[1941] Citizen Kane

“What’s in a name?”

The sled isn’t interesting; knowing the origin of “Rosebud” doesn’t change Citizen Kane‘s knee-high depth of character and story. Troves of thinkpieces, even within Citizen Kane, have been written and reported about the significance of Charles Foster Kane (an ebullient Orson Welles) and the meaning of the infamous sled, last seen burning in effigy in the great Kane fire sale. “A rose(bud) by any other name,” says A.O. Scott’s review of Kane‘s metanarrative, Mank, and he’s right. It’s objectively a MacGuffin, but because of the entire film before it, the fadeout itself is the film’s true MacGuffin: an unimportant event that has come to define the movie, 80 years later. It’s telling that there’s no mention of it in Mank, the movie about the movie.

What is interesting, and has endured as an endearing feature in Citizen Kane is the use of Christian nicknames—Charlie, Jed—to (successfully) humanize these characters. In no uncertain terms, the two men are caricatures of figures alive in Welles’ present; Citizen Kane is a deep allegory in character and in spirit and it’s hard to remember this. There’s a reverence with a wink here as the audience sees the “real” Charles F. Kane alongside the public CFK, who is, for all intents and purposes, a wealthy, successful, happily-married, self-made man. None of those who worship him would dare call him Charlie. Jedidiah Leland—Jed—does though. In-movie, it’s a sign of familiarity and a sign of humanity. Later, we only hear the rest of the cast refer to him as Mister Kane. It’s telling this movie wasn’t called Mister Kane, or Charles Foster Kane: Man of the People. No; it’s called Citizen Kane. He’s one of us—but he’s not one among us. Continue reading

[1957] 12 Angry Men

Some years ago, after the United States elected our dumbest citizen president, Aneela Mirchandani wrote for The Odd Post, “Twelve Angry Trump Voters,” casting each of Sidney Lumet’s fictional jurors as archetypical Trumpers, accompanied by quick but deft analysis as to why these jurors behaviors would translate into a Trump vote. With the exception of Juror no. 8, who Mirchandani astutely points out that his “not guilty” vote was not one of truth, but one of truth-seeking, the rest of the jurors are convinced of the prosecution’s case. This author makes a great case comparing attitudes from the foregone Great Era to today’s Great Again Era: they haven’t really changed. Maybe humans, as advanced apes and herd animals, are just wired this way.

I first read Mirchandani’s essay at around the same time I discovered Dorothy Thompson’s essay, written for Harper’s in 1941, called “Who Goes Nazi?” In it, Thompson, who witnessed Hitler and Nazism’s rise in Germany in the 1930s, surveys a room of fictional soiree attendees, defining each by their nature and nurture and thusly assimilating them into two categories: would this person be a Nazi, or not? For it’s plaudits, “Who Goes Nazi?” is a blunt, sobering take and shouldn’t be taken as a syllogism: Nazism isn’t an “if this, then that.” It’s “if those, then him.” It’s a complicated business accusing fake people of being real Nazis.

It seems obvious in the age of obvious Trumpism (there’s always been threads of anti-intellectualism, but never as a hegemonic power) which of 12 Angry Men‘s jurors would have voted for 45, but the analysis is already done. Instead, it would be an interesting exercise to try and peg each character as one who would go Nazi, or not.


Martin Balsam as Juror 1, the jury foreman; an assistant high school American football coach. (not a Nazi)

Juror 1 is not a Nazi. His neutrality is obvious and though he’d see the Nazis’ attempt to wrest control of the Reichstag and think nothing but politics-as-usual, until he’d begin to notice a growing number of small changes to his daily life. He’s interested in keeping the peace, and someone interested in the status quo doesn’t stir the pot, but nor does he actively oppose change. He’ll find his way to a country that is more liberated, perhaps the United States, before the first invasion. He’ll sign up to fight Nazis but will likely find a job pushing papers.

John Fiedler as Juror 2, a meek and unpretentious bank worker who is dominated by others. (Nazi)

Besides Juror 10, Juror 2 is the most obvious Nazi of the bunch. He’ll be a rank-and-file Nazi, assigned to do unspeakable tragedy, and he’ll never find courage to say no to his superiors, of which there are many. After the war, he’ll plead ignorance and will be sentenced at Nuremburg.

Lee J. Cobb as Juror 3, a hot-tempered owner of a courier business who is estranged from his son; the most passionate advocate of a guilty verdict. (not a Nazi)

Although the proclivity for Nazism is there, Juror 3 doesn’t feel hate towards everyone. He’s reeling from the relationship with his son and is projecting his feelings outward. He’s reasoned himself into his verdict, but is finally reasoned out after he’s forced to face his own feelings. Juror 3 could go Nazi, but only if he’s kept away from the true horrors, which would instantly flip him. Death couldn’t escape Germany in the 1930s; Juror 3 doesn’t go Nazi.

E. G. Marshall as Juror 4, a rational, unflappable, self-assured, and analytical stock broker. (Nazi)

Juror 4 is the purest Nazi in the bunch; he’s found a way to rationalize National Socialism–not as a mechanism to scapegoat the other–but as a pathology toward net benefits to him and his family. He stands to gain by joining up with the Nazi party and would likely command others as his unflappable nature makes him perfect for this role. He’d likely have no problem subordinating Juror 10.

Jack Klugman as Juror 5, a man who grew up in a violent slum, sensitive to insults about his upbringing. (not a Nazi)

 

Juror 5 is proud of his heritage, and likely has spent time with people from all backgrounds. He’s continuously confused why others can’t follow his path out of poverty, and feels contempt toward those who try to cheat their way out. But he doesn’t feel right scapegoating them. He’s initially allured by the structure of Nazism but can’t stand for its ideals as, above all else, a hate group. Juror 5’s loyalty is to his community, and won’t stand for its people to be culled based on race or religion.

Edward Binns as Juror 6, a tough but principled house painter who consistently speaks up when others are verbally disrespected, especially the elderly. (not a Nazi)

Juror 6 might be persuaded to join the Nazi party when presented a compelling pro-German argument and is excited at the prospect of more work, but won’t ultimately join when he’s witness to unspeakable horrors in the name of the “German master race.” He holds respect for older members of his community and he won’t tolerate violence against them.

Jack Warden as Juror 7, a wisecracking salesman and Yankees fan who seems indifferent to his role. (Nazi)

Juror 7 is mostly indifferent to the plight of the German people, but he does find humor in people disappearing around him. He’d certainly go Nazi, if only to “get on with it already.” He’d eventually be applauded for vocally opposing Jesse Owens’ success at the Olympics because those medals “are supposed to be ours.” Eventually he’d make the wrong joke to the wrong official and that will be the end of Juror 7.

Henry Fonda as Davis, Juror 8; an architect, initially the only one to vote “not guilty” and openly question the seemingly clear evidence presented. (not a Nazi)

Juror 8 would likely seek out Oskar Schindler, or another German defiant, and actively work against the Nazis out of deep principle and deep respect for humanity. He’d be among the first to recognize the power grab in 1932 and would be deep in secret meetings to overthrow the injustice. The Nazis would have a special reward for his capture.

Joseph Sweeney as McArdle, Juror 9; an intelligent, wise, and observant senior. (not a Nazi)

 

Juror 9 would never be a Nazi, even if he’d agree to join the party. He doesn’t have the “qualities” needed to sustain the master race and would likely be instantly killed or dive deep into couter-insurgency with Juror 8.

Ed Begley as Juror 10, a pushy, loud-mouthed, and bigoted garage owner. (Nazi)

Unlike Juror 3, Juror 10’s grievances are borne from a deep hatred of the “other,” likely taught to him by his parents or by his local news sources. He’d likely respond to shame if it was the dominant party’s position that his feelings were wrong. However, that’s not the case and his racial animus would like make Juror 10 easy to manipulate and placate with the explicit instructions to “remove” others that he deems “un-German” by the color of their skin or the difference of their beliefs.

George Voskovec as Juror 11, a European watchmaker and naturalized American citizen who demonstrates strong respect for democratic values such as due process. (not a Nazi)

Though naturalized, he’s as much American as his fellow jurors. Having witnessed the horrors of World War I, he’d never wish war on anyone, even if it means he stands the most to gain from a party that mostly aligns with his heritage. He’d never go Nazi, having spent so much of his life fighting against anti-democratic hatred in his home country.

Robert Webber as Juror 12, an indecisive advertising executive. (Nazi)

Juror 12 would relish at the chance to sell any idea, as he was taught to do. He’d finally feel appreciated for his work, transforming his bland career into one more worthy of a cause célèbre–any cause célèbre–even if it means lots of his countrymen would be violently excluded. He would be convinced that he’s acting for the greater good and would be highly regarded among Nazi elite.


Of course this analysis is all fictional speculation and has no basis in reality. It’s a parlor game played to demonstrate character development. The very notion that all twelve jurors all have distinct enough personalities from a glorified table read to speculate their Nazism is a testament to the clarity of 12 Angry Men‘s script and Sidney Lumet’s deft direction.

The analysis could all be wrong, but that’s not the point. Humans are creatures of doubt and deserve to be judged on the soundness of their actions rather than on the whip of their wit. Watch what a man does when given ultimate power to choose. It’s this sense of wonder that sets 12 Angry Men apart. It’s hard to judge against Best Picture winner, The Bridge on the River Kwai. For its lasting power in 8th grade social studies classrooms, it should have been 12 Angry Men, though, and especially against SayonaraPeyton Place, and an analogue, Witness for the Prosecution.

[1996] Fargo

Fargo, North Dakota, the place, sits on a crossroads betwixt Interstates 29 and 94, whose interchange will direct travelers from Billings, Montana to Kansas City, Missouri (or Kansas, pick ’em). The clover design is meant to deliver ease to drivers, eliminating the need for other traffic control measures, like stoplights, and to allow drivers to continue their blissful 17 hour drive across the barren nothingness. There’s a faster way, of course, that takes our drivers through Sioux Falls, SD, eliminating the need to travel through North Dakota at all. But that’s not why our family is on this road trip; it’s to see America, as the framers of the state lines intended.

Across Montana, through Dakota (N), then south through Dakota (S), our family will miss Nebraska totally, through a planning decision that routed I-29 along Iowa’s western edge, instead of Nebraska’s eastern boarder. It’s the same reason this sedan will miss Kansas, until this car makes it to dual thread Kansas City. It’s been a pleasant drive thanks to the hundreds of millions of dollars Americans paid to pave its lands so that it’s easy enough to drive hundreds of miles for pleasure. Interchanges abound.

Fargo, the movie, happened somewhere on these interchanges, or maybe even further east, in Minnesota, where Jerry Lundegaard (brilliantly oafed by William H. Macy) started his slow tumble into madness. This character is a naïve klutz; a harebrain among pinheads, all of them. Every part of Lundegaard is a cruel gag. It’s where the Coens’ now thrive, casting characterization itself as a character, but were using their early work as a playground. Audiences hear “The Dude” and conjure exactly the effusive image of Jeff Bridges in his robe, sipping unpaid-for milk. Audiences also hear Jerry Lundegaard and think “oh yea, you betcha,” in that Minne-sowta drawl; they think of “Farego” and the woodchipper. It’s a triumph. (This is auteur theory).

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[1935] Top Hat

On-screen couples are always more attuned to one another, mostly because the relationship is manufactured. And that’s a fine outcome. It’s fine for people writing a story to include some sort of idealized hook to control for chaos down across screen-time. This type of escapism is not new, but when filmmakers began to craft narrative on screen as a mainstream prospect in the mid-1930s, audiences could share in seeing these emotions on screen for the first time. Books, while accessible, left much of the narrative in a reader’s hands; movies, did a lot more showing than telling. The best movies, still, do a lot more showing than telling.

Top Hat is a raw and clever “screwball” romantic comedy, on the heels of It Happened One Night, pitting two electrifying performers together in Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. How iconic are these two? Their names, if not what they’re known for, have been dragooned through film and entertainment history as icons (especially Fred Astaire; this might be because his last name is also, for a song’s sake, extremely rhymable). Astaire played his Jerry-as-dancer before his Jerry-as-actor, and Ginger played her Dale-as-well-rounded everywoman. They’re each other’s foil. The writing places these two characters as far apart as possible, but circumstance (also the writer) pulled them together in the laziest way possible: stage directions.

But what Top Hat is, above all, is a fun movie about attractive people making easy choices. There’s no doubt that Jerry and Dale would be together and the fun in this movie are the song-and-dance breaks that brought both Astaire and Rogers their fame. The movie’s heel is instantly dislikeable, and the minor characters are hapless memes. To be totally fair, this package works as a storytelling device and has been repeated in almost every romantic comedy, ever. Top Hat, its predecessors and its emulators, made it fine to escape into the hazy laze, and audiences were thankful for it. Dotted throughout film history are romcoms with different iterations on the manufacture; often if there was a new leap in technology, screenwriters would find a new way to wink-wink the leads apart. (Oh no! My AIM chat got disconnected!) Continue reading

[1973] The Sting

Pauline Kael is easily the most influential film critic that most of the world has forgotten. What makes her style—and voice—more distinct than her peers and especially modern critics is the absolute sincerity with which she wields her devastating pen. Tone is near impossible to master and it’s important to understand how hard it is to douse your words in them without trying to. It’s the game all writers play. Kael had mastered it and then some.

To be critical without being unfair, to pick apart a film with legendary wit without being sarcastic or even sardonic is Kael’s greatest strength. Pauline Kael always told her own story without rewriting the work she covered, but always accepted the work as is—a trait armchair critics and bloggers can’t seem to shed; “but if only director X had done such and such” was most often nowhere near Kael’s reviews. She would always do well to play, not Devil’s advocate, but critic’s advocate, putting words to exactly why a beloved movie was just not as good as we thought it was. Her work, which often got her in hot hot heat with editors and made few friends behind the camera, gave cover to every other critic and ran counter-cultural to a pervasive narrative that popular was either good or bad. Kael’s writing focused on the work. She’s a driving force behind why I’m adamant to finish this blog: I’m looking for a why.

Her review of Bertolucci’s Last Tango In Paris is as artful as the film itself. It’s a brilliant trick of phrasing and construction, matching Bertolucci’s inward eroticism made outward by Brando’s performance of American masochism. It would seem that Kael thinks of two minds of Last Tango: shock and awe that it was made and shock and awe that the top masters of their craft would make this movie, effectively turning the deck of cards upwards and demanding audiences to pick a card. It’s what Kael does with her reviews. She’ll always guess your card but not because she was looking at the deck.

This review, written the same year as her one-shot takedown of 1973’s Best Picture winner, The Sting, infantilizes the Redford/Newman “thriller.” Her criticism is valid if the reader is looking for reasons not to like it, but it’s the undertones—not so soft—that make a very simple point. She is, in effect, calling out some combination of actor, director, film, industry for straight-washing and woman-erasure in about 200 words. And she’s right and she says it right in the review. What if Last Tango was about a gay “relationship?” What if Shaw (Newman) and Kelly (Redford) sought a relationship that wasn’t poking fun at homoerotic tropes, or propped women instead of equalizing a whole gender? Not to fall into the trap that I’d set for myself: director George Roy Hill made the movie he made and therefore we must judge it for its merits and faults on its face, which Kael does, too. Continue reading

[1988] Mississippi Burning

As years progress, I’m continuously uncertain whether the majority of us understands right and wrong. Granted, this distinction is often not as binary as we’d like it to be (and using “objectively” to preface any extremely non-objective statement, e.g. “objectively, billionaire philanthropy is wrong,” is an instant way to open oneself up to semantic argument). But there are objective, ipso facto rights and wrongs, chiefly, slavery and the subjugation of other humans, is objectively wrong. There’s no justification for it. And yet it happened, and is happening by other names, today, still, even though there’s no justification for it. There’s a long treatise on Wait But Why that I won’t rehash here in full, but Tim makes an incredible argument about parametric power and I believe him.

Mississippi Burning, released in 1988, rehashed a still-unsettled incident from 1964. It commented on the maddening fact that the United States has subjugated Black people to non-entity-at-best for over what was then 300 years.  That’s fifteen generations of families first enslaved and then discarded as other. It’s pathetic but powerful that we still have to say this in 2020, over four hundred years—20 generations—later: Black Lives Matter.

The movie splits time between recounting the deaths of three Civil Rights activists, killed for their work in Mississippi in 1964 registering Black citizens to vote, and the relationship between two buddy/FBI agents sent to investigate their murders. These stories work in tandem, with built-in pressure points, perhaps even counter-intuitive ones, like the state government willfully ignoring the Federal directive to integrate at least, tolerate at best. The interplay between Gene Hackman and Willem Defoe is another pressure point, and is a strong analogue for the old adage of “missing the forest for the trees,” which almost allows the bad actors to win. But there are four other pressure points that help craft this story—the timing and our collective memories of MISSBURN—Mississippi Burning.

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[1934] It Happened One Night

One of the stranger, maybe unintentional consequences of the 1930s’ Hays Code was an industry-wide move to hush-hush the unacceptable and repackage it into media moste moral.

Euphemism became a stalwart technique, if it wasn’t already before. Filmmakers and studio executives didn’t invent it, didn’t perfect it, and lost its thread when the Code was lifted in the late 1960s, ushering a golden age of filmmaking. With one fewer (granted, huge) constraint lifted, morality became a function of what studios were willing to produce and what audiences were willing to watch. It was a huge change from “what a governing body was willing to allow.” Freedom of expression brought us movies like Midnight Cowboy in 1969, which, just two years earlier would have been Midday Cowboy, and been about an actual cowboy.

Of course, these rules only applied to films made in America, so it would seem that France and Italy, certainly, exhausted the need to explore sex (pro tip: they didn’t) and violence with a 40 year head start. It’s not true, but America does sill have a tenuous Puritanical relationship with sex and sexuality in a way more liberated countries don’t. There’s less of a fine line between art and pornography in the United States, and the moste modern moral types still seek to protect young people from (female, or female-presenting) breasts, but will happily allow a child to witness gruesome death and produce a Happy Meal about it.

Almost like repressing healthy sexual (and non-sexual!) relationships, packaging them as euphemism for decades, and classifying them as pornography if not perfectly saintlike has had at least some effect on the content American audiences expect. Sex is still shocking; it’s still mostly banned on commercial television and nudity will earn lots of movies a revenue-dampening R, or revenue-killing NC-17 rating from the latest iteration of the Hays Code, the MPAA (but that’s for another discussion). Euphemism, however, will often drag ratings down to PG-13 levels, where it’s safe to say a few swear words and pan out from what the audience “knows” to be a sexual encounter. So it helps at the box office, too. Continue reading

[1962] To Kill A Mockingbird

There’s a handful of roles made for a single actor. It’s rare that an audience will remember an actor by a single role. It takes a confluence of happenstance–timing being the big one. The right actor in the right circumstance with the right personality and experience meets the right writer who writes for the right projection of self; the plot is timely and impactful and the characterization is meaningful, riddled with emotional cues and the director and supporting cast have the right combination of empathy to allow the role to breathe or constrict, as written.

This is rare. It’s rare to get a handful of these circumstances in the same state, and even more unlikely to have them convalesce on the same set. George C. Scott as General Patton in Patton is one. Daniel Day-Lewis bucks this trend and seemingly rearranges spacetime to force the pieces together as Christy Brown in My Left Foot, William Cutting in Gangs of New York, Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood, President Lincoln in Lincoln, and about half a dozen others. One more to add to this list is Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird.

We’ve got to consider context, too. The external factors that audiences have access to were off the radar to audiences in 1962: it was an age of simmering indifference and false innocence. Americans were lulled into great times of growth. Post-war America ushered in a generation of prosperity and security, mildly plagued by simmering tensions in the East. Fathers and brothers who served their country and came home in Europe or Asia were rewarded with access to education, credit and stable jobs. It was never this way for black Americans, though. It wasn’t even a secret.

Harper Lee wrote To Kill a Mockingbird from within an era of piercing  failure of justice. Her words, with the benefit of experience, said the quiet part deceptively loud. Through her characters, tightly constructed, the reader sought idealism and the aforementioned justice for humanity. She defended different and championed compassion for the men and women she made. What American idealism had done for 300 years–dehumanized the black experience–Harper Lee, herself white, tried to tackle over 200 or so pages. For whatever looming threat lurked overseas unbeknownst for generations, the internal war we’d been fighting in America raged, nearly invisible to the naked eye. We’d fought to free the slaves a hundred years ago, but the lives of others remained nominally unaffected. Never forget Emmett Till.

Lee’s book, and Robert Mulligan’s movie, is what gives those who would otherwise ignore civil rights of others standing to fight for them, for all Americans, and especially black Americans.

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[1973] Cries and Whispers

There’s enough copy out there about how Ingmar Bergman drenched his feature, Cries and Whispers in red (röd). He chose red (especially after the majority of his earlier work was monochrome) for its striking visuals, color theory, and connection to Swedish history. If nothing else, in Sweden a specific red, Falu Rödfärg, colors a significant number of buildings, especially in the countryside. Red, across cultures, symbolizes passion, lust, desire, etc. It’s also the least visible of the color spectrum, so I’ll offer that Bergman chose to oversaturate the film with it to stand it out. It’s the first thing you’ll notice about this movie.

That’s really all there is to say about the color red and Cries and Whispers. There’s lots of scholarship about it. That’s enough.

The not-so-secret fact about the Oscars is their Americanness: of the 566 films to ever have been nominated, 12 have been filmed in a language other than English. This isn’t surprising–the Academy voters are mostly native English speakers, American audiences overwhelmingly see movies performed in English, and despite the premise that the Oscar winner should best represent the gestalt of the year, what we really mean is the zeitgeist of American culture. The road to global reach is unpaved, likely, but we’d like to think that language is the one phenomenon we can overcome; there are subtitles.

But alas, Cries and Whispers was the last Swedish movie to earn an Oscar nomination for Best Picture (but not first! The Emigrants” was nominated just a year earlier. The Emigrants, however wasn’t wholly Swedish, either. It’s a Swedish-rooted story about America).

Swedish, as a language, is sort of bonkers to decipher, and nagging to the native English speaker because of its Germanic roots and bouncy gait. Its structure, like any language spoken by millions of people, follows a pattern, and there’s more than a few cognates. But there’s still great distance between Swedish and English, and it’s an effective barrier between the two cultures. Cries and Whispers is incredibly Swedish, incredibly Bergman, but also full of universal tones ahead of their time: the quiet tragedy of women.

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[1940] Rebecca

Since evolved from a romantic horror genre to a more complex emotional battleground, Gothic arts take pleasure in allowing audiences to take part in their characters’ suffering; it’s the defining feature. The Germans have a word for the positive-extreme version: schadenfreude, or taking pleasure in someone else’s pain. It’s a mostly strange oddity of the human condition to relish in this emotion: it’s a private condition that’s always better left hushed. Hitchcock was a master of the Gothic, perhaps none more mesmerizing than Rebecca.

Alfred Hitchcock is known for his archetype defining tropes, many of which involve manipulating an audience to suffer–however slightly–for his own pleasure. Hitchcock’s use of schadenfreude remains classic, if not overlooked.His sound and visual cues were likely the first to signal a psychological trauma incoming (PsychoThe Birds), or the first to use first-person to treat the audience as a a voyeuristic character (Rear Window). But these tropes came from somewhere, and they likely were fully formed for Rebecca. 

Rebecca‘s strongest feature is pacing, which seems to turn on a dime, starting and stuttering, purposefully designed to keep the audience intentionally off-balance. It’s written in such a way — likely in the source material, too — that we’re not supposed to know who to root for or against at any given time. The de Winters, alive oscillate between pitiable and crass. We want this man, Maxim de Winter, to find love again, then he’s a rube, and then he’s a murderer. His second wife, never given a name, is cloyingly Pollyannaish and bright-eyed, until she’s convinced to jump to her death. Rebecca, Maxim’s first wife, is revered, until it’s revealed shes the smarmiest of them lot, conniving as ever. These people are all terrible, and it’s Hitchcock’s pacing that let’s his audience figure this out on our own, without need to tell. Hitchcock was a master of show.

But Mrs. Danvers is the most Gothic character and sets a stage for Norman Bates in Hitchcock’s Psycho 20 years later. She has an obsession with Rebecca de Winter bordering on violent delusion, and takes offense to Maxim remarrying, soon after Rebecca’s death but likely ever. She relishes misleading Maxim’s second wife into dark corners, stirring trouble. We’re supposed to hate her, and empathize with Danvers’ prey as an object of evil affection. Mrs. Danvers is obviously mentally ill, but 1940s America sees her as evil and crazy. If Hitchcock understood this about his audience, he made a perfect character. If he didn’t, he shot a great character, accidentally.

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