WEEK 23: Rebecca (1940)


Hello! And welcome back once again, to Weekly Hitch. This is a film-studies sort of blog in which I watch all of Alfred Hitchcock’s movies in chronological order and then write about them and try to learn things. It’s like a hobby, only I try make other people join in against their will.

For week 23 here at Weekly Hitch, we – and Hitchcock – enter the 1940’s and move to America for Hitch’s biggest, and possibly best film yet. It’s a classic tale of romance and suspense, and teamed Hitch up with one of the great producers of the age, David O Selznick. So, read on if you like, as I learn about 1940’s Rebecca.

The Film:

Rebecca begins, properly, in France, where Maxim de Winter (played with stoic harshness by Laurence Olivier) is trying to lose himself after the death of his wife, Rebecca. After an initial run in with a shy mouse of a girl (Joan Fontaine, playing an un-named woman), Maxim reveals himself to be a somewhat appealing guy – and he and the mousy Joan Fontaine start palling around.

Joan Fontaine meets Olivier!

Joan Fontaine meets Olivier!

Soon they are in love, much to the annoyance of Fontaine’s employer, Mrs. Van Hopper (played by Florence Bates) who constantly brings up Maxim’s dead wife Rebecca, and how elegant and loved she was. Soon enough though, Maxim proposes marriage.

The relationship between de Winter and Fontaine’s character is something awkward – part father/daughter in feel, not in a sexual manner, but definitely not the typical love affair. Fontaine talks about her parents, having died early in her life and she is clearly a woman lacking in role-models. And Maxim for his part, is looking not for a woman – or even a wife – but a girl who will never grow up. As to why, we shall find out.

The couple arrive back to de Winter’s lavish estate – Manderley. The mansion (set in Cornwall, like Jamaica Inn) is a character in itself – imposing and haunted by the memory of the dead. Once inside, the second Mrs. de Winter meets the staff of the house, including its terrifyingly creepy and disapproving housekeeper; Mrs. Danvers.

Judith Anderson is Danvers

Judith Anderson is Danvers

Danvers adored Rebecca, possibly more, and her dislike of Fontaine is palpable – and her performance is restrained and powerful. Danvers tells of how elegant Rebecca was, and how everyone loved her. She also talks about how Rebecca died… her boat capsized on the ocean, lost to the sea.

Fontaine eventually finds an old cottage down by the sea and a creepy old man there who fears Rebecca’s return – and when Maxim learns that Fontaine has seen the cottage, he become angry – and the cracks in their relationship become chasms.

It is now, that something suspicious happens at Manderley, when Favell – Rebecca’s cousin – who has returned to Manderley to talk with Danvers and get the dirt on Fontaine. Favell leers at Fontaine – sexually aggressive – and afterward Fontaine is left angry and seemingly assaulted.

Fontaine rushes to Rebecca’s old room, determined to confront the metaphoric ghost of the dead woman – but find Danvers, haunting the room like Rebecca’s memory. Danvers talks about how she loved Rebecca, shows off her clothes, her furs, her brushes, even her lingerie… and there can be no doubt that Rebecca had a hold over everyone and everything at Manderley. “Do you think the dead come back and watch the living?” Danvers asks, and Fontaine nearly cries in fear before Fontaine can escape.

But something hardens in Fontaine after that. She commands Danvers to get rid of all Rebecca’s old things, stating for the first time; “I am Mrs. de Winter now!”

Portrait of the lady.

Portrait of the lady.

Later on, Danvers secretly tricks Fontaine into wearing an old gown featured in a painting – unaware that the painting is of Rebecca and horrifying Maxim, who reacts as if Rebecca had come back from the dead. Fontaine nearly throwing herself out of a window in grief… but she is stopped by flares and the calls of a shipwreck, and she goes down to try and help.

And down there, by the sea – she finds Mr. de Winter in the old creepy cottage, and he finally tells her the truth about Rebecca’s death. That it was his fault.

Rebecca, it turns out, was not a good woman. And she despised and hated Maxim. As soon as they were married she began to cheat on him. And Maxim allowed it because he was ashamed. But then she came to him with news that she was having a baby, by her cousin Favell and she laughed and mocked Maxim, but then she fell and hit her head and was dead.

The truth sets them free.

The truth sets them free.

So Maxim put her body on the boat, drilled holes in it and sank it in the ocean. A body was later found down the coast and he identified it – but it wasn’t Rebecca, because now Rebecca’s boat has been found, with the dead woman still inside – under the new shipwreck, there at Manderley.

Fontaine decides to stand by her man, even as questions start to arrive and an inquest is held to find out what happened to the real Rebecca. She is relieved to discover that Maxim never loved Rebecca – that she doesn’t have to live up to her. But during the inquest Favell turns up and tries to blackmail Maxim with evidence, but in a surprising turn, Maxim calls to police and decides to bring the whole affair to light.

They head to a doctor that Rebecca went to in the city and, expecting to learn that Rebecca had been pregnant, instead learn that she was dying of cancer. She had merely told Maxim a lie to try and goad him into killing her. The police write her death off as a suicide, and Favell phones Danvers to tell her it’s all over. Maxim is going home with Fontaine.

But when they arrive, they’re shocked to discover that Danvers has lost her mind – she’s set Manderley ablaze, and it burns down around her. Danvers dies in Rebecca’s room, burning everything away – including the memories.

The Result:

Rebecca is, let’s face it, fantastic. The quantum leap in technical and artistic ability on display is pretty obvious, and it’s clear that England was probably holding Hitchcock back a little bit.

Hitch and Joan Harrison

Hitch and Joan Harrison

First off, we have to give a bucket-load of credit to duMaurier’s novel. The story is great, and in Hitch’s hands, absolutely captivating. And the script, written by Robert E Sherwood and Hitchcock’s protege Joan Harrison (all very strictly under Hitchcock and Selznick’s supervision) is really fantastic. Every line speaks volumes, the subtext is perfection, the motivation – the characters – the intent – the subtle allusions, the film walks such a beautiful tightrope between the truth and the social conventions of the day (censorship and all) that it’s a near miracle they even managed to tell the story. I mean, think about it – at the heart, Rebecca is about a woman who slept around on her husband, and then a sleazy abortion doctor found out she had cancer, so she tried to make her husband kill her. Not exactly G-rated viewing. There’s a conversation to be had on the feminist view of Rebecca as the film’s true hero – rebelling against society and a brutish unloving husband – but I’ll keep Joan Fontaine as my hero for now.

After the script of course, we have the film itself – absolutely lush with gorgeous sets and amazing costumes. The scenery, the technical craft at play – with stunning camera moves and near perfect blocking. It’s a masterclass in filmmaking, and not in the overachieving, show-off filmmaking of Hitchcock’s youth (no shots through a ceiling at footsteps here), but in deliberate, intentional, motivated camerawork and staging. It’s a thing of beauty.

Seriously good looking.

Seriously good looking.

And then there are the performances. We’ll start with the perfect and work out way down through the amazing. Judith Anderson as Mrs. Danvers is – one of the greatest, possibly the best Hitchcock villain of all time. And also the most Hitchcockian. Her performance is subtle, but powerful – she is such a malevolent figure in this film that just her presence in a room changes the scene and she has such an ability to drive and control a moment.

Joan Fontaine as the Second Mrs de Winter is also fantastic, and so wonderfully subtle. Imagine having to play the lead in the film, but you also have to be mousy and awkward and naive and get yelled at and pushed around ad then also chart the slow growth into a woman of substance who takes command of her life… it’s exhausting and she is so effortless. The way Fontaine portrays just the simple panic of hiding a broken china figurine is pitch perfect. She’s stellar.

Two amazing ladies.

Two amazing ladies.

And then Laurence Olivier as Maxim. He is stern and cold, but there’s a charm and radiating sadness under all of that which you can feel. It’s not the strongest performance in this film – that belongs to the women – but he is a solid rock, an actor for scenes to build upon – and in the end, his truth is a haunting and heartbreaking one.

In the end, Rebecca is a phenomenal breakthrough into the American film industry for Hitchcock. It showed that given money and A-list actors and the freedom to put his uncanny ability to its best use – that he could make not only a great picture, but in the case of Rebecca – the best picture of the year.

The Production:

Alfred Hitchcock arrived in Hollywood in 1939 – as Britain stared down the barrel of war – and, under a seven year contract with David O Selznick, he began developing Rebecca as a thriller, almost more in tune with the films he had been making in England.

Hitch and his stars.

Hitch and his stars.

Initial drafts of the script had Maxim introduced on a train, the whole sequence at Monte Carlo playing out in the claustrophobic space – but this, along with several other Hitchcock touches, Selznick forbid almost any deviation from duMaurier’s classic and beloved novel. Hitchcock was forced to stick to the novel as closely as possible – and for the second time in as many movies, Hitchcock found himself at the mercy of a personality as big as his own. However, unlike his collaboration with Charles Laughton, Rebecca would luckily turn out different.

When it came time to cast the picture, everyone was in agreement on Laurence Olivier for Maxim de Winter – but when it came time to cast the female lead, the producer and director were at odds. Several actresses were tested for the Second Mrs. de Winter, and in the end Joan Fontaine became the porridge that was just right, beating out Nova Pilbeam and Vivien Leigh.

For weeks into production, Olivier was still lobbying to have Fontaine replaced, but Hitchcock would have nothing of it. He coddled Fontaine, supporting and moulding her performance into a thing of beauty. Hitch would be far less careful with Joan on their next collaboration, Suspicion, but by then she was a superb performer.

Directing a meal...

Directing a meal…

Selznick was a notoriously hand-on producer, and saw himself as the author of a picture in just the same way that Hitchcock saw himself as the sole creator, so it was natural for the two men to find conflict during production. Selznick would send long detailed memos, about performance and shots length and costumes and accents… and Hitchcock would retaliate by shutting down production whenever Selznick came to set and by shooting the bare minimum of footage, so as to limit any chance of Selznick cutting the film in a way that Hitch wouldn’t agree with.

In the end, Rebecca would become an odd hybrid of Selznick’s romantic grandeur and Hitchcock’s lean vicious sensibility – and the combination was fantastic. The film was released to rave reviews and audiences declared Rebecca their favourite film of the year – as did critics when they award Selznick (not Hitch) an Oscar for Best Picture. (Hitchcock’s second American film, Foreign Correspondent, was also nominated for best picture that year.)

The Legacy:

Rebecca just may be the single most important film in Hitchcock’s career. Not his greatest, not his most romantic or most shocking or his most lavish, but perhaps the most pivotal. It comes nearly halfway through his total film output (23rd out of 53 feature films), a surprising fact given that most people have completely ignored his British period – and this first American film represents both a rebirth and a reinvigoration of Hitchcock as an artist and a creator.

By signing to work under Selznick, Hitchcock had earned himself the biggest budget of his career, the best actors (not that he’d been suffering too much in that department), the best writers, and one of the greatest publicity machines in Hollywood. And the experience must have opened his eyes to what his films could be. Rebecca represents the unleashing of Hitchcock’s full power. His mastery and control over image and sound is nearly complete and from this moment on, Hitchcock would never again be hobbled by a lack of… of anything really.

Selznick, Fontaine, and Hitch at the Oscars.

Selznick, Fontaine, and Hitch at the Oscars.

But Rebecca is more than just more Hitchcock. It is a subversively and wonderfully Hitchcockian picture. It contained all the elements of a classic Hitchcock picture – the stern mother-figure, the symbolism or a staircase, the loyalty of a dog, drink and deception, humorous in-jokes like the breaking of a cupid to represent the shattering of love, simmering sexuality, class differences, and – in a new addition to the Hitchcock palette – the use of flowers to signify an absent lady.

Rebecca is a Hitchcockian thriller, a gothic romance, it features a man wrongly accused of murder – fighting to prove his innocence (like The 39 Steps), a woman struggling to discover a secret about a man she loves (like Sabotage), it even hints to the obsession and haunting mystery of Vertigo. Make no mistake – while Selznick may have been the one to win the Oscar for Rebecca, this is deeply and completely a Hitchcock film.


And Hitchcock would never go back from here. Rebecca is the water-line of Alfred’s career. His films from now on will be made his way – on his terms, he will become a more personal and interesting and innovative filmmaker. He will try new things, learn more, explore and experiment, and Hitch will blossom in the studio system. And I think that shows the greatness of the artist – because Hitch could have settled in and just kept making solid films, but he wouldn’t grow.

And instead, Alfred Hitchcock decided to grow – and that growth begins almost immediately – with his next picture, and his second of 1940 – Foreign Correspondent, a Hitchcock action thriller done on his own terms.

Until then.



One thought on “WEEK 23: Rebecca (1940)

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