Monday, 16 December 2013

Joan Fontaine

"Last year I dreamt I went to Manderley again" are the first words spoken in Hitchcock's Rebecca (1940), in one of the more enigmatic opening sequences in film history. The words are spoken in voice-over by a woman whose name will never be known in the film, even though she is the leading character. But the name of the woman who plays that character is well-known. Joan Fontaine, or, originally Joan de Beauvoir de Havilland. She was born in Japan to English parents and she died yesterday in California, and in her sleep, 96 years old. She is one of the greatest of actresses, particularly in a number of haunting films of the 1940s where she combined fragility and stubbornness. Hitchcock's first films made in Hollywood are to some extent still British, Rebecca and Suspicion (1941), and Fontaine stars in both of them, wonderful and distressed. She was also in Jane Eyre (Robert Stevenson 1943) and the excellent Ivy (Sam Wood 1947), both also set in England. But great as they were, it is Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948) that is the sublime high point of her career, one of the best films ever made, a perfect art work with director Max Ophüls and Fontaine a match made in heaven. (I wrote about it here.)

I have seen less of her later work, which was mostly on TV from the 1950s and onwards. Among the films I have seen are The Bigamist (Ida Lupino 1953), Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (Fritz Lang 1956) and Until They Sail (Robert Wise 1957), this time playing a New Zealand woman, one of four sisters during World War 2. The films are all good, but of these three I have a particularly weak spot for Until They Sail.

Here are two clips, the first is from Letter From an Unknown Woman, the second from Suspicion, although admittedly it has more of Hitchcock than Fontaine in it. She did win an Oscar for that part though, the only time anybody won an acting award from being directed by Hitch.

And here is the whole of The Bigamist:

(Hitchcock's first really American film is the odd one out in his career, Mr and Mrs Smith (1942), the not very good screwball comedy.)

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