it, you can tell me right away.’ I knew she was not the type to accept a lie. She’d asked for the truth, so I let her have it. She thanked me and I never saw her again, so I assumed that …”  He will be interrupted by those present, but continues his assessment of Rebecca, directing his take of this woman to her embittered husband. Something about how resolute the doctor turns and says to Maxim: “Your wife was a wonderful woman, Mr. de Winter.”


It’s almost as if he’s saying, stop complaining, you moody bore. Wonderful is a term Maxim would never have used about Rebecca, as in excellent, great, marvelous, exceptional in an interesting way. Who knows what the doctor had heard from Rebecca about her marriage, perhaps nothing in regards to how her husband viewed her, but for all of Rebecca’s dreadfulness howled by Maxim to the second Mrs. de Winter (“It wouldn’t make for sanity, would it, living with the devil?”), perhaps she was actually as the doctor stated: strong, not one to be lied to and wonderful. But Maxim doesn’t want you to think that. The initial response when watching the movie (and reading du Maurier’s novel) is that Rebecca was living a lie, hiding a horrid secret, charming on the surface, but a horror to be married to. Listen to Maxim wail about her:

Grand-Staircase-at-Manderley-in-Rebecca“Well, I went there with Rebecca on our honeymoon. That was where I found out about her. Four days after we were married. She stood there laughing, her black hair blowing in the wind, and told me all about herself. Everything. Things I’ll never tell a living soul. I wanted to kill her … ‘I’ll make a bargain with you,’ she said. ”You’d look rather foolish trying to divorce me now after four days of marriage, ‘so I’ll play the part of a devoted wife, mistress of your precious Manderley ‘I’ll make it the most famous showplace in England, if you like, ”and people will visit us and envy us… ‘and say we’re the luckiest, happiest couple in the country. What a grand joke it will be! What a triumph!’ I should never have accepted her dirty bargain, but I did. I was younger then and tremendously conscious of the family honor."

Well, what does that say about him? He’s certainly a resentful coward. And what on earth was Rebecca hiding about herself that only he knew? Affairs? With men and women? Drugs? Debauchery? What? This is destructive to a marriage and scandalous then and now, but, my goodness Mr. de Winter, calm down.  Everyone has their own take on Rebecca, and I’m always intrigued by the doctor’s summation – he’s speaking of this fabled woman as a person with a multi-faceted humanity, even a vulnerability for that moment, when she was faced with her own mortality. Did her strength near death come from knowing she’d haunt not only Manderley but the hearts and minds of seemingly every person she encountered? Was she that calculated and knowing? Did she know she’d never be forgotten? Did she know she’d even achieve a mythic power in death? Or did she merely want to die as she lived her life – on her own terms? Was she all of these things? If so, why does that make her evil? Even if she strayed? It doesn’t appear that Maxim was the most loving husband in the first place, and was consumed by appearance, that damn Manderley (you’re almost glad when the place burns down, though it’ll never erase Rebecca since the story is being told after the fact). But, who are we to believe?


No one, I feel, which makes the story so powerful and unforgettable. I find myself filling in the blanks or re-writing others opinions of this fascinating woman, wondering what their view of her says about them, not just the woman.  She is the central character – ever present in the negative spaces – without a voice. A character whose narrative is being written by various friends, lovers, admirers, obsessives. It’s an utterly bewitching way to tell a story and craft a character – in Hitchcock’s movie and in Daphne du Maurier’s novel – a ghost so alive that she makes the others seem like specters without her. Even objects, shot so potently and at times, fervent, fetishistic (watch how Mrs. Danvers famously caresses Rebecca’s underwear), vibrate with the mark of Rebecca. The second Mrs. de Winter breaks a china cupid, walking through the house with enormous doors, terrified to touch such totemic things. She is so scared to tell anyone about breaking it that she hides the pieces in the back of Rebecca’s old desk. Later, a big fuss is made of this tiny mistake and a servant is almost fired when Mrs. Danvers spots the cupid missing. Such drama! Such closely-watched luxury! Maybe the second Mrs. de Winter subconsciously broke the ornament on purpose, and who could blame her? It is, after all, cupid, and cupid seems destined to die in this dysfunctional marriage.


There is so much to consider when writing about Rebecca – the film’s backstory with Selznick (this was Hitchcock’s first American film, and he and Hitchcock did not see eye-to-eye, in fact, Hitchcock didn’t think the film was fully his); the brilliant source novel by du Maurier, and du Maurier herself (a married woman who had female lovers but blanched at the term lesbian: “… by God and by Christ if anyone should call that sort of love by that unattractive word that begins with ‘L,’ I’d tear their guts out,” she wrote a lover); the feverish chronicling of two doomed marriages; the image construction of Hitchcock; the gothic power and mood (indeed by its first words uttered: “Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”) But I’m thinking of the film’s great big question mark – who was Rebecca, really? We’re wondering as much as poor Joan Fontaine, who is so unsure of herself, so used to being addressed in such dismissive terms, that the beautiful actress makes herself not mousy, but drained by the force of Rebecca’s memory. She’s struggling to not just be equal to Rebecca, but to be even seen as a full-fledged woman (Maxim seems more comforted by their age difference and that she remain a big-eyed child). Looking at how women’s power and agency is such a terrifying force to (mostly) men in Rebecca, there are times I feel Rebecca’s fortitude is a continued rebellion – she’s howling from the grave, full of mischief and madness. She’s still upsetting the status quo.


Also interesting is that two, really, troubled people – Oliver’s Maxim and Anderson’s Mrs. Danvers (“Danny,” as she’s known to Rebecca, which gives her a more down-home other life we don’t know anything about) – are in their way dueling to own the narrative of Rebecca. One, Danny, keeps her atop the pedestal of perfection, and the other, Maxim, knocked her off after four days of marriage. How could anyone live up to such expectations? I’m more inclined towards cousin, cad and obvious lover, Mr. Favell (played deliciously by George Sanders), who witnessed Rebecca untamed, but then, who can trust him either? Olivier plays Maxim with such a combination of doomed suffering and selfish, spoiled intractability that he’s generally unlikable in the right way throughout the movie, and save for looking as a young Olivier looks (pretty) and for a few moments of his charm (his honeymoon footage with Fontaine’s second Mrs. de Winter is sweet), he’s not anyone we’re hoping Fontaine winds up with. The story has been compared to Jane Eyre, and it shares similarities except that we are not yearning for Maxim and his young bride to make it, as we are Jane and Rochester (no matter how insane). There is little romance here, and instead a vehement meditation on love and obsession over one extraordinary woman. Again, who is Rebecca? Thinking of Marlene Dietrich in Touch of Evil, “she was some kind of woman. But, what does it matter what you say about people?”