Rebecca (1940) Director: Alfred Hitchcock
“Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again…”
Rebecca is a hazy, atmospheric, and ominous mystery story about a traumatized young woman, and the psychological ghosts that haunt her new life. However, as with all Hitchcock pictures, nothing is what it seems. The film is told as a flashback; as if the distant recollections of a once-sad, former life. It is about the darkness of obsession: or the false idea of someone, the inescapable image that lingers long after they have passed, and the power that image can hold over people.
Rebecca is based on Daphne du Maurier’s celebrated novel of the same name (published in 1938), and the book is, in turn, a similar re-telling of Charlotte Brontë’s Gothic novel, Jane Eyre. Amazingly, Rebecca was Hitchcock’s only film to win Best Picture. David O. Selznick was hoping to follow-up his highly successful production of Gone With The Wind in 1939 with yet another success –he decided to usher in new talent in the form of a new-to-Hollywood director, Alfred Hitchcock. This was the first film Hitchcock made for producer, David Selznick. Selznick had insisted that Rebecca remain true to the novel, though Hitchcock made some minor adjustments. Apparently, Selznick was somewhat disappointed and entirely re-shot several scenes in the film causing a rift between Hitchcock and Selznick for the remainder of the director’s contract.
“Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again…” As in the novel, the main character is never given a name (played by Joan Fontaine who also appears in films like Gunga Din in 1939 and Hitchcock’s Suspicion in 1941). She is on holiday in Monte Carlo with her characteristically boorish employer, Mrs. Van Hopper. Our anonymous narrator is a simple girl (age seventeen) who works as a paid companion. In Monte Carlo, she stumbles upon a man apparently considering suicide at the edge of a cliff. He turns out to be a wealthy aristocrat, Maxim de Winter (played by Laurence Olivier), a widower who owns a vast castle at Manderley in coastal England. They begin secretly spending afternoons together, but Mr. de Winter is often moody and appears agitated. One day, the holiday is called short when her employer is called home (her daughter gets engaged). Suddenly, and unexpectedly, Mr. de Winter casually proposes to his new beau before she can depart and they leave together to be quickly wed. The pair honeymoon and move to Manderley. From the outside edifice, the vast coastal palace gives the impression of status and opulence, however our narrator, the second Mrs. de Winter, soon finds the estate to be imprisoning. In particular, the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (played by Judith Anderson), is uniquely unfriendly to the lady of the house, and she moves like a ghost through the estate.
Hitchcock deliberately captures the vastness of Manderley throughout the film -the high, arched ceilings, the long creeping shadows, and the hanging haziness that gives the audience the impression of a time long since passed. Our narrator is timid and shy. She is unaccustomed to being a proper lady. Everywhere she turns in the house, remnants of Mr. de Winters’s first wife, Rebecca, lie carefully placed in plain view, as if Rebecca had never truly died. Rebecca’s stationary, the way she took her meals, her clothes, and even a personally embroidered pillow still consume the house. We learn that Rebecca was a beautiful lady and a gregarious hostess, loved by all, including the servants, but that she died tragically in a boating accident. Gradually, our narrator grows distant and distraught. Meanwhile, Mrs. Danvers plants all manner of terrible ideas into the new Mrs. de Winter’s head (and we also learn that Mrs. Danvers’s affection for Rebecca perhaps ran deeper than simply an employer to housekeeper, as Mrs. Danvers embraces the silk and see-through underwear of Rebecca). Apparently, the Hays Office entirely missed the veiled references in Rebecca to lesbianism between Mrs. Danvers and Rebecca. At any rate, in order to win the true affection of Maxim de Winter, as well as all the servants, our narrator decides to throw a grand costume party. Under the advice of Mrs. Danvers, she dresses up as a prominent painting of one of Mr. Winters’s relatives, however as soon as she unveils her costume at the party there is a quiet hush and Maxim grows angry. This was the same costume worn by Rebecca only a year prior at a costume party. Our narrator runs out of the room and contemplates suicide (again, urged by Mrs. Danvers), but she is interrupted. A boat has been found with a dead body in it. She rushes to find Mr. de Winter down at the boathouse, where he confesses the events of the night Rebecca died – their marriage had not been well, Rebecca entertained numerous friends and suitors (including her own cousin, Jack Favell, played by George Sanders). In fact, Maxim hated Rebecca. She led Maxim to believe she was pregnant from one of her suitors, and she taunted him to the point that Maxim struck her. She fell, hit her head, and died. Maxim then stowed her body in a boat, and broke several holes into the hull so it would sink. He then cast the boat adrift on the waves.
The final part of the film involves a renewed investigation into the death of Rebecca. Maxim is now questioned again about any involvement in his late wife’s death. Jack Favell, Rebecca’s cousin and lover, claims to possess a letter that could implicate Mr. de Winter in her death. Favell attempts to blackmail Maxim. However, Maxim refuses to give in and in the course of the investigation, it comes to light that Rebecca was secretly visiting a doctor. We are led to believe this was due to her pregnancy, however it turns out she had contracted cancer. Maxim is not found culpable of her death, but upon their return to Manderley, Mrs. Danvers has decided to set the vast estate on fire (a theme also found in Jane Eyre). She prefers to die with the memory of Rebecca, than continue on with the new Mrs. de Winter. She dies as a shadowy silhouette, crushed by falling rubble. Thus ends the film. As with many of his films, Hitchcock’s trademark cameo occurs at the end of the film. Hitchcock can be seen walking with his back to the audience as Jack Favell makes a call.
In Rebecca, there is a need to feel close to someone, while exposing the thin veil that keeps a successful marriage held together. We don’t get a name for our anonymous narrator, but her desperation hangs everywhere. Sadly, she is too mousy and passive to transform her new home of Manderley, at least at first, as Rebecca (the late Mrs. de Winter) still dominates the hearts and minds of everyone she once encountered. After all, the title echoes the name: “Rebecca.” It seems impossible to escape her intoxicating memory. Yet, in the end our narrator does indeed transform herself. She shows that she is willing to perpetuate the lie of Rebecca’s death in order to protect her marriage. She is not wholly innocent and naive. In the end, she escapes the lingering memory of Rebecca in Mrs. Danvers’s suicide amidst the burning of Manderley, yet our narrator (as evidenced in the opening monologue) still thinks back upon Manderley in her old age. Rebecca is incredible, another triumph for the “master of suspense,” in his first Hollywood picture.