This post is a bit of a celebration for me. One year ago, I decided to take a month off. I had just had a brutal experience at a major academic conference. I was sick the entire time, my allergies didn’t really allow me to breathe, and I couldn’t even present. I was pretty crushed, along with a lot of other issues going on, I needed a break. But I didn’t want to just sit around. I decided to jump back into an old love, film. It had been a long time since I’d really dug into film, I had almost forgotten how much I loved it.
But just sitting around watching movies didn’t really feel right. So I decided to write about them. And my initial concept of the blog I thought I’d watch every film from Akira Kurosawa, who is my favorite filmmaker. But I realized I’d run out pretty quickly. Then I thought, perhaps adding in Alfred Hitchcock films would work. That led me to the idea of the Double Feature. And I felt like I could use that format to watch anything.
It’s been really rewarding, and the blog has really helped me realize there’s more to life than my PhD. Finding that has really given me something to fall back on when things in the PhD aren’t going well. This is my little playground.
So to celebrate my one year anniversary, I’m going back to my initial inspiration, and the first pairing of the blog. This week’s films are:
Alfred Hitchcock – Rebecca (1940)
Akira Kurosawa – Throne Of Blood (1957)
Throne of Blood is one of my favorite Kurosawa films, but I’ve never actually seen Rebecca before.
So lets get into it.
A young woman meets a wealthy widower, Maxim, in Monte Carlo. After a few days, he asks her to marry him, and she accepts. He takes her back to his fancy estate, Manderley, and she suddenly finds herself as the lady of a large estate, dealing with servants, and parties which she doesn’t fully understand. Complicating matters is Maxim’s former wife, Rebecca, who died less than a year ago, and her shadow falls over everything and everyone at the estate. Will the young woman be able to make the transition, and will this new world accept her?
The film is directed by Alfred Hitchcock, and stars Laurence Olivier, and Joan Fontaine. This film was actually Hitchcock’s first film in America, and his first collaboration with David O. Selznick. Before this, Hitchcock worked exclusively in Great Britain, making films like The Lady Vanishes, and The 39 Steps. But he made the films he’s most remembered for in Hollywood. Films like Psycho, Vertigo, and North By Northwest among others.
The film centers on a woman whose name we’re never given, and Maxim, a nobleman who lost his wife, Rebecca the previous year. The film starts out in Monte Carlo, where Max and the young woman meet. The young woman is the paid companion of Mrs. Van Hopper, another wealthy woman. The arrangement seems bizarre, but the film treats it as fairly normal. Mrs. Van Hopper is portrayed as a typical socialite. Haughty and pretentious. When we first meet her, she’s complaining that there’s no one famous of interesting in Monte Carlo, which she calls “Monte”. But when Maxim walks by, Mrs. Van Hopper recognizes him immediately, and calls him over, trying to convince him to entertain her while she’s there. But Max sees right through it, and declines.
But the next day, Mrs. Van Hopper comes down with a cold, and the young woman is alone. She is approached by Max and they begin spending most of their time together. When Mrs. Van Hopper is suddenly called back home, due to her daughters engagement, Max tells the young woman he wants her to come live with him at his estate, Manderley, as his wife. She accepts.
After hearing the news, Mrs. Van Hopper has some parting blows for the young woman. Telling her she has no idea what she’s in for being the lady of a large estate. It’s a bit of cruel foreshadowing.
In this first section of the film, we get a few hints about Max’s previous wife. We hear that she died while sailing, and from the way Max reacts to the world, it seems that he isn’t over it at all. When the young woman sketches him by the ocean, she makes a reference to someone drowning recently, he becomes sullen and withdrawn.
When they get married and reach Manderley, the young woman, now Mrs. DeWinter is in for a rude awakening. The head maid, Mrs. Danvers, is stern and cruel, treating Mrs. DeWinter as if she is below her. As Mrs. Van Hopper predicted, she doesn’t fit into this world. She doesn’t know how to be served the way a lady of the house is meant to be served.
I keep calling the main character the young woman, and that’s because the character is never given a name until she’s married to Max, after which, she’s referred to as Mrs. DeWinter. It’s a really interesting technique, that apparently comes from the book. Throughout the film, Mrs. DeWinter is constantly reminded of Rebecca. How wonderful she was, how much everyone loved her, how good she was at being the lady of the house, and on and on. By not giving her an identity of her own, the film further isolates her, making her otherness more visible. She’s often referred to as “the new Mrs. DeWinter” or “the second Mrs. DeWinter.”
The cinematography further isolates her. She’s often shot from far away in deep focus, made tiny in the frame. Even the doors make her seem small. They are enormous, and the door knobs are at shoulder level. And while the other servants are somewhat understanding, Mrs. Danvers the head maid seems to go out of her way to make Mrs. DeWinter’s life miserable.
Mrs. Danvers is dressed all in black, never smiling. She glides around the space, seeming to appear out of nowhere. And she clearly reveres Rebecca. As she briefly shows Mrs. DeWinter around the house, she notes the room Rebecca used to live in, telling her that no one goes in there anymore, but that it is the most beautiful room in the house.
The plot unfolds through the eyes of Mrs. DeWinter, as she has to discover what happened to Rebecca for herself, learning about the woman and her life from the various servants. But the one person she hears nothing about Rebecca from is Max himself. Whenever the woman comes up, Max either gets angry, or disconnects completely, usually both.
Before too long, he begins telling Mrs. DeWinter that he might have made a mistake marrying her. That it was selfish. But she loves him dearly, and works hard to keep him close.
But Mrs. Danvers has other ideas. In an incredibly creepy scene, Mrs. DeWinter explores Rebecca’s old room, and Mrs. Danvers finds her, and begins telling her hour glamorous Rebecca was, and how she’s kept everything exactly the same, even noticing that a brush is slightly out of position.
Things come to a head when Mrs. DeWinter decides to throw a costume ball, to prove to Max that she’s capable of being the lady of the house. She designs the costume herself, but foolishly takes the advice of Mrs. Danvers on what she should wear. Everyone in the audience should realize that she’s being set up, but Mrs. DeWinter is blissfully unaware. When she comes down the stairs in the costume, of course it’s the same one that Rebecca wore in the last costume ball before her death. Max is horrified and demands she take it off immediately. Mrs. DeWinter runs upstairs and finds herself in Rebecca’s room, where Mrs. Danvers reveals her true intention, whispering in Mrs. DeWinter’s ear about how much easier it would be for her if she simply leapt from the window.
We think she might do it, but a shipwreck on the foggy night demands immediate attention. As the night goes on, Mrs. DeWinter discovers that the divers found Rebecca’s shipwreck, and Max has to begin admitting secrets to her. She, and we begin to find out the real truth behind Rebecca and her death.
This is a really interesting film. It’s essentially a ghost story, but there’s no ghost. Rebecca haunts every moment and every character of the film, whether they knew her or not. And as expected, the perfect woman that everyone describes isn’t the entire story.
And as expected, Hitchcock ramps up the suspense as the film goes on. We begin to understand Danvers is the villain, but we’re not sure how far she’ll go. And once we learn the truth about what happened to Rebecca, we don’t know what consequences the characters will face, or how they’ll get out of it.
Throne of Blood (1957)
A warrior named Washizu encounters a spirit after a major battle. The spirit tells him that he will get a great promotion that day, and then become lord of the castle he’s traveling to, while his companion Miki hears that he will also gain a promotion, and that his son will one day become the lord of the castle as well. The men laugh off the prediction as they approach the castle, but when they both receive promotions, they realize that it might have been true. Rather than see where life takes him however, Washizu’s wife, Asaji, begins scheming, trying to ensure that the prophecy comes true, while also ensuring that the parts she doesn’t like are impossible. Washizu goes along, even to his horror, and must accept the consequences.
The film is directed by Akira Kurosawa, and stars the legendary Toshiro Mifune, along with other Kurosawa regulars like Isuzu Yamada, who we’ve seen before in Yojimbo, and Takashi Shimada who we’ve seen in Drunken Angel, Rashomon, and essentially every Kurosawa movie ever made, and Minoru Chiaki, who had parts in Rashomon and Seven Samurai, and other Kurosawa films.
If the plot sounds a little familiar, it might be because this film is Kurosawa’s take on Macbeth. Washizu and Asaji take the place of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, while Miki takes the place of Banquo. I’m not deeply familiar with the play, but doing some research, it follows the play fairly closely, just set in feudal Japan. Kurosawa did a few Shakespeare adaptations in his time, including Ran, which covers King Lear, and The Bad Sleep Well, which covered Hamlet. I haven’t seen the third film I listed there, but the other two are exceptional.
The film begins at Spider’s Web Castle where news of an attack are coming in. The leaders at the castle are planning to be besieged, calculating how long they can last before being taken over. But then the news begins to turn. They hear that their warriors Washizu and Miki have turned the tide of the battle, defeating the enemy. The two men are called to the castle for praise.
As they travel there, the weather turns, and they get lost in Spider’s Web forest, finally running across an evil spirit that has trapped them there. The spirit tells Washizu that he will be promoted to commander of the First Fortress that day, and someday he will rule Spider’s Web Castle. While Miki will be promoted to commander of Second Fortress that day, and that his son will one day be the ruler of Spider’s Web Castle.
Of course, the prophecy begins to come true almost immediately, as the men are promoted once they reach Spider’s Web Castle. Washizu seems completely content with this turn of events, sure that the lord of the castle trusts and respects him, and he is completely loyal.
But then his wife Asaji begins talking to him. She tells him how naive he is to think that the lord trusts him. When the lord places him in the vanguard and sends Miki to protect the castle, she reminds him that the vanguard is the most dangerous place on the battlefield, while Miki will be safe in the castle. She convinces him that he must kill the lord before he is killed. Washizu is horrified by the idea, but Asaji plans out everything, leaving it only to him to strike the lord, even bringing him the weapon.
Asaji is a fascinating character. On the surface, she seems quiet and pliable, but once the two are in private, she shows how much power she has, able to manipulate Washizu into anything. Her makeup is traditional, but it adds to her performance, which is incredible. Asaji is scheming and deceptive. She is willing to do anything to ensure her husbands rise, which will allow her to rise. No action is too far.
The film is heavily influenced by Japanese Noh theater. The music, makeup, and staging are all related to the form. Kurosawa frequently puts his character in stunning tableaus that call back stage plays. Every shot like this is perfect. And Mifune, as per usual, is amazing. His character becomes more grizzled and growly as the film goes on and he breaks down.
The story here is about how toxic the lust for power is, and Washizu and Asaji both get sucked into it. Washizu kills the lord, then kills his guards, which he blames the killing on, while Asaji casually takes the weapon back to the guards she has drugged, and then calmly washes her hands. Her movements are slow and shuffling, but she moves with purpose.
Washizu must seize power, while the lord allies and son flee. When Washizu reaches the castle, Miki allows him in, and Washizu promotes him, taking over. Washizu is satisfied, and even names Miki’s son his heir, but his wife begins working on him again, telling him he’s a fool to name the young man his heir. But Washizu reminds her that they have no children, and someone must take over. This all changes when she reveals that she is pregnant. Now Washizu realizes that Miki and his son must die to prevent the prophecy from coming true, so that his own child can rule.
As these plans commence, Washizu becomes more and more paranoid and erratic, and the people around him begin to notice. His plot to kill Miki and his son only partially succeeds, as Miki is killed, but his son escapes. Now Miki’s son, the lords son, and Noriyasu, the lord’s closest advisor all join forces with Inui, Washizu’s main rival. They begin to march against him, taking over his fortresses.
Washizu finds the evil spirit again, and asks how the battle will go. The spirit assures him that until the trees rise up to attack Spider’s Web Castle, he will not be defeated. Of course, Washizu takes this as good news. But of course, anyone who knows the story of Macbeth knows that this does not end well.
Washizu makes the mistake of telling his men about the prophecy, trying to raise morale. But when the trees do start to march towards the castle, the men turn on him immediately, leading to one of the most stunning scenes in cinema, when hundreds of arrows are shot at Washizu, eventually killing him.
Everything about this film is stunning, and it’s among Kurosawa’s best, which says a lot considering his filmography. He manages to make the weather a character, coating scenes in fog and rain. The tableaus he uses to introduce scenes also reveal the story’s origins as play.
And Mifune is legendary as usual, but Yamada manages to steal every scene she’s in, which is no small feat when she shares every scene with Mifune.
The final scene with the arrows is worth watching the entire film. This is in an era before special effects. To do this, they just had really skilled archers firing arrows near Mifune. He knew where they were going to be firing, and just acted the hell out of it. Amazing all around.
The Double Feature
These are very different films, but they both have a sinister woman at the center of them, driving events. Danvers in Rebecca, and Asaji in Throne of Blood. Danvers is much quieter about her machinations, but Asaji is very upfront about what she wants. I think Asaji is the more effective character, but Danvers is unforgettable.
Watching great films from two incredible filmmakers like this is always a welcome experience. Even if we can’t draw direct parallels between them, it doesn’t matter, watching films like this is their own reward.
But in this case, both films do have a bit of a horror/suspense vibe to them. Hitchcock’s film is intentionally so, but Kurosawa uses it as a device, enhancing the tragedy by keeping us guessing about what these two characters will do next. Even though we know how Macbeth ends, we feel off guard. And as I’ve never seen Rebecca before, I didn’t have any idea how it was going to end, and found the resolution satisfying and thrilling.
When I started this blog, I talked about how hard the previous year had been. But now, the previous year has been pretty good. I’m making progress in my PhD, and things have been much more relaxed. I think I’m a better person. And this blog has definitely helped. I’m looking forward to another year.
So what about next week’s films? I haven’t really dug into a sub-genre that I particularly like, the courtroom drama, so let’s do that this week. There are a ton of great ones, but let’s talk about these:
Sidney Lumet – 12 Angry Men (1957)
Otto Preminger – Anatomy of a Murder (1959)
One is all about the virtues of the legal system, and how justice always prevails. The other is about am orally ambiguous lawyer who doesn’t care if his client is guilty or not, he simply wants to get him acquitted. Should be fun.
See you next week.